Homeland Security Theater

From Public Books:

Thwarting the social instabilities and political divisions created by bots and other manipulators of information requires creative countermeasures, including aesthetic ones. This belief describes the game plan of the Department of Homeland Security, which is betting that aesthetics can help safeguard a democracy that has come to seem increasingly fragile.

“The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency produced this graphic novel to highlight tactics used by foreign government-backed disinformation campaigns that seek to disrupt American life and the infrastructure that underlies it.” So opens every graphic novel of the Resilience Series produced by CISA, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Real Fake, the first installment in the series, was released to coincide with the 2020 US election. It starts with a gamer, Rachel, getting ticked off when she encounters doctored videos designed to manipulate voters; it ends with “the takedown of those international troll farms.” Along the way, Rachel teams up with a clandestine organization “defending the truth and democracy online” to ensnare malefactors, including one hapless West African man who is left to languish in a dark jail despite having no awareness of how his computer skills were being used for a disinformation campaign.

COVID-19 supplies the exigency for the next title in the series, Bug Bytes, which follows a different set of “digital patriots.” This team are battling conspiracy theorists who are torching cellphone towers in the paranoid belief that 5G technology is spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Graduate student Ava Williams deploys her combination of coding and investigative journalism skills to expose that bots, not real people, are behind the spread of disinformation.

CISA’s pivot to fiction is not an entirely novel move. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Army Cyber Institute have used comics about the zombie apocalypse and renegade hackers to educate soldiers, as well as citizens, about contemporary threats to the social fabric. Of course, a more candid and honest concern for the security of US infrastructure would register things like schools in disrepair, outdated power grids, and crumbling bridges.1 The Resilience Series’s focus on “foreign government-backed disinformation campaigns” as a key threat to American life belies the fact that ensuring infrastructural security requires regularly overlooking the insecurities (precarity, depressed wages, increasing debt, et cetera) that are structurally necessary to capitalism. In designing these graphic novels as civic primers in an age of insecurity, CISA and, by extension, the Department of Homeland Security have missed the mark.

The problem is not that panels about African troll farms (Real Fake) or homegrown antivaxxers (Bug Bytes) might make readers feel insecure—it’s that they don’t make readers feel insecure enough. Or, more precisely, these comics might be judged aesthetic failures because—due to their proximity to propaganda—they leave little space for the vulnerabilities inherent in the act of reading. So, while readers learn that meddling by foreign powers “is scary, especially in an election year,” the graphic fictions commissioned by US cybersecurity assume reading itself to be a process whereby information (as opposed to disinformation) is obtained, questions are answered, and doubts are resolved. According to this narrow understanding, reading operates as a form of securitization, which is to say that it is evacuated of its role in framing a critical orientation.

Put another way: the graphic novels discussed here seek to transmit “good” information so as to counteract the “bad” information their readership might encounter elsewhere. But the effort to combat propaganda with propaganda is beset by contradiction and irony—just the sort of ambiguity that reading purely (and narrowly) for information cannot adequately address.

CISA wants to train citizens to be critical readers of the information they consume—with an exception built in for its own content and forms. An admiring Forbes article on the collaboration between CISA and the publisher of the Resilience Series stressed that “anyone who consumes content online needs to be ready to question what they see, but most of us are ill-equipped to do so.” This initiative may indeed encourage us to question some of what we see—but it rests on the assumption that we will not question what we read from official sources.

. . . .

Who knew that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes book reviews? This bimonthly journal has, since 1945—when the devastating potential of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—been covering global security risks as part of its mission “to reduce man-made threats to our existence.” The organization also operates the Doomsday Clock, currently set at 100 seconds to midnight, to visually convey the imminence of the threat of human extinction from nuclear war.

Recently the Bulletin tackled a wholly different concern: aesthetics. We shouldn’t be surprised by the humanist sensibilities of atomic scientists or the relevance of artistic capabilities to national security. (Perhaps most famously, in this regard, J. Robert Oppenheimer showed an interest in French and English literature at Harvard before pursuing the course of study in physics that led him to Los Alamos.) After CISA subcontracted and disseminated its Resilience Series on the elevated threats disinformation posed to democracy, the Bulletin decided to assess how effectively an aesthetic strategy such as this might raise security awareness.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Is PG the only one who perceives those in charge of the The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are vastly over-thinking their publications?

And expanding their scope by worrying about whether the less sophisticated and cosmopolitan masses will pay any attention to a couple of not-read-very-often non-profit/government publications will actually pay attention if they incorporate better aesthetics or cartoons into those publications?

The About Us section of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says, among other things:

The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them.

Perhaps PG woke up on the cynical side of the bed this morning, but he perceives more than a little mission creep in the OP. Are atomic scientists spending time at work solving the challenges of climate change or disruptive technologies? If so, who’s minding the reactor?

2 thoughts on “Homeland Security Theater”

  1. Julia, I think you’ll need an English-measurements spanner to adjust the novel-writing machine. Over Here, we haven’t yet gone metric.

    I get very worried when agencies charged with security against real threats (leaving prevalence for another time) become inspired by half-century-old Cold War techniques/systems that didn’t work in the medium or long term the first time around. Or maybe it’s something older and darker, such as a certain notorious bit of agitprop released before that term was coined by the Tsarist secret police. Once more over the top, boys…

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