America Needs a New Way to Combat Disinformation Now

After 9/11, Washington formed a national commission that made the country safer. It should do the same now.

Security barricades are set up on a street ahead of the inauguration of then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in Washington on Jan. 20.
Security barricades are set up on a street ahead of the inauguration of then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in Washington on Jan. 20. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jan. 6 will be remembered as one of the most horrendous attacks on the U.S. republic in recent history. But perhaps just as important as the insurrection at the Capitol is what led up to it: Over the past few years, foreign and domestic conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns have multiplied while white supremacist and anti-government movements have built their armies online, promoting violence and deepening the country’s racial divisions. As fringe groups and conspiracy theorists such as the Proud Boys and QAnon have grown, even U.S. politicians shared and amplified disinformation online. This week, as the United States inaugurated a new president after the most secure election in U.S. history, much of the country’s capital remained behind police tape after online mobilization around disinformation carried the threat of further real-life violence.

For too long, U.S. citizens have been staring into a funhouse mirror of disinformation, half-truths, hate, and harassment that’s undermining trust in facts and democratic institutions. On Jan. 6, according to media intelligence company Zignal Labs, there were over 439,000 mentions of #VoterFraud related to the Capitol unrest across all sources, which include social media, news, blogs, video, broadcast, and forums. And as of Jan. 19, only 38 percent of Republican voters said they had trust in U.S. elections, despite the proven security of the recent election. In short, the current unrest is rooted in a blatant disregard for facts

Observers have compared the siege on the U.S. Capitol—and the events that led to it—to the “shock to the system” dealt by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, since both left many Americans with the feeling that democracy was under threat. The 9/11 attacks led to the formation of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which investigated the root causes of the attack and held not just terrorists, but also executive branch agencies and elected officials accountable. This moment in history calls for a similar undertaking. Congress should authorize the creation of a National Commission on Information Integrity that would focus on disinformation, online extremism, hate speech, and the media landscape and its impact on American democracy. A healthy democracy needs citizens who actively participate in informed discussions, both online and off, and the government can play a significant role in getting us there.

Observers have compared the siege on the U.S. Capitol to the “shock to the system” dealt by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.Of course, the early 2000s and the circumstances surrounding the 9/11 attacks were very different from what led to the Capitol violence: The terrorist attacks occurred on a single day, the threat was external, and al Qaeda did not use the internet as its primary battlefield. Even so, a new 9/11 Commission-style body can help us meet the challenges of the current era. Security experts remember that commission for the urgency of its response and its tremendous contributions to the security field. And its recommendations had real political power: The director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center came from its report’s 567 pages.

Overall, the 9/11 Commission helped make U.S. citizens safer. When the final recommendations were announced, the political will they generated led to sweeping changes, from first responder grants to aviation and border security. Now, the United States should look back and pay attention to what made the 9/11 Commission successful to create a National Commission on Information Integrity that will make democracy safer.

First, the commission today must be bipartisan and independent. The 9/11 Commission was an independent entity founded with the same law that created the Department of Homeland Security. It was nonpartisan, and its staff had practically limitless access to data and the authority to conduct their investigation and make recommendations. To that end, the Information Integrity Commission should be chaired by current and former notable public servants and leaders, including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Other commissioners and staff should have expertise in media, technology, and public service, and represent the diverse viewpoints of the American people.

The Information Integrity Commission would also have to act fast. In 2022, the United States will hold congressional elections. Such speed is possible. The law that created the 9/11 Commission passed in November 2002, and its final report was produced in July 2004. In those two years, it conducted 19 days of public interim hearings and produced interim reports, which increased the credibility of the process as the government worked to address the problems that led to the attacks. In this case, the new commission would need to commence this year and release a final report by the summer of 2022.

The commission should also have a broad mandate. Commissioners need to listen to voices that are diverse in political thought, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and age. People trusted the 9/11 Commission in part because the families of the victims helped shape and support the work through hundreds of hours of meetings and interviews. To achieve similar confidence in information integrity efforts, the new commission should create a report that digs deep into Americans’ experiences with information consumption, what they think “truthfulness” is, and the impact of disinformation and harassment on their lives. In many ways, this would be similar to one of the major contributions of the 9/11 Commission, which is that it gave the United States a new definition of security—one meant to keep Americans safe but that allowed for the flow of commerce and respected civil liberties.

After assessing the ideologies and intentions of those who spread disinformation and their effects on U.S. citizens, the commission should identify ways to protect people from hate, violence, election interference, civil unrest, or health disinformation. The final report of the commission should include a thorough counterdisinformation strategy, proposals for senior leadership to coordinate the government’s response, concrete ideas for private-public partnerships, and guidelines on how to use emerging technologies to address the issues at hand.

The recommendations should include meaningful proposals to increase the transparency and accountability of social media platforms and media companies that do not compromise democratic values, including respect for human rights, free expression, and inclusion. For instance, calls to overhaul Section 230, which provides immunity from liability to internet publishers and citizens for content that is posted online, have received attention in both progressive and conservative circles, but that’s certainly not the only way forward. The commission should investigate all regulatory options, targeted legislative proposals, and audits to combat disinformation, online hate speech, and harassment.

Finally, the commission should make recommendations on how Washington can—in partnership with civil society and the private sector—strengthen the country’s information ecosystem. Those include practical ways to support freedom of the press, digital literacy, and investment in local media. Equally important is prioritizing the use of technology to provide marginalized communities with access to credible, unbiased content

Arguably, disinformation, hate speech, and extremism in the information space are more daunting than the issues that the 9/11 Commission faced. In their book about the 9/11 Commission, Without Precedent, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean wrote, “We had to decide: How deep and how far do the roots of 9/11 run? That is a difficult question to answer. … In a way, we would define what information was relevant to 9/11 by asking for it.” The roots of today’s issues may run even deeper and further. Ultimately, no commission would be able to solve all ills that plague the information ecosystem. And no technical or government solution can solve problems of racism and sexism that society is not prepared to fix.

Indeed, the challenges that faced the 9/11 Commission from creation to final report should not be overlooked. Budget, access, and jurisdictional obstacles were daily occurrences. Public criticism and conspiracy theories threatened to undermine the work. But that moment, as the current one, demanded that the commissioners persevere. Just like the 9/11 Commission, a successful National Commission on Information Integrity can—in and of itself—serve as a symbol worldwide of resilience and renewed democratic stability.

Vera Zakem is a senior technology and policy advisor at the Institute for Security and Technology and a member of the bipartisan Task Force on U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism. She has spent her career developing holistic solutions to counter disinformation and influence campaigns in the United States and globally in the public and private sectors. Twitter: @verleza

Moira Whelan is the director of democracy and technology at the National Democratic Institute. She previously served in the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She served on the staff of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security when the 9/11 Commission Report was released. Twitter: @moira