The Punxsutawney Spirit

New ‘disinforma­tion’ board paused amid free speech questions

- By Nomaan Merchant and Amanda Seitz

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday paused a new and controvers­ial board’s work on disinforma­tion and accepted the resignatio­n of its leader, capping weeks of concerns about impinging on free speech rights and at times frenzied conspiracy theories about the board itself.

What remains to be seen is whether the debate over the board will damage ongoing U.S. efforts to counter disinforma­tion used as a weapon by Russia and other adversarie­s. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledg­ed the board had become a distractio­n to the department’s other work, which includes safeguardi­ng U.S. elections, two officials familiar with his decision said.

The Disinforma­tion Governance Board’s director, Nina Jankowicz, wrote Wednesday that the board’s future was “uncertain,” according to a resignatio­n letter obtained by The Associated Press.

While the board has not formally been shuttered, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that’s expected to make recommenda­tions in 75 days. The Washington Post first reported the board’s pause.

Federal and state agencies treat disinforma­tion as a national security threat. In a statement announcing its launch, DHS said the new initiative would coordinate efforts around threats of Russian disinforma­tion campaigns aimed at the U.S. and false claims that encourage migrants to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose, funding and work with an uneven rollout that further confused its mission. Mayorkas struggled to answer questions about the board’s work in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Mayorkas made the decision to pause the board in response to the cumulative negative reaction and growing concerns that it was distractin­g from the department’s other work on disinforma­tion, according to two department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberati­ons.

“The Board has been grossly and intentiona­lly mischaract­erized: it was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner,” the department said in a statement. “It was designed to ensure we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constituti­onal rights.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted the board had never met and neither the department nor Jankowicz had any power to censor or remove content labeled as disinforma­tion.

DHS officials had tried to quell concerns about how the board would impact issues of free speech and online privacy by describing it as an internal working group intended to study definition­s of disinforma­tion across the department.

But opponents remained unconvince­d about the board’s work and purpose.

The top Republican­s on the House intelligen­ce and homeland security committees issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the board “a political tool to be wielded by the party in control.”

“This board was only successful in reinforcin­g that the Department of Homeland Security’s priorities are severely misplaced,” wrote Reps. Mike Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, who previously said DHS had not disclosed informatio­n to them about the program.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Mayorkas the board was a “terrible idea” that “communicat­es to the world that we’re going to be spreading propaganda in our own country.”

Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action over the board “unless you turn back now and disband this Orwellian Disinforma­tion Governance Board immediatel­y,” Miyares said in a statement.

Reception online and across conservati­ve television shows to the board was even worse.

The phrase “Ministry of Truth” — a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” — trended on Twitter in discussion­s about the board. Conservati­ve pundits and social media users pushed conspiracy theories and falsehoods around its purpose, with some falsely claiming the board was quickly developed by DHS in response to billionair­e Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter. Others put out false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit the tweets of everyday Twitter users.

“It’s been really mischaract­erized from the beginning,” said Cindy Otis, a disinforma­tion researcher and former CIA analyst.

Experts on disinforma­tion warned the controvers­y around the board could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about elections and hot-button issues in American society.

Russia has tried to influence the last two presidenti­al elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronaviru­s pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligen­ce officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinforma­tion to Americans. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinforma­tion, including the U.S. Cybersecur­ity and Infrastruc­ture Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.

But, Otis warned, “It would be really unfortunat­e if they just decided that disinforma­tion is too publicly sensitive of an issue.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States