Disinformation Governance Board Killed by Disinformation Campaign
The combination of a horrendous rollout and a social media onslaught was disastrous.
WaPo’s Taylor Lorenz explains “How the Biden administration let right-wing attacks derail its disinformation efforts.”
On the morning of April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the first Disinformation Governance Board with the stated goal to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security.” The Biden administration tapped Nina Jankowicz, a well-known figure in the field of fighting disinformation and extremism, as the board’s executive director.
But within hours of news of her appointment, Jankowicz was thrust into the spotlight by the very forces she dedicated her career to combating. The board itself and DHS received criticism for both its somewhat ominous name and scant details of specific mission (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it “could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t”), but Jankowicz was on the receiving end of the harshest attacks, with her role mischaracterized as she became a primary target on the right-wing Internet. She has been subject to an unrelenting barrage of harassment and abuse while unchecked misrepresentations of her work continue to go viral.
Now, just three weeks after its announcement, the Disinformation Governance Board is being “paused,” according to multiple employees at DHS, capping a back-and-forth week of decisions that changed during the course of reporting of this story. On Monday, DHS decided to shut down the board, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. By Tuesday morning, Jankowicz had drafted a resignation letter in response to the board’s dissolution.
Now, Lorenz underplays how poor the rollout of this was. “Disinformation Governance Board” is the worst name since the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and was jumped on by pretty much everyone, including allies of the Biden administration. You simply don’t roll this out with a tweet from the director that leads to inevitable speculation and hand-wringing. Even were we not in the incredibly polarized environment we’re in, this would have been a disastrous approach.
That said, what happened to Jankowicz is outrageous.
“Nina Jankowicz has been subjected to unjustified and vile personal attacks and physical threats,” a DHS spokesperson told The Washington Post in a statement. “In congressional hearings and in media interviews, the Secretary has repeatedly defended her as eminently qualified and underscored the importance of the Department’s disinformation work, and he will continue to do so.”
Jankowicz has not spoken publicly about her position since the day it was announced.
Jankowicz’s experience is a prime example of how the right-wing Internet apparatus operates, where far-right influencers attempt to identify a target, present a narrative and then repeat mischaracterizations across social media and websites with the aim of discrediting and attacking anyone who seeks to challenge them. It also shows what happens when institutions, when confronted with these attacks, don’t respond effectively.
Those familiar with the board’s inner workings, including DHS employees and Capitol Hill staffers, along with experts on disinformation, say Jankowicz was set up to fail by an administration that was unsure of its messaging and unprepared to counteract a coordinated online campaign against her.
Correct. Indeed, almost a month in, it’s still not really clear what the Board was supposed to do. In a free society, the notion of the government deciding what information is acceptable is problematic. And DHS is primarily a domestic agency rather than a foreign intelligence agency, leading to natural speculation as to whether its remit included the speech of American citizens.
This was not only predictable it was inevitable. The rollout has to be tightly managed even in the absence of bad faith efforts such as Jankowicz was subjected.
Just hours after Jankowicz tweeted about her new job, far-right influencer Jack Posobiec posted tweets accusing the Biden administration of creating a “Ministry of Truth.” Posobiec’s 1.7 million followers quickly sprung into action. By the end of the day, there were at least 53,235 posts on Twitter mentioning “Disinformation Governance Board,” many referencing Jankowicz by name, according to a report by Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts public-interest research. In the days following, that number skyrocketed.
Again, quite a lot of the pushback was in good faith, including by national security professionals sympathetic to the administration.
Here’s what DHS says about the intent:
The board was created to study best practices in combating the harmful effects of disinformation and to help DHS counter viral lies and propaganda that could threaten domestic security. Unlike the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s “1984” that became a derogatory comparison point, neither the board nor Jankowicz had any power or ability to declare what is true or false, or compel Internet providers, social media platforms or public schools to take action against certain types of speech. In fact, the board itself had no power or authority to make any operational decisions.
“The Board’s purpose has been grossly mischaracterized; it will not police speech,” the DHS spokesperson said. “Quite the opposite, its focus is to ensure that freedom of speech is protected.”
So, I’m in favor of studying things. And countering lies and propaganda that could threaten domestic security. I have no idea how one does that without identifying or declaring what is true or false. Indeed, it’s simply nonsensical: in order to counter a lie, one must identify it and declare it to be false.
Posobiec’s early tweets shaped the narrative and Jankowicz was positioned as the primary target. Republican lawmakers echoed Posobiec’s framing and amplified it to their audiences. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is a U.S. Senate hopeful, and Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) both posted tweets similar to Posobiec’s. Former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also posted a video repeating Posobiec’s statements.
The week following the announcement, approximately 70 percent of Fox News’s one-hour segments mentioned either Jankowicz or the board, with correspondents frequently deriding the board as a “Ministry of Truth,” according to Advance Democracy. The Fox News coverage was referenced in some of the most popular posts on Facebook and Twitter criticizing Jankowicz.
Dozens of websites including Breitbart, the Post Millennial, the Daily Caller and the New York Post began mining Jankowicz’s past social media posts and publishing articles to generate controversy. Some were simply mocking, making fun of her for parodying a song from “Mary Poppins” to talk about misinformation. In another instance, a performance where Jankowicz sings a popular musical theater song about a person’s desire to become rich and powerful was misrepresented to imply that Jankowicz herself was after money and power and would sleep with men to get it.
So, this is insidious. And, even if the administration had done an effective job at explaining the Board’s purpose and scope, bad actors would likely have done this, anyway. But they instead left a vacuum where there wasn’t countervailing coverage in the legitimate news media. Only one side was talking about the issue.
As this online campaign played out, DHS and the Biden administration struggled to counter the repeated attacks.
The weekend after her hiring was announced, Mayorkas attempted to clarify the board’s mission and defended Jankowicz’s credentials. He did a round of TV news interviews and testified about the board during House and Senate committee hearings. A forceful defense of Jankowicz was noticeably absent online, where the attacks against her were concentrated. White House press secretary Jen Psaki debunked false claims about the board during two news briefings and touted Jankowicz as “an expert on online disinformation,” but it had little effect on the growing campaign against her.
“These smears leveled by bad-faith, right-wing actors against a deeply qualified expert and against efforts to better combat human smuggling and domestic terrorism are disgusting,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates told The Post on Tuesday.
As she endured the attacks, Jankowicz was told to stay silent. After attempting to defend herself on Twitter April 27, she was told by DHS officials to not issue any further public statements, according to multiple people close to her.
I watch essentially no TV news but spend a lot of time reading the news. I saw essentially none of this pushback from the administration.
Democratic lawmakers, legislative staff and other administration employees who sought to defend Jankowicz were caught flat-footed. Administration officials did not brief the relevantcongressional staff and committees ahead of the board’s launch, and members of Congress who had expressed interest in disinformation weren’t given a detailed explanation about how it would operate. A fact sheet released by DHS on May 2 did nothing to quell the outrage that had been building on the Internet, nor did it clarify much of what the board would actually be doing or Jankowicz’s role in it.
DHS staffers have also grown frustrated. With the department’s suspension of intra-departmental working groups focused on mis-, dis- and mal-information, some officials said it was an overreaction that gave too much credence to bad-faith actors. A 15-year veteran of the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, called the DHS response to the controversy “mind-boggling.” “I’ve never seen the department react like this before,” he said.
I have no idea how long the planning effort for this was but clearly it was managed poorly. And they’ve had almost a month since the initial announcement to get their message out. They have failed.
Institutions often treat reputational harm and online attacks as a personnel matter, one that unlucky employees should simply endure quietly.
Jankowicz’s case is a perfect example of this system at work, said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.”They try to define people by these single, decontextualized moments,” Brooking said. “In Nina’s case it’s a few TikTok videos, or one or two comments out of thousands of public appearances. They fixate on these small instances and they define this villain.”
The worst thing any institution can do in the face of such attacks is remain quiet, several disinformation researchers said.
“You never want to be silent, because then the people putting out the disinformation own the narrative,” said Mark Jacobson, assistant dean at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, who has researched propaganda, political warfare and disinformation for over 30 years. “You need to have a factual and equally emotional counternarrative. A fact sheet is not a narrative.”
Not responding with a highly compelling counternarrative, or not getting out ahead of these campaigns to begin with, Jacobson explained, can “give them an air of legitimacy.” He said he was frustrated by the Biden administration’s lack of a loud and vocal response to what Jankowicz was going through. “Saying it’s amateur hour is cliche, but it’s amateur hour,” he said of the administration’s inaction.