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Opinion Ignore the hysteria over the Disinformation Governance Board

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a House committee hearing on April 28. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Despite what some in the Republican congressional leadership might tell you, the Department of Homeland Security is not starting up a “Ministry of Truth.” But the agency should be as transparent as possible about what its Disinformation Governance Board actually will be up to.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spent the weekend trying to mop up after his department’s botched announcement of a newly launched group tasked with countering the spread of false narratives. The rollout was ham-handed: With only mentions of this ill-defined entity’s existence and little explanation of its mission or the scope of its authority, conservatives were free to turn the board into a boogeyman in their broader anti-censorship crusade. But the reality isn’t nearly so scary as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) invocation of George Orwell’s “1984” would suggest.

The Disinformation Governance Board, (whose acronym is the Soviet-sounding DGB) is supposed to aid coordination among DHS offices as they counter viral lies and propaganda that pose a threat to domestic security. Done right, this is a useful function. Mr. Mayorkas mentioned campaigns by human smugglers targeting migrants to trick the Haitian community into thinking they could enter the United States without risk of deportation. Russia’s persistent efforts to influence U.S. elections are well known. Studying the “best practices” for stymying these attempts and sharing them with government actors could do a great deal of good.

What the board is not tasked to do is to establish what is true and what is false, or to push Internet services or anyone else to rake a tougher line on expression in general. Indeed, the board has no operational authority at all.

Already, components of the agency are gathering knowledge about what rumors are circulating so that they might respond. They, as well as government actors charged with disseminating the facts to debunk popular falsehoods or with educating citizens on how to avoid being fooled in the first place, need to know how to execute their roles effectively — as well as how to do so without infringing on civil liberties. The board is supposed to ensure that these government authorities — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it counters scammers following natural disasters to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as it instructs critical infrastructure companies on how to secure themselves against hackers — respect human rights.

The problem is that even after Mr. Mayorkas’s clarifications concerning the board, the particulars weren’t really clear at all. More details later released by the department have helped, but transparency will be essential as the group goes about its work. As long as fair-minded observers have to guess at what the board’s role is, players who have more nefarious agendas will have ample opportunity to, yes, spread disinformation. The most effective way of reassuring the public about the DGB is to continue to share more about the DGB. And, perhaps, to choose a better name.