On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the new Disinformation Governance Board, a group within the federal agency focused on researching the best ways to fight rampant online lies and misleading content seen as a danger to national security. Less than a month later, though, and the board has already entered its definitive flop era.
In a victory for conservatives, the board’s embattled appointed director, Nina Jankowicz, resigned Wednesday morning, and the board is being “paused” this week, as first reported by the Washington Post. A DHS spokesperson confirmed the pause in an email to Gizmodo.
In her resignation announcement, Jankowicz said the following: “With the Board’s work paused and its future uncertain, and I have decided to leave DHS to return to my work in the public sphere. It is deeply disappointing 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.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had attempted to defend her, at least on some platforms, in recent weeks—but it wasn’t enough.
“Nina Jankowicz was subjected to unjustified and vile personal attacks and physical threats,” the DHS spokesperson wrote to Gizmodo. “As the Secretary has repeatedly said in Congressional hearings and in media interviews, Nina is eminently qualified to do this work. We know she will continue to be a leader in this field.”
From the Department of Homeland Security:
“To help instill trust in our work, Secretary Mayorkas has asked former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick to lead a thorough review and assessment, conducted through the bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC). This assessment will focus on answering two pivotal questions. First, how can the Department most effectively and appropriately address disinformation that poses a threat to our country, while protecting free speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy. Second, how can DHS achieve greater transparency across our disinformation-related work and increase trust with the public and other key stakeholders. The Secretary has requested the HSAC’s final recommendations within 75 days. During the HSAC’s review, the Board will not convene and its work will be paused, but the Department’s critical work across several administrations to address disinformation that threatens the security of our country will continue.”
The board’s roll-out was unsteady from the beginning, and its mission and purpose were a little publicly vague, but ultimately what shut the DGB down was disinformation itself. A right-wing, online troll campaign began with Jankowicz’s first tweet about her new role. The smears started when Jack Posobiec, a far-right influencer, began tweeting up a storm in response to Jankowicz, aiming to discredit Jankowicz and comparing the disinfo board to the Orwell’s “1984" Ministry of Truth in an episode of his podcast.
From there, things spiraled into tens out thousands of posts slamming DHS, the creation of the board, and Jankowicz herself, often in heinous, misogynistic and anti-Semitic ways, as pointed out by the Associated Press.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt posted a two-page letter and multiple accompanying tweets describing the disinfo board as a “threat to free speech.” Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson introduced a House Bill to “defund Biden’s ‘Ministry of Truth’,” that other Republican politicians quickly jumped on board with. Mitt Romney called the board a “terrible idea.” Then, of course, there was Fox News.
“The Board has been grossly and intentionally mischaracterized: it was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner,” wrote the DHS spokesperson to Gizmodo.
Instead, “it was intended to ensure coordination across the Department’s component agencies as they protect Americans from disinformation that threatens the homeland – including malicious efforts spread by foreign adversaries, human traffickers, and transnational criminal organizations. It was designed to ensure we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constitutional rights,” the spokesperson added.
A DHS factsheet on disinformation threats provides additional detail, granted it’s still a pretty opaque. (Gizmodo has bolded the most important part, the end.)
The Department identifies disinformation that threatens the homeland through publicly available sources, research conducted by academic and other institutions, and information shared by other federal agencies and partners. DHS then shares factual information related to its mission to potentially impacted people and organizations.
The Department is deeply committed to doing all of its work in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy. In fact, the Disinformation Governance Board is an internal working group that was established 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. The working group does not have any operational authority or capability.
Jankowicz, the target of much of the far-right hate, was appointed to head the board, in theory, because of her experience researching Russian disinformation. She wrote a book on the subject titled “How to Lose the Information War” and another about withstanding harassment as a woman online.
Unfortunately, she also posted a viral musical Tiktok mentioning Rudy Giuliani, reportedly publicly defended Hunter Biden amid his laptop scandal, and made some comments about verified Twitter users “adding context” to others’ misleading tweets, which have been misinterpreted to mean everyday users of the site could have their posts edited. All of the above (and more) were part of the right-wing campaign against Jankowicz.