The disinformation problem is bigger than InfoWars

The disinformation problem is bigger than InfoWars

For those on the left, it was considered long overdue. For those on the right, it was an attack on free speech. But regardless of where you stand, Apple, Facebook and YouTube’s decision to ban InfoWars from their platforms is a big deal, one that takes on greater meaning on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally.  

As someone who once served at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I welcomed the news. InfoWars is vitriolic and its broadcast of blatant falsehoods has resulted in the endless harassment of American citizens, as well as death threats.

Still, even as I applaud this week’s development, I can’t help but curb my enthusiasm.  

Two years ago, I worked for an organization called the U.S. Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, a group based at DHS and led by career U.S. officials, with representatives from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies. Our goal was ambitious, to prevent ISIL, al-Qaeda and other terrorists—at home and abroad—from recruiting and radicalizing American citizens to violence, regardless of ideological motivation.

The CVE Task Force was formed at a moment when individuals with no ties to terrorist groups were increasingly committing acts of violence, radicalized from consuming disinformation on social media or other, darker corners of the Internet.

My job was to field questions from reporters and advise on the task force’s communications strategy. I would often get calls from journalists writing about families who felt they were losing their child to disinformation or terrorist propaganda. I would be asked, “How is the United States government responding?”

It was an impossible question. After all, what could federal authorities do? If an individual has broken no laws and made no communication with a terrorist network, the U.S. security apparatus is poorly equipped to intervene. And in a nation committed to civil rights and civil liberties, such an intervention would rightly draw sharp criticism.

Consequently, we had to encourage civil society—local communities, mental health professionals, religious leaders and others—to step up and lead, pledging the full support of the federal government where appropriate. But that approach was rejected by many who viewed it as scant or weak. Others favored a more direct approach and saw promise in the private sector, more specifically the social media giants. The U.S. government, incapable of radically altering private online content, called on Silicon Valley to better enforce its terms of service and take down terrorist content.

Meanwhile, toward the end of 2016, I noticed a shift in the media inquiries landing in my inbox. Reporters were asking about stories of individuals driven to extremism, but this time it wasn’t by ISIL propaganda. It was by InfoWars. The site had promoted a conspiracy theory infamously dubbed “Pizzagate,” which falsely claimed that a D.C.-based pizzeria was secretly hosting a child-sex ring in collaboration with senior Democratic Party officials and which resulted in death threats against the staff. In December 2016, a North Carolina man took his AR-15 rifle to investigate and fired upon the popular restaurant. Again, I was being asked, “What is DHS doing to prevent these sorts of attacks?”

The long-term approach of building strong relationships with local communities to help pull people back from disinformation was no longer an option. The media looked less to the U.S. government for answers and began to further scrutinize Facebook, Twitter and Google, disinterested in the stories of local communities and their offline solutions.

This shift in expectations set into motion a series of events and initiatives that brings us to this point, where InfoWars’ reach has been restricted.

Frankly, I’m glad the site can no longer promote its dangerous conspiracy theories. But I do wonder, once all disinformation outlets are finally banned, where will their followers go? History would suggest they become more extreme, reverting into themselves and running into the darkest corners of the Internet—where no one is looking. Is that really what we want?

The problem is bigger than InfoWars. It’s bigger than government or big tech. If we’re going to have any hope of solving it, we need to better appreciate its complexity. The crisis of disinformation also demands that we as individuals assert more critical thinking in the content we consume, while strengthening local services in our communities, such as education, recreation and mental health, to offer those inching toward online radicalization in-person support. We, both as individuals and as communities, have a critical role to play. 

Neema Hakim was a spokesperson for the United States Department of Homeland Security from March 2016 to January 2017. Previously, he served in the White House Office of Communications, researching issues related to national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter at @NeemaHakim.