On Wednesday, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., grilled Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on his department’s new initiative to combat disinformation, implying — falsely, as Mayorkas stated in response — that “the government’s going to tell us what’s true.”
It’s been about a week since Mayorkas formally announced the new initiative, called the Disinformation Governance Board, and it’s already been problematic, to say the least. And while the usual extreme right-wing firebrands are getting a lot of information very wrong in their reactive statements about the initiative, the complaints do raise a valuable point: Americans deserve more information about this initiative and any government efforts to regulate speech.
Despite speculation from folks like Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard, there’s no evidence the Disinformation Governance Board is going to become a dystopian “Ministry of Truth.” In fact, based on the limited information that has been released so far, it doesn’t sound that different from existing government initiatives that study and respond to disinformation, particularly related to foreign influence operations. Still, it’s a bit embarrassing that we had to wait for Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis to get up in arms for DHS to get its act together on communicating to the public.
It’s a bit embarrassing that we had to wait for Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis to get up in arms for DHS to get its act together on communicating to the public.
From the start, Mayorkas didn’t provide much information about the board, aside from its slightly creepy name, which led policymakers, media commentators and the Twitterati to attack the initiative, stirring up a storm of rumors and (ironically) misinformation, fueled by a lack of concrete information. The negative backlash has even led to harassment against the new head of the board, disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz, who coincidentally just published a book titled “How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back.”
Disinformation is an urgent and complex problem with grave national security implications. The term specifically pertains to false or misleading information that is deliberately shared with a goal to influence people, often for reasons that many would find harmful (so not, as Kennedy suggested, for situations like former president Bill Clinton lying under oath about his Monica Lewinsky affair). Disinformation has led to grievous social harm in the United States, from vaccine disinformation that worsens Covid-19 outcomes to political disinformation that threatens the integrity of our elections.
Various agencies in U.S. defense, intelligence and law enforcement have been involved in fighting the spread of disinformation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Foreign Influence Task Force was established in 2017 to combat foreign influence operations, including disinformation campaigns. And of course, information operations have been part of warfare likely since warfare began. Recently the U.S. has declassified intelligence information to preempt and disrupt Putin’s strategies in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Combating disinformation is not even that new for DHS. One of the perhaps most influential government agencies working on disinformation today is DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which has worked on a number of initiatives, particularly related to election security and critical infrastructure. It is likely that the new board will have similar objectives and capacities to existing government programs to fight disinformation.
At its core, the blowback picks up on some key problems with any government program that seeks to regulate speech.
Clearly, DHS needs to do more, starting with giving the public information to dispel these rumors and explain its objectives and legal guardrails for the program. On Monday, the department released a fact sheet that responds to some of the concerns. Notably, the statement calls this new program a “working group” eight times, including in the title of the document. The much-maligned name, Disinformation Governance Board, gets a single mention. This is a smart move; DHS should consider renaming the working group entirely, both to fight against misinformed rumors and also to more accurately portray the nature of the program.
At its core, the blowback picks up on some key problems with any government program that seeks to regulate speech. America’s First Amendment free speech values are the foundation of this nation, and it is right to be concerned when threats to freedom of speech emerge. It is scary to think about any government agency taking on the power to be the sole arbiter of truth, and we have constitutional protections and political checks and balances in place to try to prevent that kind of government overreach.
So far, it does not appear that the new DHS initiative is going to be a serious threat to freedom of speech. But the unfortunate fumbling of the rollout is another reminder that the Biden administration needs to do more to effectively communicate to the public. It shows that acting with too much caution and hedging too many bets can lead to the kinds of mixed messaging problems we saw here. See also the mixed messaging confusion around Covid policies and the back-and-forth on student loan forgiveness.
2024 is coming soon, and the Biden administration needs to quickly shore up its messaging abilities if it wants to effectively communicate with the American people. We just got a glimpse of what will happen if it doesn’t.