(WASHINGTON) — A group of influential Republicans are preparing for the possibility that their party will retake the White House next fall — and, if they do, they’re planning to scale back on the federal government’s oversight of online misinformation.
The proposal is part of Project 2025, a sweeping new initiative led by the Heritage Foundation think tank to prepare a policy agenda, transition plan and personnel database for the next GOP president.
Among hundreds of other changes, Project 2025’s nearly 1,000-page policy blueprint, called “Mandate for Leadership,” singles out the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, which is the arm of the Department of Homeland Security focused on guarding the nation’s critical infrastructure, including the systems used to conduct elections.
CISA’s work around election misinformation has drawn the ire of former President Donald Trump — who continues to wrongly claim he won the 2020 election — and other conservatives who say it is interfering in speech. The agency has pushed back on that view, calling it “patently false.”
The Project 2025 blueprint recommends ending CISA’s efforts to counter the flow of mis- and disinformation and dismissing the panel of experts that advises the agency on matters of cybersecurity or else housing the agency under the Department of Transportation, rather than DHS.
“The federal government cannot be the arbiter of truth,” the proposal states.
The net effect of the proposed overhaul would be to make CISA less powerful, said Herb Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University. Moving the agency into the DOT, for example, would hamper its ability to deal with national security.
“It’s a way of emasculating the agency — that is, it prevents it from doing its job,” Lin told ABC News.
During the 2020 election cycle, CISA alerted social media companies to posts that contained mis- or disinformation.
The Project 2025 proposal’s focus on CISA and the government’s role in handling false information online has alarmed some democracy experts.
“There are verifiably false things that are said about our elections … Regardless of party, we should all be against that,” said Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program. “And the fact that we can’t say that, I think, is very troubling for our democracy.”
Project 2025 more broadly calls to cut back on the federal bureaucracy, a goal for many conservatives, while concentrating more power in the presidency.
Republicans argue that CISA exceeded its mandate during the 2020 election, coordinating with nonprofits working on misinformation in order to outsource an action that would otherwise be considered illegal censorship.
“I don’t think the government needs to be policing digital social media platforms and sharing its thoughts and opinions on what it believes to be accurate and not accurate,” said Brian Cavanaugh, a former DHS official who helped author the CISA-related portion of Project 2025. He added: “Are they the appropriate individuals to be wearing the referees’ shirt on what’s misinformation, disinformation and what’s fact?”
Agency officials have defended their work.
“CISA does not and has never censored speech or facilitated censorship; any such claims are patently false,” Executive Director Brandon Wales said in a statement to ABC News, noting that CISA shares information on election literacy and security in response to concerns from the public.
Trump himself has rebuked the agency for its efforts to counter election misinformation. As president, he fired Chris Krebs, who was then the head of CISA, in late 2020 in response to Krebs debunking Trump’s baseless accusations of fraud.
“Honored to serve. We did it right,” Krebs tweeted shortly after his dismissal.
Despite Trump’s vocal criticisms of the agency, Cavanaugh disputed the idea that the former president’s wishes had any bearing on Project 2025’s policy recommendations.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but … the Mandate of Leadership [proposal] is highlighting the concerns shared by many Americans,” he said.
Trump, currently the 2024 Republican primary front-runner, according to early polling, has built his comeback bid for the White House in part around his continued, unfounded claims that widespread fraud cost him the last election.
People and politicians of all partisan backgrounds make and spread false statements. But voters’ beliefs about how to handle misinformation are split by party, surveys have shown.
Polling conducted by Pew Research Center in June found that 55% of Americans supported the U.S. government “taking steps to restrict false information online, even if it limits people from freely publishing or accessing information,” while 65% believed that tech companies should do the same.
Democrats were about twice as likely to believe those statements than Republicans, the poll found.
Lin, the Stanford researcher — and, he said, a registered Republican — cast the dispute over information this way: “If I asked you to take down a message that says that the elections are held on Wednesday rather than Tuesday, is that censorship? I don’t think it is … but somebody else might, and that person and I could have an interesting debate about that.”
But regardless of the definition, “If I can disrupt the functioning of that infrastructure by telling lies … That’s a threat to the elections infrastructure,” Lin said. “If that’s true, then you might want to have an agency part of whose mission is to focus on trying to prevent people from saying that.”
The Project 2025 proposal is not the only place where Republicans are pursuing changes to CISA. Some members of the House have proposed a bill, which hasn’t received a floor vote, “prohibiting CISA from classifying the speech of a U.S. person as mis-, dis-, or mal-information, or working with organizations that recommend social media companies censor the speech of U.S. persons on social media platforms.”
Cavanaugh, the former DHS official who worked on the Project 2025 proposal, instead offered that an inter-agency working group — such as one established by National Security Presidential Memorandum 13, a Trump-era directive which deals with election cybersecurity — as a more appropriate venue for dealing with international misinformation originating outside the U.S.
Asked what part of the government should address the threat of domestic information, he said, “There’s a lot of room for open debate on how that should be played out … and it should not be decided exclusively by the executive branch.”
Spencer Chretien, the associate director of the Project 2025 project, told ABC News that his team has made the major GOP presidential candidates aware of the blueprint and is “building ties” with the campaigns.
The Heritage Foundation touts the fact that Trump drew heavily on a prior edition of the blueprint during his time in the Oval Office.
“We represent the whole conservative movement,” Chretien said. “And so it’s important to be able to speak as a movement and to say to the next president, ‘This is what the movement expects from you and your administration.'”
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