State Repression

Why did the U.S. government’s “disinformation czar” resign?

The Signal

Why did the U.S. government’s “disinformation czar” resign? Monika Richter on a strange saga of executive missteps and hyper-polarized reactions.
Kenrick Mills
Kenrick Mills
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?
Richter: Historically, when the government has spoken about disinformation, it’s always been clear that this disinformation came from foreign, adversarial actors—Russia, China, Iran, or non-state actors like ISIS. The Global Engagement Center at the U.S. State Department has the mandate to monitor and counter this kind of disinformation—and again, that’s a perfectly legitimate role for the U.S. federal government—but the State Department has no mandate to address domestic disinformation originating within the United States.
Vyse: What’s known about the Biden administration’s rationale for setting up the Disinformation Governance Board?
Richter: Well, again, it’s not entirely clear what the objectives were, and the rollout created all this confusion that the administration didn’t explain away. I do think this effort was intended to be innocuous. This wasn’t some top-down effort to start censoring Americans at home, or set rules about truth and falsehood that could be enforced online, though that’s how a lot of bad-faith critics interpreted it.
Still, the administration created an environment in which trust in government ended up being eroded on a very critical, complex issue. They should have known better than to handle this the way they did. If these are issues you want to tackle, then you need to understand the tremendous sensitivities involved and how—particularly given the political climate in the U.S.—the issues are going to be exploited for partisan gain. You need to take preemptive steps to be as open and transparent as possible, guarding against disingenuous misinterpretation.
Artur Voznenko
Artur Voznenko
More from Monika Richter at The Signal:
The right-wing smear campaign attacking Jankowicz personally was vicious and despicable, unearthing and ridiculing old-social media posts. She was subjected to doxxing and death threats. It’s a horrible indictment of our present moment that political disagreement would incite this kind of inhumane response. … Personal attacks on Jankowicz let the Biden administration focus on how she was the victim of a vicious backlash, but it’s worth asking how often a government initiative gets shut down less than a month after it’s announced. That happens as the result of an internal reevaluation of the viability or legitimacy of an initiative, not simply as a result of media backlash. If all it took to end government work was media backlash, the government wouldn’t do anything at all.”
The congressional letter signed by Republicans was a serious document that articulated—without hyperbole—concerns that many people had. In addition to asking about Jankowicz’s qualifications and how she was chosen for her executive-director role, it asked under what legal authority DHS created this board, what its mission is, and how the board will help protect the U.S. homeland from threats. Digital-rights advocates also had concerns about the placement of the board in the Department of Homeland Security, given the department’s less-than-stellar track record on civil liberties.”
The mainstream U.S. media has focused almost exclusively on the fact that Jankowicz was attacked and bullied by right-wing media and bad-faith tolls. That attacking and bullying was terrible, but it doesn’t explain why the board’s work was paused—or address how this entire debacle has played out from the very beginning, undermining important work and triggering partisan overreaction on both sides of the ideological divide. It also doesn’t offer any constructive insight into how the government is trying to tackle, or ought to tackle, issues like digital information disorder—the set of social and political pathologies associated with people’s growing dependence on a digital-information-and-communications architecture that wasn’t designed to support democracy, or the kinds of civic virtues it needs, and that often directly undermines them instead: hyper-polarization; extreme partisanship and political tribalism; the erosion of trust in government and public institutions that’s contributed to the rise of authoritarian populism; online radicalization that can lead to real-world harm, as with QAnon and the January 6 riots; and so on. At their current scale, these aren’t routine features of democratic contestation; they’re symptoms of its breakdown.”

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