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.
I hate to say it but there is something about DHS that is very dysfunctional. Remember it was kluged together during the Bush Administration in wake of 9/11 and organizationally it has never really functioned well. As predicted, by the way, by those who opposed the creation of DHS.
That or maybe leadership is the issue. I suspect it is the organization.
Maybe a reimagining/reorganization of the DHS is in order.
When the announcement first pinged at Memeorandum, my thought was, this is a baaaaad idea and it turned out to be worse than that. If a Dept of Homeland Security isn’t Orwellian enough, imagine how TFG’s or a DeSantis administration would use such a department.
The Catch-22 of fighting disinfo has always been that lies tend to grow in strength simply by gaining increased attention. Birtherism is a case in point. One thing that often gets overlooked is how much the Democratic reaction started as an attempt to avoid the mistakes of John Kerry, whom many Dems felt didn’t respond quickly or forcefully enough to the Swift-Boat smears against him in 2004. In 2008, the Obama campaign created a section on its website devoted to debunking smears against Obama. When the first rumors about Obama not being born in the US started to appear, the website promptly posted his birth certificate. Then the birthers (who were pretty marginal at the time) responded that that wasn’t his real birth certificate, but a truncated version. What they were reacting to was the fact that Hawaii only allowed a person’s short-form birth certificate to be released publicly, while a longer version was kept confidential. As a private citizen, Candidate Obama (and this was an often neglected point) literally did not have the legal power to release his long-form birth certificate. So he mostly ignored birtherism going forward, especially since it was a relatively minor part of the anti-Obama arsenal by that point; most of the conspiracy theories having to do with his identity were based on the claim that he was a secret Muslim.
After Obama took office, the birther movement began to take off. Mainstream Republicans usually didn’t openly embrace the theory; their go-to tactic was to declare that he should release his birth certificate. It was their prime dog-whistle on the topic. So a Republican lawmaker in Arizona tried pushing a bill requiring presidential candidates to release their birth certificate. Lou Dobbs (then on CNN) devoted segments to the topic. Sarah Palin speculated that the reason Obama didn’t release it was because it said he was a Muslim. (I was unaware that birth certificates are in the habit of listing a baby’s religion.) There were several people filing lawsuits to get Obama disqualified from the presidency, but these didn’t go anywhere and weren’t really being backed by the GOP.
What happened to change this situation was when Trump in 2011 went full birther and teased a possible presidential run, becoming the most prominent person up to that point to promote the theory. In response, Obama finally got Hawaii to release his long-form. Trump ended up not running in that cycle, but it gave him a tremendous boost in racist right-wing circles. The rest as they say is history.
Y’all remember the Internet Research Bureau in St. Petersburg, right? So, established foreign powers are trying to weaken and divide us via “information warfare”, which is to say, disinformation. I think it’s completely appropriate for DHS to want to think harder about how to counter this.
And also, the best way to counter IW is probably not to label something as a lie or truth. Often that just gives the lie more attention and more legs. Again, this suggests that we really, really need to come up with better methods and counters.
And of course there was right-wing pushback. It was right-wingers who tried to overthrow the government on 1/6. Some of whom are in thrall to the Russians and Putin, mostly because he hates gays.
The reaction was predictable and the whole idea was both toothless and bad. Regardless, it is odd how hysteria is just now a 24/7 thing for people who walk around and engage–I guess–in normal conversation. It’s not even clear if people screaming about Orwell would care if an actual Stasi came in and told them what to do. It’s like a dress rehearsal for desiring one’s actual repression.
This is a good article on the effects of ‘disinformation’. Basically, there’s a whole subculture of people devoted to fighting wind turbines in their communities because of the hum they emit, and it’s all linked to the internet.
@Jay L Gischer:
Yes. Absolutely right. As you note, the question is How? And I don’t know the answer because, for reasons @Kylopod points out, truth is at a disadvantage.
So was Ms. Palin. She was just evolving into the lying sack of [expletive, deleted] that she has become.
One does wonder why the government needed to create a board to coordinate the various agencies’ disinformation. Or might it be the very name “Disinformation Governance Board” is in fact disinformation, i.e., “misinformation that is deliberately disseminated in order to influence or confuse rivals”.
But the sudden tweet announcing this creation is curious when you see how much of a shiny object it is for the chattering class and how it completely distracted them from the release of the Pfizer COVID vaccine clinical trial documents, and likely things that were buried deeper.
And this is hilarious in the context of the mainstream media’s Charlottesville Hoax and “Bleach” Hoax disinformation campaigns against Trump
@JKB: Neither of those was a hoax. Nor was either taken out of context.
Seriously, if I worked as hard at my job as you do at spreading complete bullshit, I’d be richer than Elon Musk.
We bemoan the polarization and hostility, but we act like it’s something organic, that just grew. It isn’t. FOX “News'” business model is fear and resentment. And the Republican Party has come to depend on that. There are villains in this story and the biggest one is Rupert Murdoch.
And once again we invoke Murc’s Law. It must be because Democrats chose a stupid name and did a bad rollout. They did. But FOX grabbed it and ran with it, ignoring any constraints of journalistic ethics. If they hadn’t found this it would have been something else.
Truth is at a disadvantage – that needs to be Repeated For Truth.
The DHS experience needs to be seen not as a Failure, but as a Case Study. Good government people need to learn from it and try again. Because there are both external and internal threats posed to national security from misinformation and disinformation that are as potentially harmful as any military foe we face.
We bemoan the polarization and hostility, but we act like it’s something organic, that just grew. It isn’t. FOX “News’” business model is fear and resentment. And the Republican Party has come to depend on that. There are villains in this story and the biggest one is Rupert Murdoch.
If there were no libraries and somebody came up with an idea for a public institution where books were borrowed and returned there would be a total catastrophic meltdown at such a crazy notion. And even some of the people who thought the idea had merit would be like this is too radical. What do you expect?
I honestly don’t think it’s all due to Fox and RW media. They’re jumping on the bandwagon of a dark force.
When I see reports of anonymous “right-wing pushback” from people who’s names aren’t given, or internet comments from people I’ve never heard of, I assign a high probability to the possibility that they are paid agents of information warfare. Not necessarily Russian, since there are other actors, some non-state, who do this.
So that description fits the pushback on Ms. Jankowicz’ appointment to a T. I’m not sure why we would expect the administration to have expertise in fighting disinformation about the hiring of the person they want to lead efforts to figure out how to fight disinformation.
Which is to say, all that noise is an expected part of the landscape. It is not random. Why is it that anybody cared about an appointment to some obscure post deep within the government in the first place? How did so many of these obviously non-expert spreaders of disinformation even find out about it?
When you advance in the presence of the enemy, you should expect them to resist, and shoot back.
To me that’s the narrative – “we are under fire”. Not “the administration did badly”.
This is one of those stories I didn’t even register because when I saw the headline it was so obviously stupid I assumed it was some Q-Anon bullshit.
Neither was a hoax. Trump was indeed a lying birtherism-hoax bigot who praised those who marched alongside tiki torch Nazis in defense of monuments to pro-slavery Confederate traitors.
Treason Trump also mused that COVID could be cured by injecting disinfectant.
We know so not because of “mainstream media campaigns” but because we all watched him do so on video.
Of course you know all this: you’re just as big of a pathological liar as Trump is, like the rest of his radical right extremist ultra-MAGA cult who wrongly thinks a noun, a verb, and [insert whining about the media] will convince sane America that you aren’t a liar.
@Kylopod: Somewhat off topic. Based on Birtherism, how can Ted Cruz (born in Canada) run for president? I am seriously curious about that argument would be.
This was brought up in 2016. Trump used it against him. The answer is that most interpretations of the natural-born clause allow someone born outside the US to run, as long as one of their parents was a US citizen at the time of their birth. This means that even if Obama had been born in Kenya, he’d still be eligible to run due to his American mother. The birthers don’t accept this conclusion, but to my knowledge it’s the broad consensus of constitutional scholars (though it hasn’t been directly tested in court).
I’m confused. Both of those things happened. Oh, I see…it’s you that is confused.
I’ll mention the anecdote once again: According to Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, during the 1968 election when George Romney (who was born in Mexico) was running, anonymous pamphlets were showing up declaring, “Supreme Court rules: Romney not qualified to be president.” When I told my dad this story, without missing a beat he said, “Nixon wrote the pamphlet.”
Leaving aside the boring partisan responses, it’s rather bizarrely puzzling that a name as obviously bad and stupid as Disinformation Governance Board was not killed from the outset. It’s so obviously bad self-marketing. Any number of alternatives immediately leap to mind “Anti-Disinformation Unit”, “Anti foreign disinformation something or other”
As James says somewhere above, this really should be something a learning moment.
It’s baffling how self-harmingly bad the Biden people are at marketing, I had thought the Democrats and the Left would have learned a lesson by this time from the Trump experience.
I think the planning started with “let’s hire Jankowicz, and have her start planning.”
It might have been better to just never mention that this was being created until she had a chance to actually formulate plans. And then give it a longer, terrible name about Task Force Studying How To Combat Foreign Disinformation Campaigns. (The “foreign” allegedly limits scope, but these cross borders almost instantly, so not really… but it sounds nice)
One hopes the DHS is just quietly hiring someone else, who isn’t tweeting about it.
@Jay L Gischer:
At the very beginning of Russia invading Ukraine, there were a bunch of Twitter accounts posting videos of nighttime explosions and tracers. The ones I saw all used the phrase “aesthetically beautiful” to describe the visuals while also expressing a distaste for war.
The kicker was the profile pics all looked like stereotypical woke, trans activists. @libsoftiktok picked one of them up. That’s how I saw the first one. So I did a search with the weird phrase and found a bunch of recently created accounts with similar profile pics, all using similar language to express similar ideas.
The fact that the viral Libsoftiktok account, which of course generated a bunch of dumb comments from followers couldn’t be bothered to investigate a newly created account using odd English phrasing before quote-tweeting it.
The irony of your calling fine-people-gate a hoax and then accusing others of uncritically accepting people’s words isn’t lost on me.
@JustAGirl: Wait… are you finally admitting that there weren’t “fine people on both sides?” And if so, which side had the fine people? The side chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” or the side of the girl that got run over by one of the tiki torch guys?
Is there an explanation for why there were so many contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian representatives and operatives? Or the existence of Manafort? Or why everyone lied about it?
There may be a perfectly innocent explanation, but it’s never been presented. You people have had years and … nothing.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: Perhaps she means that there weren’t fine people on either side? Some statement on the fallen nature of mankind?
If you’re not a peanut, what are you doing in the gallery?
This is what folks in the peanut gallery do, at least in modern parlance.
It may interest you to know that it was also a term with racial undertones in the 19th century. But maybe you don’t care, as some of the emasculated plantation owners in the first few rows were very fine people. Many people have said that.
It’s almost like Bunge (aka, Justagirl) and JKB are filling up their talking points at the same pool of…..cough cough…..wisdom. Birds of a feather! 😛
It is hard to credit, but one is forced to conclude many Democrats in this administration, starting with the president, still have little understanding of the nature of their opposition. Again and again, they fail to anticipate the way their words or actions will be twisted by the massive Trump Republican propaganda network, and then appear bewildered by the dishonesty and ferocity of the attacks launched against them.
The existence of this board was first revealed by Mayorkas in a casual reply to a question from a Senate committee member. Within hours, it had been rechristened ‘Biden’s Ministry of Truth’ by Trump Republicans, along with a fully-developed and comprehensively fictitious account of its responsibilities.
In fact, DHS and the Director of National Intelligence were actively investigating ways to combat disinformation under the Trump Administration – see, for example the report they sponsored in Octobre 2019 Combating Targeted Disinformation Campaigns. Moreover this is not only a legitimate but a vitally important government responsibility. The example Mayorkas gave was that to get customers, people smugglers were spreading the lie that Haitian refugees were being allowed to cross the Mexican border by the US government. Obviously anything the government can do to neuter such campaigns is to be welcomed. One can easily imagine future similar situations, with malicious foreign actors spreading disinformation that American Muslims were going to have their citizenship revoked prior to being deported, or that the FBI planned to have thousands of agents conducting random checks for outstanding warrants on Blacks queueing to vote.
Instead of mounting a vigorous defense of the board’s functions and ridiculing the lies being spread about it, Mayorkas and Psaki and others went into a wholly unconvincing defensive crouch, leaving a quite out-of-her-depth Jankowicz to post some amateurish tweets that just made matters worse. All in all it was one of the administration’s most inept performances, reminiscent of the pusillanimous way the Obama Administration responded to attacks on Lois Lerner and Shirley Sherrod. It’s way past time Joe Biden got past his stunned surprise at the revelation MAGA people aren’t like his old Republican buddies last century, and employed a wartime consigliere or two.
@JustAGirl: I love that racist Dark MAGA whackjobs are crying bitter Dark MAGA tears, unable to manipulate decent people with your radical right extremist lies and 4chan propaganda.
Imagine defending birther-hoax bigot Trump, a fascist pig who mocked a disabled reporter, bragged of grabbing the crotches of other men’s wives, caused mass death and record job loss with COVID lies, denied Ukraine military to aid weaken America on Putin’s behalf, tweeted a White Power video on June 28 2020, stole and flushed classified documents, and incited the Jan 6 #MAGATerrorist attack to destroy democracy.
He also praised the neo-Confederates who marched alongside tiki torch Nazis and colluded with Russia’s cyberwar on the 2016 election: Dementia Donald publicly called for Russia to steal emails and his scampaign met with Russian spies in Trump Tower to exchange election meddling for ending sanctions. While his white supremacist advisor Bannon and Russian spy campaign manager Manafort — who helped Putin rig Ukrainian elections — coordinated propaganda cyberattacks with the Kremlin.
Your MAGA Tears won’t make Trump anything other than an unpopular narcissist, traitor, and sex predator despised by youth voters and who lost the popular vote twice by millions of votes. Keep crying, your tears are delicious.
If Nina Jankowicz is a [authoritarian] disinformation expert, why was her new board [Ministry of Truth] caught off guard and unprepared for a nefarious disinformation campaign and why didn’t she know how to counter it?
Disinformation. Yes, I’ve heard of that.