The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Disinformation Governance Board is a bad name and a sillier idea

The Department of Homeland Security logo is seen during a news conference in Washington on Feb. 25, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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Nothing is more important to the future of our democracy than the fight against disinformation. But a new Department of Homeland Security unit — ominously called the Disinformation Governance Board — is not helping. To the contrary, it only promises to provide aid and comfort to the enemies of truth.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas should pull the plug on the new board. Like, yesterday. And never speak of it again.

The problems begin with the worst name I’ve ever heard the federal government come up with, and that’s saying something. Disinformation Governance Board? To call the unit’s name Orwellian is an insult to George Orwell, who was a masterful prose stylist and who wrote a famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” railing against sins such as “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.”

I can see how disinformation requires monitoring. I can see how it requires fact-checking and refutation. But governance? How do you govern lies?

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Beyond the issue of the name is the still-mystifying question about what the board is supposed to do. At congressional hearings this past week, Mayorkas veered from pitching it as an effort to counteract Russian-style meddling in our elections to portraying it as an effort to protect Spanish-speaking migrants from lies told by the criminals who smuggle them into the country. He failed to make clear exactly how the board was supposed to accomplish either of these tasks.

“I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” Mayorkas said Sunday on CNN.

Where he didn’t do much better.

“What it will do is gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from the cartels, and disseminate those best practices to the operators that have been executing in addressing this threat for years,” Mayorkas explained. Perhaps he’d enjoy a nice balsamic vinaigrette to go with that word salad.

He did make clear Sunday that the board is a “small working group,” that it has no “operational authority or capability” and that it will be focused on foreign threats, not domestic ones. If that’s true, why does it need to exist?

Perhaps there are similarities between the way criminal people-smuggling rings have lied to Central American migrants and the way Russia has meddled in our elections. To me, those appear to be different problems requiring different solutions. And it seems unlikely, to say the least, that both of those solutions can be found by a small “governance board” with no actual power.

Republicans, understandably, are having a field day. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should be having to explain his lies about what he said to and about former president Donald Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Instead, he took to Twitter to compare the governance board to the fictional “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s novel “1984.”

I don’t believe for a minute that the purpose of the board is to somehow police the speech of American citizens. But in the absence of a clear statement of mission and vision from Mayorkas — or, for that matter, anyone in the Biden administration — the far right is practically being invited to portray the Disinformation Governance Board as part of a vast (and imaginary) conspiracy to censor conservative voices.

Those complaining loudest about being squelched have millions of followers on social media and are quoted all the time by mainstream news organizations. But irony doesn’t live here anymore.

Disinformation is, indeed, a potentially mortal threat to our democracy. State and federal courts across the nation established in a host of rulings that the 2020 election was unaffected by fraud and that it was won by Joe Biden. Yet tens of millions of Americans believe the election was “rigged” and “stolen” — because of the lies told by Trump and his supporters.

Solutions to the disinformation problem must be found — but surely not by some Department of Homeland Security panel, given the First Amendment’s prohibition against government abridgment of free speech.

Media organizations are incentivized to tell the truth by their exposure to civil lawsuits, and potential fines, if they commit offenses such as libel or defamation. Social media platforms would permit users to spread a lot less disinformation, and would be quicker to avoid amplifying it, if they faced those same liabilities.

What we need to do, then, is look at the laws holding social media unaccountable for the damaging falsehoods spread by users. What we don’t need is a government board to “govern” disinformation, even if the intent is not to police domestic speech.

Mayorkas should set up Working Group I for the people-smuggling problem and Working Group II for the Russia problem. No fancy names, please.

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