The Media Today

Smears, opacity, and the implosion of a government disinformation board

May 20, 2022
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is on a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the U.S. Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. Miami International Airport is the latest airport to provide Simplified Arrival airport-wide. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

On April 27, Politico’s DC Playbook broke the news—in its final section, below word of Marianne Williamson’s renewed presidential aspirations and Donald Trump’s fear of flying fruit—that the Department of Homeland Security was establishing a Disinformation Governance Board “to coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia,” and that the effort would be led by Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert who has advised the government of Ukraine (and written for CJR). The same day, at a congressional subcommittee hearing, Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS secretary, was asked what he’s doing to counter disinformation targeted at communities of color, especially in Spanish, and took the opportunity to name-check the new board without offering many specifics; separately, the department put out a statement about the board, but declined follow-up interview requests. The next day, at the White House, Jen Psaki, then the press secretary, was asked for more details but said she couldn’t offer any. She also said that she didn’t know who Jankowicz was.

By then, the board was already well along in its journey from Beltway-newsletter nugget to right-wing cause célèbre du jour, with Twitter trolls and Republican senators (not mutually exclusive categories these days) decrying it as a frightening attempt to police Americans’ speech. As the days passed, the attacks intensified. Commentators on Fox and elsewhere started referring to the board as the “Ministry of Truth,” a reference to Orwell’s 1984, with Tucker Carlson defining disinformation as “anything the left disagrees with.” (Confusingly, his colleague Sean Hannity accused Democrats of “yearning for the days of the fairness doctrine,” even though that mandated balanced broadcast coverage of controversial matters.) Some interpreted the timing of the board’s announcement as a response to Elon Musk’s (then-)impending takeover of Twitter. (Musk himself described the board as “messed up”; later, Jeff Bezos would ding it, too.) Much of the outrage storm focused on Jankowicz herself, in particular her skeptical past commentary about the validity of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Constitutional lawyers and journalists mocked a TikTok video in which Jankowicz sang a Mary Poppins song with disinformation-inspired lyrics (“For the Biden administration, Jankowicz is ‘practically perfect in every way’ to keep track of whether we all ‘measure up’ in our public statements”) and a video showing her “belting out a raunchy parody Christmas song.” In one extraordinarily sexist column, a writer for Breitbart dubbed Jankowicz a “dominatrix of disinformation.”

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Five days after the board was announced, Mayorkas toured the Sunday shows and acknowledged that officials “probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do”; on the latter front, he insisted that the board would not monitor US citizens—or have any other operational powers, for that matter—though on the former, his language was somewhat vague and technocratic, with liberal references to “best practices” and “operators.” The next day, DHS published a fact sheet in a further effort to clear up what it described as “confusion,” stressing that the department is focused on hostile state actors and human traffickers, and that it would not only respect freedom of speech and other civil liberties but had been created with “the explicit goal of ensuring these protections are appropriately incorporated across DHS’s disinformation-related work and that rigorous safeguards are in place,” in coordination with “other federal agencies and a diverse range of external stakeholders.” DHS also pledged proactive future transparency for the board’s work.

More details, in plainer English, dripped out via subsequent news reports. An unnamed DHS official told Politico that the board’s work was “really kind of boring”; John Cohen, who helped found the board before departing DHS, told the same publication that the initiative grew out of the realization, reached by a prior working group, that no mechanism existed to coordinate policy across DHS, where different agencies have different legal powers to, for example, go undercover in online groups. (“It’s Washington,” Politico explained, “so the working group concluded that there needed to be another new group working on these issues.”) Not that any of this assuaged Republicans. The same Politico story quoted an aide pledging “serious oversight” of the board should the party take the House in the midterms. In the nearer term, House GOP leaders proposed legislation to disband the board, and twenty state attorneys general threatened to sue.

None of this now looks likely to be necessary. According to Taylor Lorenz, of the Washington Post, DHS officials decided on Monday to shutter the board, leading Jankowicz to prepare her resignation; the department apparently then changed course, moving only to pause the board’s work and offering Jankowicz a path to stay on, but on Wednesday, she resigned anyway. An internal review of the board is due to report in two and a half months, but it doesn’t look likely to be resurrected in its current form. Lorenz described the implosion as a classic case of what happens when far-right influencers “identify a target, present a narrative and then repeat mischaracterizations across social media and websites,” and noted that Jankowicz personally faced “an unrelenting barrage of harassment and abuse.” Sources accused officials of failing to adequately defend Jankowicz; when she tried to defend herself online, officials reportedly told her not to do so again. In interviews this week, she described receiving “constant” violent messages, including death and rape threats. She also vowed not to be silenced.

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The irony of a disinformation campaign taking down an effort to fight disinformation has not been lost on anyone—not least Jankowicz herself—and has dominated coverage of the board’s apparent demise. Numerous observers blamed DHS for its naïveté in botching the board’s public rollout; even mainstream reporters and respected researchers acknowledged that its name did sound Orwellian. It should be noted here, though, that deeper criticisms of the board itself, and not just its execution, emanated from voices beyond the partisan right. Even after DHS tried to clear things up, the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that it had failed to elucidate the “need for or scope of” the board, adding that “we’re generally skeptical of the government arbitrating truth and falsity.” After Lorenz published her story, Jameel Jaffer, the director of Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, criticized it for failing to acknowledge the concerns of “civil liberties and human rights groups.” Sharing Jaffer’s tweet, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim pointed out that “lots of elements of the left were highly skeptical to put it lightly of a DHS run disinformation board.”

The fate of the board is yet more proof that efforts to combat even clearly threatening disinformation will always be ripe targets for the purveyors of disinformation, and officials should have better anticipated and handled this obvious dynamic. At the same time, it also speaks to how legitimately blurry conversations about “disinformation” can be: in this case, the boundaries between foreign informational threats and domestic actors are porous, and directly monitoring Americans’ speech is far from the only way of endangering civil liberties. Ultimately, DHS’s miserable track record in this general area at least demanded answers stripped of abstract jargon, even if officials may have thought it obvious that the board was a routine bureaucratic cog. As Joe Bernstein, the author of a much-discussed recent Harper’s essay about the difficulty of even defining disinformation, put it, “something can be subject to a loathsome bad faith right wing messaging operation and still be a horribly misconceived and underthought fiasco.”

Acknowledging that both these things can be true, of course, should not serve to let the right-wing messengers off the hook—and their messaging hasn’t ended with the board’s apparent implosion. Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said on Fox yesterday that he not only doesn’t believe the board’s work has been paused, but that he doesn’t believe Jankowicz has actually resigned, calling that a cover story. “I don’t believe anything about this,” he said. “It’s all disinformation.” When it comes to fighting disinformation, lots of complicated things can be true at once. But many things, obviously, are false.

Below, more on the board, disinformation, and the administration:

  • The board: In its fact sheet, DHS argued that there is nothing new or unusual about the department focusing on disinformation as it pertains to national security, noting efforts dating back to 2012, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency tracked false safety information following Hurricane Sandy. The Post’s Aaron Blake offered further context. “The Trump administration’s DHS undertook similar efforts,” Blake writes. “In 2018 it created the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which dealt extensively with the spread of misinformation online—including both foreign interference in elections and the domestic spread of coronavirus misinformation.”
  • Disinformation: Yesterday, Twitter announced a new “crisis misinformation policy” aimed at guiding the platform’s “efforts to elevate credible, authoritative information” and “ensure viral misinformation isn’t amplified or recommended by us during crises”; it will initially be rolled out around the war in Ukraine. The policy, Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky writes, will be a “challenging one for Twitter to pull off, and not just because Twitter’s would-be new owner believes the company should let all legal speech stand. It also puts Twitter in a position of defining what’s true—or not true—in often chaotic situations and, perhaps even more challenging, deciding what constitutes a crisis to begin with.”
  • The administration: The Post’s Tyler Pager scooped yesterday that John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, will move to the White House in a senior communications role; Pager wrote that Kirby’s “exact title and role remain unclear,” though other outlets subsequently reported that he’ll be working with the National Security Council and will appear sporadically at the daily White House press briefing. As I noted in Tuesday’s newsletter, Kirby was once rumored to be in contention to lead that daily briefing as White House press secretary, but that job went to Karine Jean-Pierre instead.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.