Berthume is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank.
Last week's invasion of the Capitol by QAnon adherents and white supremacists, acting on the orders of the president of the United States and encouraged by members of Congress, demonstrated in clear and visceral terms that disinformation is an existential threat to the republic.
Elected officials who engage in disinformation must be banned from public life. The Biden administration must take this problem seriously and act now or risk the end of American society.
The case for taking concrete action on disinformation is clear. The goal is to blunt the weaponization of our national media environment by those who would use it to radicalize Americans. The violent failed coup attempt at the Capitol — and the simultaneous, correlated mob actions in Georgia, Washington, Kansas, Minnesota, Utah, Ohio, Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, Oklahoma, Colorado, California and Texas — was not an arbitrary incident. It was the outcome of a months-long disinformation campaign led by President Trump, joined by a wide array of Republican elected officials and amplified by mainstream right-wing media.
Our current information ecosystem encourages elected officials to lie and rewards them with power. It incentivizes platforms and media outlets to enable those who are ill-suited to public service to engage instead in destructive behavior. And it likewise rewards them with reach and profit. The attacks of Jan. 6 are the inevitable result.
The problem is too far gone to solve with existing mechanisms. A popular idea is to blame social media platforms, which they absolutely deserve. However, attempts to fix this problem at the platform level by using existing regulatory tools would take years. We do not have enough time to rely on this as a sole remedy.
In state capitals nationwide, legislators are preparing to use disinformation to justify anti-democratic measures that will further restrict access to the ballot and selectively criminalize legitimate protest. Conservative media still sits atop a high-speed pipeline of conspiracy theories born in the most extreme, pro-fascist, white nationalist corners of the internet. Right-wing outlets and Republican elected officials are already amplifying an obvious Big Lie: That those who attacked the Capitol were not pro-regime sectarian domestic terrorists, rioting in support of Trump's last desperate attempt to maintain his grip on power, but rather were the agents of antifa.
State governments not already captured by anti-democratic actors must take immediate legislative action to punish participation in disinformation campaigns by elected officials. The consequences must be real and have teeth: expulsion and removal from their posts and a lifetime ban on holding another public office.
The Biden administration must go further and dedicate real resources to combating disinformation. The big picture reasons for this are clear: Such an effort would buttress democracy against the most corrosive and destructive force we face other than climate change, and it would help us work toward a future in which we can begin to repair the damage already done to our society.
The more practical reasons are just as urgent. An administration that does not immediately address this problem with sufficient people, money, big thinking and activist policies will be unable to govern because it will soon be paralyzed by disinformation on all fronts. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, threats from foreign adversaries, the battered economy and the shortcomings of our social justice system will be impossible if the basic tenets of operating the federal government are besieged, again and again, figuratively and literally.
Disinformation is a national security crisis and represents an enormous vulnerability to threats both foreign and domestic. So it merits staff integration across multiple elements of the executive branch including the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
This problem cannot be taken seriously enough, but it must first be taken seriously at all. It is a challenge to governance, human rights and democracy, and must be treated as such. Trump will leave office next week. But this problem will persist. Things will get worse.
Every political scientist knows the consequences for anyone participating in an attempted coup against the United States must be swift, harsh and public — or else the next attack will come soon and be worse. These consequences must reach and include the active participants in the disinformation campaign that generated the attack. This will serve as a necessary first step in an information war we must fight, or else face extinction.