The Department of Homeland Security has established a new working group aimed at combating dangerous disinformation spread by foreign adversaries and criminal networks, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced last month.
The Disinformation Governance Board will monitor and respond to a broad range of false information “that threatens the security of the American people,” including online propaganda campaigns from Russia and deceptive practices used by smugglers to exploit migrants seeking to enter the United States. The group’s main role will be in advising the various arms of the government’s sprawling security apparatus on “best practices” for countering disinformation, Mayorkas told CNN earlier this month.
News of the board’s creation sparked an uproar among Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures, many of whom accused the Biden administration of forming a “Ministry of Truth” akin to the government propaganda operation depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called the group a “grotesque anti-free speech effort,” and Fox News host Tucker Carlson said the board was designed to “identify and punish people who think the wrong things.”
Homeland Security officials have responded to this by asserting that the board will operate in a way that “protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.” Mayorkas has also repeatedly said that the group will serve a purely advisory role, has no “operational capacity” to conduct its own investigations and will not monitor American citizens.
Why there’s debate
The board’s defenders say conservatives are themselves pushing disinformation by making wildly inaccurate accusations designed to stoke fear among the GOP base. They make the case that the board is just another boring bureaucratic government body that will mostly serve to coordinate anti-disinformation efforts that have been carried out by various organizations in DHS for years. Proponents of the board’s mission say the government desperately needs to develop a comprehensive response to the many forms of disinformation that pose a direct threat to American security, whether it be foreign election interference, propaganda from America’s enemies or criminal schemes that contribute to instability at the border.
Critics on the right say the Biden administration can’t be trusted to serve as arbiters of truth and worry that, though the board’s official mission may be narrow on paper, there’s nothing to stop it from becoming a tool to suppress conservatives’ free speech. There’s specific concern about the woman chosen to run the board, a disinformation researcher named Nina Jankowicz. Many conservatives argue that Jankowicz herself has promoted dubious information designed to hurt Republicans.
The board has also faced criticism from the left. A number of liberal commentators, though they agree with the overall goal of the board, have accused the administration of bungling its rollout by failing to clearly explain its purpose — which allowed conspiratorial accusations to take root. There are also those who believe that monitoring information simply isn’t the government’s job and that it would be easy for the board to become corrupted by political interests.
A group of House Republicans last week put forward a bill to dismantle the disinformation board. While it has little chance of passing, the bill could be a signal that the GOP may try to target the board the next time Congress looks to pass an overall government spending package.
The board can serve an important role in the information wars
“Done right, this is a useful function. Mr. Mayorkas mentioned campaigns by human smugglers targeting migrants to trick the Haitian community into thinking they could enter the United States without risk of deportation. Russia’s persistent efforts to influence U.S. elections are well known. Studying the ‘best practices’ for stymieing these attempts and sharing them with government actors could do a great deal of good.” — Editorial, Washington Post
The government shouldn’t be in the business of patrolling free speech
“A government entity tasked with policing incorrect information online is both unlikely to succeed and also a potential threat to free speech.” — Joe Lancaster, Reason
The board is being attacked because it poses a threat to GOP disinformation campaigns
“‘Conservatives push bad-faith attacks under the guise of ‘free speech’ in response to anything that they perceive will stymie their ability to push falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Fearmongering about the board is just a page out of conservatives’ playbook.” — Kayla Gogarty, associate researcher director at Media Matters, to Insider
Without much clearer guidelines, the board could easily turn into a political weapon
“I don’t think anyone would disagree with the idea that there might be a role for DHS to speak more clearly to let migrants for instance, or would-be migrants, understand the rules about the border. … The problem here is that … there doesn’t seem to be any limiting principle to this board so far. There’s very little information.” — Kimberly Strassel, Wall Street Journal
Fighting disinformation is important, but it shouldn’t be the government’s job
“Disinformation remains a thorny problem for the civic health of the country, but it may be one that’s better left to organizations outside of the federal government to address, where a light touch might prove to be more effective than a heavy hand. And it’s hard to imagine a heavier hand than the Department of Homeland Security.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic
The public will never trust the information that comes from the board
“If you worked really hard, you might be able to come up with an idea as unappealing as a government disinformation board. Voters already distrust the government and are especially concerned about its excessive intrusion and unchecked regulatory power.” — Charles Lipson, Newsweek
The administration has chosen the wrong person to lead the board
“The appointment of Nina Jankowicz as executive director of the DGB is similarly ill-advised. She is a skilled researcher-writer and a bona fide expert in disinformation. But Jankowicz has drawn criticism for comments that smack of political bias. … The head of the agency dealing with facts needs to be seen as being above the political fray.” — John Maxwell Hamilton and Kevin R. Kosar, Politico
The board can provide a real service if it sticks to its official mission
“This proposal doesn’t have to be a terrible idea. … Wherever you stand on illegal immigration, we should all oppose coyotes and human smugglers taking advantage of people. … If this new DHS group spends its time publicly declaring that there are no special, secret, or little-known loopholes for migrants who wish to enter the U.S., it will do some good.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
The board is much more likely to be forgotten than to cause any real problems
“In practice, the Disinformation Governance Board is unlikely to live up to critics’ worst fears; whether it achieves much of anything at all — or instead languishes as yet another hollow organ in the federal bureaucracy destined for mothballing — seems a more apt question at this point.” — Monika Richter, Bulwar