A Win in a Disinformation Board Battle, But Not Yet the War
Moaning Myrtles frontwoman Nina Jankowicz has been stuffed back under the cloak of invisibility.
The Biden administration announced on April 27 that it had tapped Jankowicz to head a new “Disinformation Governance Board” under the Department of Homeland Security. Just three weeks later, Jankowicz is out and the project has been put on “pause,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed last Wednesday.
Conservatives were quick to declare victory over Biden’s “Ministry of Truth.” Certainly, the sustained pressure campaign of jokes and memes made even liberals uncomfortable with the new DHS outfit and put the administration on its heels. But the left, and the administrative state that safeguards its interests, doesn’t care all that much how conservatives respond to efforts to control information. Controlling information is and always will be more important to upending the American system than whether political enemies hate them a little more.
There is still political utility in bullying progressives when they attempt something so brazen and foolish, but the jokes themselves were not what ultimately led to the Biden administration’s decision to pause the Disinformation Governance Board. The administration chose to delay and regroup because of much more practical reasons. The project was half-baked, its mission was unclear, and its infrastructure was underdeveloped, which made the Disinformation Governance Board a tough sell.
After the Senate voted to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas as DHS Secretary on Feb. 2, 2021, the new secretary, referring especially to Jan. 6, determined it was time to focus on “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and any other form of information with a negative prefix. The first step: set up a working group to consider how DHS might go about combating malign activity online. The group, overseen by the department’s office of policy and office of intelligence and analysis, mulled a number of issues, from alleged Russian intelligence operatives posting false claims about the U.S. election on social media to human smugglers using social media to lure in new victims.
In an attempt to make all of these disparate narratives jive, the group concluded that departments within DHS lacked the information sharing capabilities to coordinate a coherent response, or proper guidelines to ensure that cross-department coordination was done appropriately. The answer to the working group’s problem? Another working group, of course. John Cohen, then a top counterterrorism official at DHS, was part of the first working group and wrote a memo setting up the second, according to Politico.
At the time, no one at DHS seemed to think this was a big deal. “They’re not sitting there saying, ‘Hey, what should we be doing about Russian disinformation focusing on X, Y, and Z?’” Cohen told Politico. “They’re focusing on, ‘Hey, information is being gathered and collected under different sets of legal authorities. What is the appropriate way to share that information so we’re not in conflict with those legal authorities?’”
But the working group was evidently unable to work out the particulars before the existence of the Disinformation Governance Board became public in late April.
Mayorkas boasted about the board shortly after its existence became public during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. Responding to a question from Democratic Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood about misinformation campaigns against minority communities, Mayorkas said the DHS had recently created a Disinformation Governance Board that aims to “bring the resources of (DHS) together to address this threat.”
Mayorkas told the subcommittee that Undersecretary for Policy Rob Silvers and principal deputy general counsel Jennifer Gaskill would co-chair the board. Politico was the first to report Nina Jankowicz would serve as the board’s executive director. When the poorly named board and its poorly chosen executive director were predictably panned, the administration was put on the defensive. Then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended Jankowicz, calling her “an expert on online disinformation… with extensive qualifications.”
“This is work that is helping to address unauthorized terrorism, other threats, and see how disinformation, misinformation is being pushed, to lead, to increase those, so that’s all work that we think has been ongoing for some time,” Psaki said, describing the board to members of the media on April 29.
“For anyone who’s critical of it, I didn’t hear them being critical of the work under the former president, which is interesting to note contextually,” Psaki added, though her comments have been undercut by reporting, like Politico’s May 5 report, that suggests the changing of the guard at DHS is what triggered DHS’s heavy interest in disinformation.
In her April 29 briefing, Psaki also referenced a fact sheet that provides further information of the board’s work. The board’s “primary mission,” Psaki, summarizing the DHS handout, claimed, “is to establish best practices to ensure that efforts to understand and respond to disinformation are done in ways that protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.” The only fact sheet pertaining to the Disinformation Governance Board listed on the DHS website, however, was released on May 2.
The May 2 fact sheet reveals just how vague the Disinformation Governance Board’s mandate was. The fact sheet claims that DHS “is focused on disinformation that threatens the security of the American people, including disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations. Such malicious actors often spread disinformation to exploit vulnerable individuals and the American public, including during national emergencies.”
The fact sheet goes on to cite three prominent examples of when components of DHS has battled disinformation: CBP’s fight against human smugglers, FEMA’s attempts to quash disinformation about fake shelters during Hurricane Sandy, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) efforts to prevent the spread of Russian disinformation.
The Disinformation Governance Board was created, according to the fact sheet, “with the explicit goal of ensuring these protections are appropriately incorporated across DHS’s disinformation-related work and that rigorous safeguards are in place. The working group also seeks to coordinate the Department’s engagements on this subject with other federal agencies and a diverse range of external stakeholders.”
But the fact sheet also notes that “the working group does not have any operational authority or capability.”
So, without “any operational authority or capability,” the Disinformation Governance Board was expected to tamp down on disinformation from Russia, China, Iran, human smugglers, U.S. border policy, the war in Ukraine, 2020 election fraud, coronavirus, race, as well as national disasters and climate change? All while “protect[ing] Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy,” as the fact sheet says?
The Disinformation Governance Board’s sweeping and vague mandate made it difficult for the administration to defend the board and concisely explain what it would do. Mayorkas made the rounds on Sunday shows shortly after the board was announced, mostly regurgitating points from the fact sheet with his own spin. He told CNN’s Dana Bash on State of the Union that the board “works to ensure that the way in which we address threats, the connectivity between threats and acts of violence are addressed without infringing on free speech — protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the right of privacy.”
When pressed on the board, Mayorkas said “we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” its critics are spreading a narrative that is “precisely the opposite of what this small working group within the Department of Homeland Security will do.” On NBC’s Meet the Press, Mayorkas more or less said the same, that the board would confront disinformation “in a way that does not infringe on free speech, does not infringe on civil liberties,” and again admitted “We could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t.”
To put together a better communications strategy and create an outfit capable of achieving the plethora of goals the Biden administration set for the Disinformation Governance Board, a DHS advisory council will review the project and make recommendations in 75 days. Even though conservatives are having fun dunking on Jankowicz for really teaching the Biden administration “How to Lose the Information War,” they’ve only won the first battle. Though probably under a new name and leadership, the Disinformation Governance Board will likely return and be more dangerous to American liberties than ever.