A Panel to Combat Disinformation Becomes a Victim of It
The Department of Homeland Security announced on Wednesday that it was suspending the work of an internal advisory board intended to combat disinformation after what the department described as a deliberate disinformation campaign.
The creation of the panel, called the Disinformation Governance Board, set off a firestorm of criticism when it was announced last month. While the criticism came from across the political spectrum, including civil liberty groups, the fiercest denunciations came from the right. Republican leaders and commentators talked about it as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that would police people’s speech.
That was never the board’s mandate, a department spokesman said in a written statement. Instead, it was meant to coordinate the department’s various agencies in the fight against malicious disinformation by foreign adversaries, drug or human traffickers or other international crime groups.
Only weeks after its inception, however, its fate is now in doubt. Nina Jankowicz, an authority on disinformation who was chosen in the spring to lead the board, submitted her resignation on Wednesday after facing vitriolic and highly personal harassment and abuse online.
“False attacks have become a significant distraction from the department’s vitally important work to combat disinformation that threatens the safety and security of the American people,” the department’s statement said.
The department’s secretary, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, has asked a bipartisan pair of former officials to review the issue of fighting disinformation: Michael Chertoff, who served as the department’s secretary under President George W. Bush, and Jamie S. Gorelick, deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Mayorkas asked them to prepare recommendations within 75 days and said the board would not convene during that period. “Its work will be paused,” the statement said, confirming the suspension, which was reported earlier in The Washington Post.
Ms. Jankowicz’s departure, coupled with the board’s troubled rollout, makes it unlikely that it will resume operating in anything like its current form.
“We’ve killed the Ministry of Truth!” one of the board’s many Republican critics, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, wrote on Twitter.
Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, the left-leaning watchdog group, said that the opposition to the board consolidated quickly and fiercely, suggesting an organized and motivated effort. He noted that fighting disinformation has long been part of the government’s efforts, going back to campaigns by the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
The current political climate, however, has made the very subject a lightning rod that, he said, officials should have anticipated better. Instead, they seemed caught off guard by the response.
“I think it’s a disservice to all of us that we lose this function, especially in the wake of what we just saw in Buffalo, because that is a consequence of this information landscape,” Mr. Carusone said, referring to the racist mass shooting there. “It is a tinderbox.”
As the board’s director, Ms. Jankowicz, 33, bore the brunt of the attacks, a subject she knows well. Her most recent book, called “How to Be a Woman Online,” chronicles abuses she and other women face from trolls and other malign actors on the internet.
In a resignation letter submitted on Wednesday, she said that she joined the department this year to help address the impact of disinformation.
“It is deeply disappointing,” she wrote, “that mischaracterizations of the Board became a distraction from the Department’s vital work, and indeed, along with recent events globally and nationally, embodies why it is necessary.”