Nina Jankowicz’s new book, How to Be a Woman Online, recounts the vitriol she and other women have faced from trolls and other malign actors. She is now at the center of a new firestorm of criticism, this time for her appointment to lead an advisory board at the Department of Homeland Security on the threat of disinformation.
The creation of a board, announced last week, has turned into a partisan fight over disinformation itself, and what role, if any, the government should have in policing fake content, sometimes toxic and even violent online.
Within hours of the announcement, Republican lawmakers began criticizing the board as Orwellian, accusing the Biden administration of creating a “Ministry of Truth” to police people’s thoughts. Two professors who wrote an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal noted that the abbreviation for the new Disinformation Governance Board was just “a letter from the KGB,” the security service of the Soviet Union.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has found himself on the defensive. In a television interview on CNN on Sunday, he insisted that the new board was a small group, had no authority or operational capacity, and would not spy on Americans.
“We at the Department of Homeland Security do not monitor American citizens,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas’ reassurance did little to quell the furor, underscoring just how partisan the disinformation debate has become. Facing a round of questions about the board Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it represented a continuation of the work the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had begun in 2020, under the administration. previous.
His focus is coordinating the department’s response to the potential impacts of disinformation threats, including foreign electoral influence, such as from Russia in 2016 and again in 2020; smugglers’ efforts to encourage migrants to cross the border; and online posts that could incite extremist attacks. Ms. Psaki did not elaborate on how the department would define what constitutes extremist content online. She said the board would consider making its disinformation findings public, though “a lot of this work is really about work that people may not see every day that is being done by the Department of Homeland Security.”
Many of those who criticized the board reviewed Ms. Jankowicz’s earlier statements, online and offline, accusing her of being hostile to conservative views. They suggested, without foundation, that she would stifle legally protected speech using a partisan calculus.
Two senior Republicans on the House homeland security and intelligence committees, Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, cited recent comments he made about the laptops of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and about Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter. as proof of partiality.
Ms Jankowicz, 33, has suggested in her book and in public statements that patronizing and misogynistic content online may be a prelude to violence and other illegal acts offline, the kind of threat the board was created. to monitor. Her book cites research on backlash that prominent women, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have faced after her 2020 nomination.
Ms. Jankowicz has called on social media companies and law enforcement agencies to take stronger action against online abuse. Such views have prompted warnings that the government should not police online content; It has also motivated Musk, who has said he wants to buy Twitter to free its users from onerous restrictions that she says violate free speech.
“I shudder to think, if free speech absolutists took over more platforms, what would that look like for marginalized communities around the world, who are already enduring much of this abuse, disproportionate amounts of this abuse?” Ms. Jankowicz said. NPR in an interview last week about her new book, referring to those experiencing online attacks, especially women and people of color.
AN cheep she sent, using a portion of that quote, was quoted by Mr. Turner and Mr. Katko in their letter to Mr. Mayorkas. The note requested “all documents and communications” regarding the creation of the board and the appointment of Ms. Jankowicz as its executive director.
The board began working quietly two months ago, staffed part-time by officials from other parts of the large department.
According to a statement issued Monday, the department said the board would monitor “disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations.” The statement also cited misinformation that can spread during natural disasters, such as misinformation about the safety of drinking water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
It is not the first time that the Department of Homeland Security has moved to identify disinformation as a threat facing the national territory. The department joined the FBI in issuing terrorism bulletins warning that falsehoods about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots could embolden domestic extremists.
Mr. Mayorkas has defended Ms. Jankowicz, calling her “a renowned expert” who was “eminently qualified” to advise the department on security threats germinating in the fertile online atmosphere. At the same time, she acknowledged mishandling the board’s announcement, made in a simple press release last week.
“I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and what it doesn’t do,” he told CNN.
Ms. Jankowicz has been a family commentator on misinformation for years. She worked for the National Democratic Institute, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy that promotes democratic governance abroad, and served as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
As a Fulbright scholar, she worked as an adviser to the Ukrainian government in 2017. Her 2020 book, “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of the Conflict,” focused on the use of information as a weapon in Russia. She warned that governments were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to counter disinformation.
A quote posted in his biography on the Wilson Center website underscores the challenges for those fighting disinformation.
“Disinformation is not a partisan problem; it is democratic, and it will take cooperation (between parties, between sectors, between governments and across borders) to defeat it,” he says.