Partisan brawl erupts over new misinformation board
Nina Jankowicz’s new book, “How to Be a Woman Online,” chronicles the vitriol she and other women have faced from trolls and other malicious actors. She is now at the center of a new firestorm of criticism, this time over her appointment to head a Department of Homeland Security advisory board on the disinformation threat.
The creation of a council, announced last week, has turned into a partisan fight over misinformation itself – and what role, if any, the government should have in policing fake, sometimes toxic content. and even violent online.
Hours after the announcement, Republican lawmakers began denouncing the board as Orwellian, accusing the Biden administration of creating a “ministry of truth” to control people’s thoughts. Two professors writing an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal noted that the abbreviation for the new Disinformation Governance Board was only “one letter away from the KGB,” the Soviet Union’s security service.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, found himself on the defensive. In a television interview on CNN on Sunday, he insisted the new board was a small group, had no authority or operational capability, and would not spy on Americans.
“We at the Department of Homeland Security do not monitor American citizens,” he said.
Mr Mayorkas’ reassurance did little to quell the fury, underscoring how partisan the disinformation debate has become. Facing a series of questions about the board on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was a continuation of work that the Cybersecurity and Security Agency of the department’s infrastructure had started in 2020, under the previous administration.
Its purpose is to coordinate the department’s response to the potential impacts of disinformation threats – including foreign electoral influence, such as that from Russia in 2016 and again in 2020; the efforts of smugglers to encourage migrants to cross the border; and online publications that may incite extremist attacks. Ms. Psaki did not say how the ministry would define what constituted extremist content online. She said the council would consider making its findings on misinformation public, even though “a lot of this work is really about work that people maybe don’t see every day that’s being done by the Department of Health.” homeland security”.
Many of those critical of the board have skimmed Ms Jankowicz’s past statements, online and offline, accusing her of being hostile to conservative views. They suggested – baselessly – that she would stifle legally protected speech using partisan calculus.
Two high-ranking Republicans on the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees — Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York — cited recent comments she made about the laptops of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter as evidence of bias.
Ms Jankowicz, 33, has suggested in her book and in public statements that condescending and misogynistic content online can prelude violence and other illegal acts offline – the kinds of threats the council was created to to watch. Her book cites research into the backlash that prominent women have faced, including Vice President Kamala Harris after her 2020 nomination.
Ms Jankowicz called on social media companies and law enforcement to take tougher action against online abuse. Such views have prompted warnings that the government should not police online content; it has also motivated Mr. Musk, who has said he wants to buy Twitter to free its users from onerous restrictions he says violate free speech.
“I shudder to think, if free speech absolutists took over more platforms, what it would look like for marginalized communities around the world, who already bear so much of this abuse, disproportionate amounts of these abuses,” Ms Jankowicz said. NPR in an interview last week about her new book, referencing those under attack online, especially women and people of color.
A Tweeter she sent, using part of this quote, was quoted by Mr. Turner and Mr. Katko in their letter to Mr. Mayorkas. The memo asked for “all documents and communications” regarding the establishment of the council and the appointment of Ms Jankowicz as executive director.
The council quietly began work two months ago, made up of part-time officials from other parts of the big ministry. The Department of Homeland Security made the decision to form the council last year after completing a study this summer that recommended forming a group to examine privacy and civil liberty issues. for online content, according to John Cohen, the former acting head of the department’s intelligence branch.
“And making sure that when components of the department do that analysis, they operate in a manner consistent with their authorities,” Cohen, who left the administration last month, said in an interview.
Mr Cohen pushed back against claims that the group is monitoring the language online.
“It’s not a big room with Facebook and Twitter feeds popping up,” Cohen said. “It looks at policy issues, it looks at best practices, it looks at academic research relating to how disinformation influences the threat environment.”
After studying policy issues, the council is then supposed to submit advice to the Homeland Security Secretary on how various agencies should conduct online content analysis while protecting Americans’ civil liberties, and how the results of this analysis can be shared.
According to a statement on Monday, the department said the council would monitor “disinformation disseminated by foreign states such as Russia, China and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and trafficking organizations. of human beings”. The statement also cited misinformation that can spread during natural disasters, such as misinformation about drinking water safety during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
This is not the first time the Department of Homeland Security has decided to identify disinformation as a threat to the homeland. The department has joined the FBI in issuing terrorism bulletins warning that lies about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots could embolden domestic extremists.
Mr Mayorkas came to Ms Jankowicz’s defence, calling her a “renowned expert” who was “eminently qualified” to advise the department on security threats germinating in the fertile online atmosphere. At the same time, he admitted mishandling the board’s announcement – made in a simple press release last week.
“I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what he does and doesn’t do,” he told CNN.
Ms. Jankowicz has been a familiar commentator on misinformation for years. She has worked for the National Democratic Institute, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy which promotes democratic governance abroad, and was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
As a Fulbright Scholar, she worked as an advisor to the Ukrainian government in 2017. Her 2020 book, “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict,” focused on the weaponization of information by Russia. He warned that governments were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to counter misinformation.
A quote posted to his biography on the Wilson Center website highlights the challenges for those who would fight misinformation.
“Disinformation is not a partisan issue; it is a democracy, and it will take cooperation – across parties, across sectors, across governments and across borders – to defeat it,” he says.