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Monday, September 26, 2022

A partisan battle erupts over the creation of a new disinformation board

When Nina Jankowicz published her new book, “How to Be a Woman Online,” she detailed the abuse she and other women had received from trolls and other malicious actors. A fresh round of criticism has been launched against her, this time in response to her nomination to the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Board on the issue of misinformation..

The establishment of a board, which was announced last week, has devolved into a political debate about the nature of misinformation — and what role, if any, the government should have in regulating misleading, poisonous, and often violent material that appears on the internet.

The board was attacked as Orwellian within hours of its debut, with Republican senators accusing the Biden administration of forming a “Orwellian Ministry of Truth” to regulate people’s beliefs. A pair of academicians who wrote an opinion editorial for The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the acronym for the new Disinformation Governance Board was just “one letter away from KGB” (the former Soviet security agency), which was used to refer to the Soviet Union’s security service.

Mayorkas has found himself in a precarious position as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to him, the new board is a tiny group with little operational power or competence, and it will not spy on Americans, according to a CNN television interview broadcast Sunday.

Mr. Mayorkas’s assurances were unable to soothe the uproar, highlighting how contentious the fight over misinformation has gotten in recent years. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, responded to a volley of queries about the board on Monday by stating that it was a continuation of work that the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had began in 2020, during the previous administration.

Its primary mission is to coordinate the Department of Homeland Security’s response to the potential consequences of disinformation threats, which include foreign election interference, such as Russia’s in 2016 and again in 2020, efforts by smugglers to encourage migrants to cross the border, and online posts that could incite extremist acts of violence. Ms. Psaki did not provide any further information on how the government will define what constitutes extremist material on the internet in the future. Although “a lot of this work is actually about work that people may not see every day that is occurring by the Department of Homeland Security,” she added, the board would consider making its findings on misinformation public if it received enough requests.

Her book and public remarks imply that condescending and sexist speech online may be a precursor to violence and other criminal activities IRL — precisely the kind of threats that were intended to be monitored by this board. Her book draws on research on the harsh reactions that notable women have had, notably Vice President Kamala Harris after her candidacy for President of the United States in 2020.

The board started working discreetly two months ago, with officials from other areas of the enormous agency filling in on a part-time basis. According to John Cohen, the former acting head of the department’s intelligence branch, the Homeland Security Department made the decision to form the board last year after completing a study in the summer that recommended the formation of a group to review questions of privacy and civil liberty for online content.

Once the board has completed its study of policy questions, it will be required to submit recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland Security on how different agencies should conduct online content analysis while protecting the civil liberties of Americans, as well as on how widely the findings of that analysis should be shared with the public.

It was announced on Monday that the board will monitor “disinformation disseminated by foreign powers such as Russia, China, and Iran or other enemies such as transnational criminal organisations and people smuggling groups,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Aside from that, the statement noted examples of misinformation that may spread during natural disasters, such as erroneous information regarding the safety of drinking water after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Not for the first time, officials at the Department of Homeland Security have identified misinformation as a potential danger to the country’s security. The Department of Homeland Security joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in issuing terrorist alerts, warning that false information regarding the 2020 election and the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, might empower domestic extremists in the United States.

Herr Mayorkas defended Ms. Jankowicz, stating that she was “a famous specialist” who was “exceptionally competent” to advise the department on security concerns that grow in the fertile environment of the internet, among other things. At the same time, he admitted that the board’s announcement — which was announced in a straightforward news release last week — had been handled incorrectly.

For many years, Ms. Jankowicz has been a well-known critic on misinformation and propaganda. Working for the National Democratic Institute, an associate of the National Endowment for Democracy that supports democratic administration worldwide, and as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, she has a diverse range of experience.

In 2017, she served as an advisor to the Ukrainian government while on sabbatical as a Fulbright scholar. Her book, “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict,” which was published in 2020, was about Russia’s weaponization of information and the future of conflict. It expressed concern that governments were badly prepared and ill equipped to deal with misinformation campaigns.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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