February 18, 2022

IntelBrief: The Real Security Threat of So-Called “Fake News”

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The latest U.S. Department of Homeland Security terrorism advisory lists misinformation and disinformation as significant drivers of the current “heightened threat environment.”
  • The current information environment and resultant threat assessments are a result of a trend over several years of blatant falsehoods being pushed by domestic and foreign actors, threatening to destabilize social and political cohesion in the U.S.
  • The current reality of social and political polarization in the U.S. is such that even the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was labeled “legitimate political discourse” by the Republican National Committee (RNC).
  • The cumulative social, political, and security impacts of dis- and mis- information espoused on social media and by elected officials should not be underestimated.

On February 7, 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, indicating “a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) introduced and/or amplified by foreign and domestic threat actors.” This continues a trend over several years in which U.S. national stability and security is directly affected by mis- and dis- information campaigns of exaggerations and lies that energize a segment of the U.S. population and influence perceptions around the world. Far from fringe movements, these extremist sentiments, rhetoric, and actions—with the January 6, 2001 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as the most high-profile action to date—are being encouraged and echoed by notable media and elected officials. Anti-government rhetoric and imagery is now being espoused even by those who hold elected office or are campaigning for office from the federal level down through state and local offices and races, emboldening extremist views and even inspiring violence among (often heavily armed) supporters.

The constant demonization of opposing viewpoints is a recipe for violence and a disaster for pluralistic democracy. Furthermore, “fact-checking” has proven wholly inadequate in terms of countering evident lies about issues from COVID-19 to election results. The U.S. has had one of the highest death tolls from the ongoing pandemic—reaching over 920,000 reported COVID-19-related deaths recently—in large part because a significant percentage of the U.S. believes the pandemic, vaccines, and the associated deaths are so-called “fake news.” To note a critical distinction, while misinformation involves the unknowing spread of false or inaccurate information, disinformation includes malicious intent behind the intentional creation and spread of false or inaccurate information; both have been relevant to the increasing extremism domestically in the United States. The drumbeat of mis- and dis- information by leading media and political figures is not limited to COVID-19. These relentless information campaigns do more than weaken trust in the U.S. government, which certainly warrants accountability and oversight; they drastically weaken Americans’ trust in democratic processes.

The Soufan Center’s research on QAnon highlighted the security threat posed by conspiracy-driven extremism. Conspiracy theories like QAnon will continue to serve as a force multiplier in the broader violent extremist milieu in the United States, and in Europe as well, where it has been adapted to different local and national contexts. This presents openings for America’s adversaries to sow discord and exert influence with domestic and international consequences. The ongoing trucker protest—or “Freedom Convoy”—in Canada (and now also in other countries), promoted and supported by right-wing media, is yet another example of local movements with transnational support across extremist milieus.

The current reality of social and political polarizations is such that even the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, egged on by former President Donald Trump and many media and political figures, was labeled “legitimate political discourse” in a recent Republican National Committee (RNC) censure resolution. This normalization of inciteful rhetoric and violence is infecting U.S. politics. Campaign ads routinely show candidates with guns, targeting their political opponents, sometimes literally. Political opponents are portrayed as duplicitous, traitorous, or even demonic, a tactic that undermines the ability to discuss policy rather than personas in U.S. politics. This can have dangerous long-term repercussions on the willingness of citizens to run for office, or even speak up, in the face of political pressure to conform to outlandish requests like the overturning of a democratic election or attempts to alter the vote counts.

Assessing the factors contributing to the heightened threat environment, the DHS bulletin particularly emphasized the “continued calls for violence directed at U.S. critical infrastructure; soft targets and mass gatherings; faith-based institutions, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques; institutions of higher education; racial and religious minorities; government facilities and personnel, including law enforcement and the military; the media; and perceived ideological opponents.” Such concerns had previously been focused on threats posed by transnational groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State; this shift represents an important recognition of potential domestic threats. To prevent such targeted violence, U.S. efforts to counter extremism and terrorism must prioritize threats across any ideology wherever they arise to most effectively and equitably ensure security. Through the past two decades of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. national security focus remained on global terrorist threats, largely underestimating the domestic terrorist threat. While the U.S. Capitol insurrection was a wake-up call for many (not all) regarding the scale of this threat, the Biden administration’s domestic terrorism strategy is an important start to address the threat posed by the increasingly violent extremist rhetoric in the U.S. The cumulative social, political, and security impacts of dis- and mis- information espoused on social media and by elected officials should not be underestimated.