The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs a unified strategy to counter disinformation campaigns.
Cyber attacks, intellectual property theft, and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns against the United States have increased significantly in recent years. DHS began internal and external coordination efforts in 2018 when former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen established the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to focus on election infrastructure disinformation appearing in social media. Also in 2018, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) started notifying social media platforms or appropriate law enforcement officials when voting-related disinformation appeared in social media. These early efforts were predominantly focused on disinformation campaigns that pertained to election infrastructure before also including COVID-19 bogus claims and other mis-, dis- and malinformation (MDM).
Today, internet users can be vulnerable to a wide variety of MDM and propaganda campaigns that appear in social media. False news, such as misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation are used to shape public opinion, undermine trust, amplify division, and sow discord. Mobile devices and smartphones further enable individuals and groups to rapidly share content, including disinformation and misinformation. This content may include hyperlinks to media articles and other web-based content, such as images and videos, that may have been manipulated to spread disinformation and misinformation, referred to as “deepfake” information. Deepfakes could be used to generate inflammatory content such as convincing video of U.S. military personnel engaged in war crimes intended to radicalize populations, recruit terrorists, or incite violence.
Certain countries were far more likely than others to be targeted by foreign disinformation operations. Based on publicly available information from Facebook and Twitter, the three countries most targeted by foreign actors were the United States, the United Kingdom, and Egypt. Disinformation campaigns that targeted the United States include a foreign entity offering to pay social media influencers to criticize U.S. COVID-19 vaccines, false claims of voter fraud during the November 2020 elections, and bad actors using civil unrest as an opportunity to spread conspiracy theories and escalate tensions.
In January 2021, CISA transitioned its Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to promote more flexibility to focus on general MDM. A CISA official stated that the component established an MDM team with a total of 15 dedicated part- and full-time staff. The MDM team focuses on disinformation activities targeting elections and critical infrastructure. According to a CISA official, the MDM team counters all types of disinformation, to be responsive to current events. In April 2022, the MDM team released the Social Media Bots Infographic Set designed to help Americans understand how automated programs simulate human behavior on social media platforms. The infographic set also illustrates how bad actors use social media bots to spread false or misleading information, shut down opposition, and elevate their own platforms for further manipulation. The goal is to build national resilience to MDM.
Other DHS component efforts include the Science and Technology Directorate’s research into how humans use and consume disinformation from a behavioral perspective. The directorate’s research included determining whether social media accounts were bots or humans and how the mayhem caused by bots affects behavior.
OIG’s review found that although DHS components have worked across various social media platforms to counter disinformation, DHS does not yet have a unified department-wide strategy to effectively counter disinformation that originates from both foreign and domestic sources.
In January 2022, an Office of the General Counsel official said the DHS Secretary is reviewing ongoing work focused on countering disinformation but has not yet decided on a department-wide strategy.
DHS faced challenges unifying component efforts because disinformation is an emerging and evolving threat. OIG also attributed some challenges to the continual changes in DHS leadership, which may have hindered the development of top-down strategic guidance for countering disinformation.
OIG’s audit found that DHS and its components have the following limitations to their authorities:
- CISA can only counter disinformation that represents a threat to critical infrastructure security and cybersecurity.
- CISA must protect U.S. citizens’ privacy and cannot collect and share disinformation from social media posts if it results in disadvantages to people with a particular viewpoint or involves personally identifiable information.
- CISA and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) must consider a U.S. citizen’s First Amendment right to free speech in social media and the rights of the readers of posts.
The watchdog said an absence of a unified department-wide strategy has also led to confusion by external partners regarding specific DHS components’ responsibilities and whom to contact within DHS. During interviews with members of the Intelligence Community, OIG learned that officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have expressed concerns about whether CISA or I&A is the lead component for countering disinformation.
As this emerging threat continues to evolve and bad actors develop new tactics to sow discord, a unified strategy is needed not only to counter MDM but also to mitigate the threat of civil unrest arising from disinformation.
OIG is therefore recommending that the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans develop a unified strategy to improve DHS’ coordinated actions among the components and with other agencies to counter disinformation campaigns that appear in social media. DHS concurred and said that in May 2022, Secretary Mayorkas asked the bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) to review the Department’s work on addressing disinformation that threatens homeland security. The Department plans to share with the public HSAC’s final recommendations, which are expected to be completed in August 2022. DHS leadership will then determine its strategic direction on countering disinformation after reviewing these recommendations and consulting with stakeholders, including congressional members, as appropriate. The Department expects to complete this process by August 31, 2023.
The timescale is somewhat concerning for anyone who has waded through social media posts recently. There is already a plethora of MDM out there and many vulnerable internet users ready to consume it. Given the sheer volume of MDM, DHS is already playing catch-up despite its best efforts. It has also been hindered in recent months after its newly created Disinformation Governance Board was paused in May following free speech concerns and even conspiracy theories about the board itself. At the same time that DHS is working to create a unified strategy, home-grown MDM pedlars are profiting from the division they create online, growing their numbers and their crypto accounts. Meanwhile, hostile foreign actors are adapting their game to exploit the chinks in the West’s armor. In just a few years, MDM has already morphed from laughable conspiracy theories to a targeted and harmful weapon that costs lives. DHS’ response must be equal to it, and it will require full bipartisan support to effectively meet this threat.