Chicago Tribune: The frustration with the new US disinformation board? Too little information


Chicago Tribune



The most troubling problem with the Biden administration’s new Disinformation Governance Board is how little information the government has released about it.

The Department of Homeland Security announced the board in late April, yet little has been forthcoming about what the board is supposed to do or how it is supposed to do it.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, an Illinois Democrat, encountered that lack of information about the initiative recently when questioning Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a budget hearing.

Underwood wanted to know what the department was doing about attempts by foreign adversaries to “destabilize our elections by targeting people of color with disinformation campaigns.”

Underwood, a former nurse who later served as a senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services, introduced legislation two years ago in response to a rising tide of “deepfakes, manipulated media and online bots” among other superspreaders of false public health and safety information.

Mayorkas cheerfully responded with a description of the formation and organizational structure of his department’s new Disinformation Governance Board, but Underwood pressed further.

“What I’ve heard you describe is internal organizations. What we are looking for is external communications with the American public.”

So are we, and we’re not alone. Lack of transparency has put Mayorkas on the hot seat as a target for conservatives, civil libertarians and Republican members of Congress, some of whom have called for the board to be disbanded.

The board’s clumsy rollout was further inflamed by a feeding frenzy, especially in conservative media, over the appointment of Nina Jankowicz, a former “disinformation fellow” at Washington’s prestigious and nonpartisan Wilson Center, a global issues think tank.

Republicans were particularly miffed by reports that Jankowicz had tweeted doubts about a pet cause of the GOP’s right wing, the New York Post’s continuing questions about the laptop that President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, admits to having left behind at a Delaware repair shop.

The Post reported on it three weeks before the 2020 presidential election as an “October surprise,” fueling an array of conspiracy theories.

Jankowicz tweeted her own disdain for the story during the October 2020 debate between presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump by belittling the laptop as “the ‘laptop from hell’ ” and saying, “apparently Biden notes 50 former natsec (National Security) officials and 5 former CIA heads that believe the laptop is a Russian influence op.”

Immediately dubbed “Biden’s disinformation czar” by conservative commenters, Jankowicz also has been slammed by the right for her recent book “How to Be a Woman Online,” in which she pushed back against “harassment” from male trolls whenever she shared opinions online.

The “infrastructure of the internet,” she writes, “is built for men.”

Whether you agree or not, she’s entitled to her own opinion. But as a new appointee, she also is obligated to be held accountable as critics draw unflattering comparisons of the new bureau to Big Brother’s “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s “1984.” Two professors noted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed the unfortunate resemblance of the Disinformation Governance Board’s initials to those of the Soviet Union’s super-secret KGB.

Questions surrounding the new board begin not only with, “What is it?” but also, “Do we need it?”

The lines between falsehoods and truthfulness are drawn in the civilian sector, not by government. So are the age-old but still critical distinctions between two often-conflicting values: freedom and security.

“We in the Department of Homeland Security,” Mayorkas said in a CNN interview, ”don’t monitor U.S. citizens.”

But, yes, they do. Created in response to the security failures that led up to the Sept. 11 attacks, DHS has broad authority to track and collect data on U.S. citizens, powers that the department has repeatedly been accused of abusing.

Just as worrisome is the legislative process in which partisans in Congress and elsewhere try to steer government watchdogs away from favored constituencies who feel particularly shy about government scrutiny.

A bracing example occurred in April 2009 when DHS officials warned police departments nationwide that “right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.”

DHS also warned, “These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists — including lone wolves or small terrorist cells — to carry out violence.”

Republican lawmakers howled that President Barack Obama’s administration was slandering our servicemen and women. Although the Obama administration issued a similar warning about left-wing extremists months earlier — and the George W. Bush administration initiated similar notices — Obama’s DHS secretary Janet Napolitano apologized, noting the warning was only an assessment, not an accusation.

Then, as now, one person’s “facts” can be another person’s “paranoid fantasies.” The larger overarching question is whether and how well can our deeply divided lawmakers calm their partisan fears and ideological differences to work together on the same side against our country’s real enemies?

We must begin with a DHS that is as transparent as possible in letting the rest of us know what it is doing, how it is doing it and whether it needs to be done in the first place. The stakes could hardly be higher.

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