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The tempest over DHS’s Disinformation Governance Board

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The Department of Homeland Security’s creation of a Disinformation Governance Board has set off a backlash on the right — even as it’s not entirely clear what the perhaps unfortunately named board will do.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas mentioned the creation of the board in multiple congressional hearings last week. In one, he linked it to efforts to combat misinformation from human smugglers. In another, he said it would be used to counter Russian cyber and election misinformation: “We have just established a mis- and disinformation governance board in the Department of Homeland Security to more effectively combat this threat, not only to election security but to our homeland security.”

Amid growing anti-censorship fervor on the right, a bevy of Republicans have suggested that the initiative amounts to policing speech. Elon Musk declared it “messed up.” Many on the right likened it to the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s book “1984.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on May 1 responded to critics calling a new department initiative a violation of free speech. (Video: The Washington Post)

They’ve also questioned the fitness of the board’s executive director, Nina Jankowicz, who has in the past supported Democrats, praised efforts to crack down on coronavirus misinformation on social media and expressed skepticism about the provenance of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

“Rather than police our border, Homeland Security has decided to make policing Americans’ speech its top priority,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) claimed.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) offered some more toned-down skepticism, citing his own work on combating foreign misinformation.

“I do not believe that the United States government should turn the tools that we have used to assist our allies counter foreign adversaries onto the American people,” Portman said. “Our focus should be on bad actors like Russia and China, not our own citizens.”

But there were (and remain) relatively few details on what the board will actually do. DHS didn’t issue many specifics — including whether and how much it might monitor disinformation from “our own citizens” and whether what it would do would amount to “policing" (both of which it later said the board wouldn’t do). It didn’t initially provide much information late last week, amid repeated inquiries. Despite Republicans’ expressed concern, they didn’t press Mayorkas in much detail at hearings Wednesday and Thursday. And the DHS does have a history of tackling disinformation, including during the Trump administration.

Under questioning from Democrats, Mayorkas said the board was part of an effort whose “goal is to bring the resources of the department together to address this threat,” specifically citing misinformation disseminated to Spanish speakers. In a separate hearing, he mentioned it briefly as part of efforts to combat Russian misinformation.

Ultimately, Mayorkas conceded Sunday that DHS “could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t.” He called it an “internal working group" and said it wouldn’t, in fact, monitor Americans.

“The board does not have any operational authority or capability,” he said. “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.”

Before those clarifications, the National Review’s Jim Geraghty filled in some of the blanks in writing Thursday about how the board could do some good things, depending upon its mandate:

In theory, this proposal doesn’t have to be a terrible idea, in that [it] is allegedly designed to rebut “human smuggling organizations peddling misinformation to exploit vulnerable migrants for profit,” as well as monitoring messages from terrorist and extremist groups. Wherever you stand on illegal immigration, we should all oppose coyotes and human smugglers taking advantage of people. And since at least 2014, the U.S. has been bedeviled by the perception in some Central American countries that the United States is offering “permisos” for children who cross the border illegally — a rumor that picked up steam after President Obama announced he would not deport children who had come into the country illegally with their parents. If this new DHS group spends its time publicly declaring that there are no special, secret, or little-known loopholes for migrants who wish to enter the U.S., it will do some good.

But Geraghty argued, along with others on the right, that Jankowicz’s inclusion in the effort was a red flag.

In last week’s hearings, Republicans didn’t dwell upon what the effort would entail — apart from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), in a pair of very brief exchanges, attacking both the concept and Jankowicz’s role.

Jordan pressed Mayorkas on alleged misinformation from health officials like Anthony S. Fauci and those who doubted the provenance of Hunter Biden’s laptop. He asked whether the board would look into those things. Mayorkas indicated its mandate was narrower than that: focusing on threats to the homeland.

“Congressman, the Disinformation Board addresses disinformation that imperils the safety and security of our homeland,” Mayorkas said. “And one of the primary areas that we are focused on is the dissemination of disinformation and its … connectivity to violence.”

Separately, Jordan suggested that Jankowicz would be a particularly poor choice to lead the effort. Jankowicz, like many, had expressed reservations in late 2020 about whether Hunter Biden’s laptop was disinformation.

In one tweet during a 2020 presidential debate, she summarized Donald Trump’s argument by saying, “Back on the ‘laptop from hell,’ apparently- Biden notes 50 former natsec officials and 5 former CIA heads that believe the laptop is a Russian influence op.” She was separately quoted as saying of the laptop, “We should view it as a Trump campaign product” because of top Trump allies’ role in pushing it.

Republicans have argued with gusto that the story was overzealously dismissed as potential Russian disinformation. A thorough Post investigation recently validated thousands of emails from the laptop as apparently authentic.

As that report noted, though, the “vast majority of the data” could not be verified, and new folders had been created on the drive after the laptop was taken into FBI custody. And as The Post’s Philip Bump noted, even the computer repairman who handed over the laptop has said that certain claims about what’s on it don’t reflect what he initially saw.

There is no question that Trump allies were instrumental in sharing it and were stingy with reporters’ efforts to verify it in real time; Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted to wanting to avoid subjecting the information to scrutiny, and the contents were not shared with other outlets after the New York Post first reported on it. In addition, the presence of verified data doesn’t rule out other data being disinformation.

Jankowicz added at the time that “the emails don’t need to be altered to be part of an influence campaign. Voters deserve that context, not a fairly tale about a laptop repair shop.”

Certainly, one could take issue with how social media companies handled the story — including limiting how it was shared — or with Jankowicz’s comments. But Jordan’s contention that she said the “Hunter Biden laptop story was false” oversimplifies both the verification of the information and her argument — as she said in response to critics Wednesday.

Jankowicz added in a separate tweet Wednesday that “one of the key reasons the Board was established, is to maintain the [DHS’s] commitment to protecting free speech, privacy, civil rights, & civil liberties.”

Which brings us back to the Disinformation Governance Board. The episode carries echoes of late last year: At the time, Republicans cast a Justice Department memo on combating threats against school board members as targeting parents who had participated in peaceful protests — even though the Justice Department said no such thing and emphasized that it would deal only with actual threats.

One could object to the federal government taking a role in this and worry about the effort going too far, potentially chilling speech — just as one can worry today about the federal government getting into the truth-deciding business. But the stated purpose of the effort was quite different from how it was cast by its opponents. And today, there is no real evidence that DHS plans to crack down on ordinary citizens spreading misinformation online, for instance. The two specific examples cited last week involved human smugglers and Russians.

(It’s also worth noting that the Trump administration’s DHS undertook similar efforts; in 2018 it created the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which dealt extensively with the spread of misinformation online — including both foreign interference in elections and the domestic spread of coronavirus misinformation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the new board would be “a continuation of the work of the former president” when asked about it Friday.)

Another parallel to last year’s school boards controversy may be instructive here: Back then, Republicans pointed to a letter from the National School Boards Association that preceded the Justice Department memo, linking such threats to “domestic terrorism.” The NSBA soon apologized for its choice of language. Republicans suggested that the department should also withdraw its memo. “Their letter doesn’t recant their concerns about safety,” Attorney General Merrick Garland responded. “It recants some of the language in their letter, which I never adopted.”

Somewhat similarly, the name “Disinformation Governance Board” does sound a bit ominous; it sounds less like an effort to combat disinformation rather than to, well, govern it. That choice of language plays into efforts to cast the initiative as something more than what the available evidence suggests.

But it would certainly be nice to know more about what precisely it is — and what it will do.

This post has been updated with Mayorkas’s comments this weekend.