In May, one Department of Homeland Security office instructed staffers that work on “sensitive” topics including disinformation should be put on “immediate hold,” according to material reviewed by ProPublica. In the months that followed, DHS canceled a series of planned contracts that would have tracked and studied the proliferation of disinformation and its connection with violent attacks. And after issuing six nationwide warnings about domestic terrorism fueled by disinformation in the first 13 months of the Biden administration, DHS has only issued one in the eight months since.
The government’s retreat comes ahead of midterms in which election officials throughout the country are being inundated with false rumors about their work. After talks on a project to help election officials monitor and respond to threats stalled, election officials from Colorado and Florida wrote a private letter in August to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pleading for help.
Threats and harassment of election officials has become an extremely serious concern and terribly frequent experience for election workers,” they warned, adding, “We are ourselves a crucial part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, in need of and deserving of protection.”
“Time is of the essence,” the officials wrote.
Weeks later, DHS scrapped the project.
DHS’ change of course began after a storm erupted in May in reaction to the administration’s creation of a Disinformation Governance Board. Congressional Republicans called it a “Ministry of Truth.” The board was terminated just months later.
While aspects of the administration’s retreat on disinformation have been reported, the extent of the turnabout has not been fully examined. For this account, ProPublica spoke to eight current and former DHS officials as well as local election administrators, academics and security experts.
“They paused all the work on disinformation, not just the board,” Nina Jankowicz, the former executive director of the DHS Disinformation Governance Board, told ProPublica. “The administration kowtowed to the disinformation rather than fighting it.”
It is not clear whether DHS’ initiatives would have made a significant difference in combating the tsunami of false rumors. But the current and former employees are frustrated that the agency’s efforts have been hobbled in response to political pressure.
DHS maintains it has not retreated on its disinformation efforts. “We have worked for over a decade to address disinformation that poses a threat to that security. This critical work continues today across several DHS components, consistent with the law and in a manner that is transparent and upholds the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of the American people,” a DHS spokesperson said.