GOP targets DHS disinformation board and its leader
A new board at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designed to coordinate its work in the battle against disinformation is quickly becoming a target for Republicans seeking to peg the project and its new leader Nina Jankowicz as being on a mission to go after free speech.
Jankowicz, a disinformation expert who has worked throughout Eastern Europe, was hired last week to lead a DHS working group that would aid its different agencies in dealing with disinformation on topics as varied as migration to addressing plots from Russia and Iran.
“A HUGE focus of our work, and indeed, one of the key reasons the Board was established, is to maintain the Dept’s committment to protecting free speech, privacy, civil rights, & civil liberties,” Jankowicz wrote on Twitter in announcing her new job.
But in the days since it was rolled out, Republicans have seized on the board as a way to police speech, with numerous GOP lawmakers calling it “dystopian.”
The Republican National Committee dubbed it the “Ministry of Truth” in a nod to George Orwell’s novel “1984” and couched disinformation as “any speech we don’t like.”
And GOP lawmakers in both chambers on Tuesday introduced legislation to terminate the board and block any funding for it.
Administration officials have defended the new initiative, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying Monday that it will operate in a “nonpartisan and apolitical manner.”
Free speech advocates and disinformation experts say the lack of transparency from DHS is making it tough to know whether they should be concerned.
“I think the administration has itself to blame for this controversy,” said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
“Because they have not explained the need for or scope of this new board. It could be benign or it could be pernicious, but it depends on what mandate and authority it has.”
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, playing defense over the weekend, told “Fox News Sunday” host Bret Baier that the administration “could have done a better job in communicating what it does.”
“I really need to clarify. This is a working group that takes best practices to make sure that in addressing disinformation that presents a threat to the homeland that our work does not infringe on free speech,” he said.
“It’s not about speech, it’s about the connectivity to violence,” Mayorkas added, noting that while Americans are free to make antisemitic speech, they are not allowed to take congregants hostage at a synagogue.
Some of the disinformation work the board would oversee dates back to the Trump administration, targeting information provided by human smugglers.
Mayorkas gave the example of airing ads in Haitian creole to combat migration stemming from false narratives that Haitians would not be subjected to Title 42, which allows for the rapid expulsion of those that cross the border.
DHS on Monday released a fact sheet for the board, seeking to address concerns by committing to issue quarterly reports on its activities and having its bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council also make recommendations to the board.
“There has been confusion about the working group, its role, and its activities. The reaction to this working group has prompted DHS to assess what steps we should take to build the trust needed for the Department to be effective in this space,” DHS wrote in the fact sheet.
Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, says she shares the skepticism about the board precisely because of how little information has been given about its scope or mission.
But she sees room for a narrowly crafted role for the government, pointing to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which is designed to monitor and expose foreign disinformation efforts that could undermine U.S. security.
“When I use the term disinformation, I don’t mean somebody is wrong on the internet or somebody is speaking freely on the internet, I mean deliberate manipulation campaigns by state-level adversaries to change a conversation in a way that is inherently deceptive,” she said.
DiResta pointed to work pushing back against foreign-initiated disinformation in conflict zones, seen now as Russia uses its “state media apparatus worldwide” to obfuscate its role in war crimes in Ukraine.
“Any government response has to carefully consider preservation of civil liberties. If the effort is narrowly scoped, there’s validity to the government paying attention to manipulation by adversaries, and in fact it has been continuously under prior administrations as well,” she said, “but we don’t know what this particular board is actually doing.”
DHS’s interest in battling disinformation follows warnings from Mayorkas that the connection between disinformation and violence was growing increasingly strong, pointing to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol following a false narrative of widespread voter fraud.
The department has also pointed to disinformation on other topics, like the COVID-19 vaccine, as a possible motivator for violence.
But Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said DHS has not yet made clear the need for the board, given that the government can use protected speech to counter disinformation.
“The federal government has an important role to play in ensuring public access to reliable information about, for example, dangerous consumer products, threats to public health, and the availability of vaccines. There’s no First Amendment problem with the government playing this role by running ads, or posting accurate information on government websites, or funding research,” he said in a statement to The Hill.
“It would be a different matter if the board tried to suppress private speech. Even most false speech gets strong protection under the First Amendment, for good reasons. Government surveillance of U.S. residents’ expressive and associational activities could also raise constitutional and public policy concerns.”
Not all of the pushback has been focused on the board’s mission. Some has been on its leader Jankowicz, a former Fulbright scholar and the author of two books, who has an active Twitter presence.
Critics have picked apart tweets seen as too liberal as well as other social media posts, including a TikTok video in which she sings about disinformation.
“She’s an expert on online disinformation. She was formerly a Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Center. She’s testified before Congress as well as the United Kingdom and European parliaments; advised a Ukrainian foreign minister — particularly relevant in this moment — under the auspices of a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship; and overseen Russia and Belarus programs at the National Democratic Institute,” Psaki said Friday.
Jankowicz has also been criticized for her comments on Hunter Biden’s laptop, amplifying the opinion of national security experts at the time that the laptop was part of a Russian influence operation. Publications including The Washington Post have since verified content on the laptop.
Some have been seizing on her reference to the device as being the “laptop from hell.”
“For those who believe this tweet is a key to all my views, it is simply a direct quote from both candidates during the final presidential debate. If you look at my timeline, you will see I was livetweeting that evening,” Jankowicz tweeted on Wednesday when the board was announced.
But the department is likely to face continuing calls for an investigation into the board.
“Biden’s dystopian Disinformation Governance Board is seriously dangerous and wholly unconstitutional,” Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican who compared Jan. 6 rioters at the Capitol to tourists on a trip, wrote on Twitter.
“I’m demanding Congress investigate DHS’ Ministry of Truth—NOW.”
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