A Ministry of Truth out of George Orwell’s 1984 to some, and a necessary safeguard for democracy to others, the U.S. Disinformation Governance Board was officially suspended this past Wednesday, just three weeks after its formation. Amid intense public criticism and media scrutiny of the board, intended to monitor and counter disinformation that threatened American security, there was also a lot of negative attention on its executive director Nina Jankowicz personally—including for posting a video of herself on social media singing about the digital ecosystem to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and declaring, “You can just call me the Mary Poppins of disinformation.” Jankowicz has since resigned, saying that practically everything Americans might have heard about the board was “wrong” or “just a flat-out lie.” In the Washington Post article that broke the news of the board’s suspension, the columnist Taylor Lorenz attributed a central role to “vicious, coordinated right-wing attacks.” Jankowicz herself has since said, “It’s kind of ironic that the board itself was taken over by disinformation when it was meant to fight it.” What’s happened here?
Monika Richter is the U.S.-based head of research and analysis at Semantic Visions, a data-analytics and risk-assessment company based in Prague and London. According to Richter, as unfair and otherwise shameful as some of the personal attacks against Jankowicz were, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched the Disinformation Governance Board with a striking lack of transparency or judgment, neglecting many questions about its origins that still remain unanswered. Though DHS has clarified that the purpose was never to censor speech, or enforce any government-approved version of truth and falsehood, Richter says the administration was unprepared to navigate the contentious political issues the initiative would inevitably raise, while the mainstream U.S. media has been more concerned with highlighting political attacks on the board—and Jankowicz personally—than exploring the specific mistakes administration officials made in launching it. To Richter, all this has created more heat and fog in a social climate in America, where public discussion of disinformation is getting both more politicized and more nebulous.
Graham Vyse: What is the Disinformation Governance Board, and where did it come from?
Monika Richter: The first problem with this board was that the administration shared very little information about it. Many people—among them, many in the U.S. Congress—found out about it from a blurb in the Politico Playbook newsletter. There wasn’t a formal announcement or any effort to be transparent and introduce this new initiative, with a ridiculous name. Initial questions directed to the administration were met with vague answers, inspiring conspiratorial thinking and uncharitable speculation.
After a while, the Department of Homeland Security published a fact sheet explaining what the board would be doing, which made clear that it wasn’t meant to have any operational authority in determining what’s true or false. It wasn’t meant to be an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, as many feared. In fact, it was conceived as a means of coordinating and managing DHS work related to issues of disinformation and misinformation as they affect national security.
These are issues that the U.S. government absolutely should be concerned with. There are real national-security concerns about information manipulation in crisis situations, including crisis situations related to border security, but the way information about this board was miscommunicated—or really, not communicated—to the public ended up raising a lot of concerns, even among people who work in the fields of disinformation and digital rights. The problem here wasn’t simply a right-wing smear campaign, even though that obviously was very damaging and wasn’t constructive.
Vyse: How has the U.S. government previously grappled with the issue of disinformation?