The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has paused a new government board’s work on disinformation and accepted the resignation of its leader, capping weeks of argument about free speech rights in the US and a frenzy of conspiracy theories.
Former disinformation governance board director Nina Jankowicz told the Associated Press hours after resigning on Wednesday that a wave of attacks and violent threats she has fielded since the board’s launch will not stop her from speaking out about disinformation campaigns pulsing through the social media feeds of Americans.
“We need to have a grownup conversation about how to deal with threats to our national security and that’s not what happened here,” Jankowicz said. “I’m not going to be silenced.”
What remains to be seen is how the board’s disastrous rollout and ensuing criticism around it will damage ongoing US efforts to counter disinformation used as a weapon by Russia and other adversaries.
The homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, acknowledged the board’s controversy had become a distraction to the department’s other work, which includes safeguarding US elections, two officials familiar with his decision said.
While the board has not formally been closed down, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that is expected to make recommendations in 75 일. 워싱턴 포스트 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 US and false claims that encourage migrants to travel to the US-Mexico border.
The new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose, funding and work that Mayorkas struggled to answer even as he appeared in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Mayorkas made the decision to pause the board after the negative reaction and growing concerns that it was hindering DHS’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.”
The 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 affect 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 have attacked the board’s work and purpose.
The top Republicans on the House intelligence and homeland security committees issued a joint statement on 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 Representatives Mike Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, who previously said DHS had not disclosed information to them about the program.
Senator 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 patently 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. US intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans.
DHS has several programs to counter disinformation, including the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.
그러나, Otis warned: “It would be really unfortunate if they just decided that disinformation is too publicly sensitive of an issue.”
Jankowicz, 너무, became the center of sexist and antisemitic attacks, and even death threats online.
Jankowicz said on Wednesday that she was reporting violent threats that came in daily through phone calls, emails or Twitter messages.
“It was horrible. It was constant," 그녀가 말했다. “That’s obviously really scary and really unpleasant. I was trying to do important work to protect Americans from a real threat.”