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Aiming to address disinformation he says is “upending our society and literally killing Americans,” Christopher Krebs, the federal cybersecurity official who challenged the president on election disinformation, will lead a new Aspen Institute commission he said will take a careful approach to an urgent problem.
“America needs to pay attention to what’s unfolding right now and work to ensure that we’re not on the verge of a significant breakdown in democracy and civil society,” Krebs told Insider in written remarks.
Krebs will chair a new, bipartisan commission announced Wednesday by the Aspen Institute think tank — called The Commission on Information Disorder — and funded by a $3.25 million grant from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. This new group intends to help connect the private and public sectors to help find solutions for these most complicated of policy issues.
Krebs said the commission will pull different segments of society together so that government, tech, and industry can come together to study, discuss, and collaborate on the issue. “The way forward requires industry, government, and civil society taking a hard look at the deep divisions that allow these falsities to propagate, and to recognize that each has a core role to play. That is one of the primary goals of this new commission.”
‘America is on the verge of a pretty significant breakdown of democracy’
Over the past week, tech companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google-owned YouTube have taken down or suspended President Donald Trump’s social media accounts and dropped support for the social network Parler in the wake of the deadly siege of the US Capitol. The Trump-supporting mob was driven by unfounded claims of election fraud and other conspiracy theories spread on social media.
At the same time, critics including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders have blasted tech for its sudden, broad action against Trump’s online presence.
That difficult situation must be approached urgently and carefully, says Krebs, who was fired by Trump via Twitter in November after leading the agency that took the first government steps to counter rhetoric from the White House falsely claiming the election was rigged in favor of President-elect Biden.
“America is on the verge of a pretty significant breakdown of democracy. The insurrectionists at the Capitol last week were incited by years of lies, disinformation, and propaganda,” Krebs, the founding director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said in written remarks to Insider. “We need thoughtful short- and long-term planning, not just knee-jerk reactions to national crises.”
“Last week’s events at the Capitol, and all that we’ve seen over the last year on issues from election security to the pandemic make clear how disinformation is upending our society and literally killing Americans,” Krebs said. “Disinformation can’t be ignored, and we must tackle it head-on.”
That approach must pull together public and private sectors and look at fundamental causes, he stressed.
‘Too pervasive to stop entirely’
“Disinformation and misinformation today are too pervasive to stop entirely. Instead, we need to look to the government and the private sector to work together and use technological tools, public policy, and education to chip away at this tidal wave of disinformation, propaganda, and lies that have been spread over the last several years,” Krebs said.
Newmark, whose own platform wrestled at times with free speech issues a decade ago in its handling of escort and massage ads, has been a strong supporter of journalism and is the main funder of Aspen Digital, the tech arm of the Aspen Institute think tank founded in 1949.
Newmark said in written remarks to Insider that he hopes his sponsorship of the commission helps to address the deep divide between Americans when it comes to what to believe.
“The country is so divided, some people don’t care if they’re consuming false information, because it fits their opinion of the world around them. That mindset won’t change until we can start to reimagine public dialogue and re-establish some shared realities. This is how we protect the country, and how we rebuild our democracy.”
Newmark also said only a holistic approach will address the root of the problem.
“People might think disinformation is just a news issue or a social media issue, but folks who know a lot more than me have shown that the only way to make real progress in addressing this crisis is if all parts of society, from industry, to government, to the public, work together.”
Tensions between the First Amendment and national security
The Commission on Information Disorder is the latest initiative to grow out of the Aspen Cybersecurity Group, of which Krebs is a member. Founded in 2017, the group includes Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas and former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.
The head of Aspen Digital said the commission aims to get at the heart of a problem at the forefront of America’s political, information, and tech struggles right now.
“These are really complicated issues, and the events of the last week addressing disinformation were in direct response to a significant threat to another armed insurrection,” Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital, told Insider. “There are of course national security issues, but part of the underpinning of democracy is the First Amendment. This is why these issues are so complicated.”
Schiller said tech’s response to the Capitol siege have brought the tension between national security and freedom of speech into keen focus.
“The events of the last week have shined a bright light on the role of platforms and messaging services as instruments of disinformation and even radicalization. A big focus of our work will be on helping foster public-private collaboration on transparent solutions that recognize both security and public expression.”
Schiller said Krebs’ leadership will be a key aspect of the commission. “Krebs brings incredible perspective from a private sector background and as former head of CISA,” she said, calling his leadership at CISA “a model for government handling of this issue, frankly.”