On the morning of April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the first Disinformation Governance Board with the stated goal to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security.” The Biden administration tapped Nina Jankowicz, a well-known figure in the field of fighting disinformation and extremism, as the board’s executive director.
In naming the 33-year-old Jankowicz to run the newly created board, the administration chose someone with extensive experience in the field of disinformation, which has emerged as an urgent and important issue. The author of the books “How to Be a Woman Online” and “How to Lose the Information War,” her career also featured stints at multiple nonpartisan think tanks and nonprofits and included work that focused on strengthening democratic institutions. Within the small community of disinformation researchers, her work was well-regarded.
But within hours of news of her appointment, Jankowicz was thrust into the spotlight by the very forces she dedicated her career to combating. The board itself and DHS received criticism for both its somewhat ominous name and scant details of specific mission (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it “could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t”), but Jankowicz was on the receiving end of the harshest attacks, with her role mischaracterized as she became a primary target on the right-wing Internet. She has been subject to an unrelenting barrage of harassment and abuse while unchecked misrepresentations of her work continue to go viral.
Now, just three weeks after its announcement, the Disinformation Governance Board is being “paused,” according to multiple employees at DHS, capping a back-and-forth week of decisions that changed during the course of reporting of this story. On Monday, DHS decided to shut down the board, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. By Tuesday morning, Jankowicz had drafted a resignation letter in response to the board’s dissolution.
But Tuesday night, Jankowicz was pulled into an urgent call with DHS officials who gave her the choice to stay on, even as the department’s work was put on hold because of the backlash it faced, according to multiple people with knowledge of the call. Working groups within DHS focused on mis-, dis- and mal-information have been suspended. The board could still be shut down pending a review from the Homeland Security Advisory Council. On Wednesday morning, Jankowicz officially resigned from her role within the department.
“Nina Jankowicz has been subjected to unjustified and vile personal attacks and physical threats,” a DHS spokesperson told The Washington Post in a statement. “In congressional hearings and in media interviews, the Secretary has repeatedly defended her as eminently qualified and underscored the importance of the Department’s disinformation work, and he will continue to do so.”
Jankowicz has not spoken publicly about her position since the day it was announced.
Jankowicz’s experience is a prime example of how the right-wing Internet apparatus operates, where far-right influencers attempt to identify a target, present a narrative and then repeat mischaracterizations across social media and websites with the aim of discrediting and attacking anyone who seeks to challenge them. It also shows what happens when institutions, when confronted with these attacks, don’t respond effectively.
Those familiar with the board’s inner workings, including DHS employees and Capitol Hill staffers, along with experts on disinformation, say Jankowicz was set up to fail by an administration that was unsure of its messaging and unprepared to counteract a coordinated online campaign against her.
A disastrous rollout
Just hours after Jankowicz tweeted about her new job, far-right influencer Jack Posobiec posted tweets accusing the Biden administration of creating a “Ministry of Truth.” Posobiec’s 1.7 million followers quickly sprung into action. By the end of the day, there were at least 53,235 posts on Twitter mentioning “Disinformation Governance Board,” many referencing Jankowicz by name, according to a report by Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts public-interest research. In the days following, that number skyrocketed.
Cat's out of the bag: here's what I've been up to the past two months, and why I've been a bit quiet on here.— Nina Jankowicz 🇺🇦🇺🇸 (@wiczipedia) April 27, 2022
Honored to be serving in the Biden Administration @DHSgov and helping shape our counter-disinformation efforts. https://t.co/uN20vl7qqV pic.twitter.com/JEn4FqLdck
The board was created to study best practices in combating the harmful effects of disinformation and to help DHS counter viral lies and propaganda that could threaten domestic security. Unlike the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s “1984” that became a derogatory comparison point, neither the board nor Jankowicz had any power or ability to declare what is true or false, or compel Internet providers, social media platforms or public schools to take action against certain types of speech. In fact, the board itself had no power or authority to make any operational decisions.
“The Board’s purpose has been grossly mischaracterized; it will not police speech,” the DHS spokesperson said. “Quite the opposite, its focus is to ensure that freedom of speech is protected.”
Posobiec’s early tweets shaped the narrative and Jankowicz was positioned as the primary target. Republican lawmakers echoed Posobiec’s framing and amplified it to their audiences. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is a U.S. Senate hopeful, and Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) both posted tweets similar to Posobiec’s. Former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also posted a video repeating Posobiec’s statements.
The week following the announcement, approximately 70 percent of Fox News’s one-hour segments mentioned either Jankowicz or the board, with correspondents frequently deriding the board as a “Ministry of Truth,” according to Advance Democracy. The Fox News coverage was referenced in some of the most popular posts on Facebook and Twitter criticizing Jankowicz.
Dozens of websites including Breitbart, the Post Millennial, the Daily Caller and the New York Post began mining Jankowicz’s past social media posts and publishing articles to generate controversy. Some were simply mocking, making fun of her for parodying a song from “Mary Poppins” to talk about misinformation. In another instance, a performance where Jankowicz sings a popular musical theater song about a person’s desire to become rich and powerful was misrepresented to imply that Jankowicz herself was after money and power and would sleep with men to get it.
As this online campaign played out, DHS and the Biden administration struggled to counter the repeated attacks.
The weekend after her hiring was announced, Mayorkas attempted to clarify the board’s mission and defended Jankowicz’s credentials. He did a round of TV news interviews and testified about the board during House and Senate committee hearings. A forceful defense of Jankowicz was noticeably absent online, where the attacks against her were concentrated. White House press secretary Jen Psaki debunked false claims about the board during two news briefings and touted Jankowicz as “an expert on online disinformation,” but it had little effect on the growing campaign against her.
“These smears leveled by bad-faith, right-wing actors against a deeply qualified expert and against efforts to better combat human smuggling and domestic terrorism are disgusting,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates told The Post on Tuesday.
As she endured the attacks, Jankowicz was told to stay silent. After attempting to defend herself on Twitter April 27, she was told by DHS officials to not issue any further public statements, according to multiple people close to her.
Democratic lawmakers, legislative staff and other administration employees who sought to defend Jankowicz were caught flat-footed. Administration officials did not brief the relevant congressional staff and committees ahead of the board’s launch, and members of Congress who had expressed interest in disinformation weren’t given a detailed explanation about how it would operate. A fact sheet released by DHS on May 2 did nothing to quell the outrage that had been building on the Internet, nor did it clarify much of what the board would actually be doing or Jankowicz’s role in it.
DHS staffers have also grown frustrated. With the department’s suspension of intra-departmental working groups focused on mis-, dis- and mal-information, some officials said it was an overreaction that gave too much credence to bad-faith actors. A 15-year veteran of the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, called the DHS response to the controversy “mind-boggling.” “I’ve never seen the department react like this before,” he said.
A textbook disinformation campaign
Experts say that right-wing disinformation and smear campaigns regularly follow the same playbook and that it’s crucial that the public and leaders of institutions, especially in the government, the media and educational bodies, understand more fully how these cycles operate.
The campaigns invariably start with identifying a person to characterize as a villain. Attacking faceless institutions is difficult, so a figurehead (almost always a woman or person of color) is found to serve as its face. Whether that person has actual power within that institution is often immaterial. By discrediting those made to represent institutions they seek to bring down, they discredit the institution itself.
Harassment and reputational harm is core to the attack strategy. Institutions often treat reputational harm and online attacks as a personnel matter, one that unlucky employees should simply endure quietly.
Jankowicz’s case is a perfect example of this system at work, said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They try to define people by these single, decontextualized moments,” Brooking said. “In Nina’s case it’s a few TikTok videos, or one or two comments out of thousands of public appearances. They fixate on these small instances and they define this villain.”
The worst thing any institution can do in the face of such attacks is remain quiet, several disinformation researchers said.
“You never want to be silent, because then the people putting out the disinformation own the narrative,” said Mark Jacobson, assistant dean at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, who has researched propaganda, political warfare and disinformation for over 30 years. “You need to have a factual and equally emotional counternarrative. A fact sheet is not a narrative.”
Not responding with a highly compelling counternarrative, or not getting out ahead of these campaigns to begin with, Jacobson explained, can “give them an air of legitimacy.” He said he was frustrated by the Biden administration’s lack of a loud and vocal response to what Jankowicz was going through. “Saying it’s amateur hour is cliche, but it’s amateur hour,” he said of the administration’s inaction.
The fallout from the campaign against Jankowicz can be seen in the escalating attacks. Violent threats against her are flourishing online, according to Advance Democracy. Users on far-right social media platforms continue to use misogynistic and bigoted language in posts about Jankowicz, with many users calling for violence.
In response to one post on Gab featuring a video of Tucker Carlson discussing Jankowicz, users commented: “Time to kill them all.” Another post featuring Carlson’s coverage of Jankowicz was shared to a right-wing forum with the caption “This is the point where we have to draw the line.” Comments said Jankowicz should be “greeted with Mr. 12 Gauge Slugs.” An April 30 post on Gab featuring a tweet by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) telling her followers “this is the hill to die on” sparked replies that were flooded with threats to Jankowicz’s life. “It’d be easier if we had a large group of trained assassins to take a lot of the [government] bastards out first,” one user wrote.
“The irony is that Nina’s role was to come up with strategies for the department to counter this type of campaign, and now they’ve just succumbed to it themselves,” said one Hill staffer with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the issue. “They didn’t even fight, they just rolled over.”
DHS staffers worried that the way Jankowicz’s situation was mishandled could hurt their ability to recruit talent at a time when white nationalist violence is thriving and the midterm elections are approaching.
“We’re going to need another Nina down the road,” said one DHS staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not at liberty to comment. “And anyone who takes that position is going to be vulnerable to a disinformation campaign or attack.”