In retrospect, it did sound like a doomed effort.
With very little detail, the Biden administration late last month announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board, based out of the US Department of Homeland Security. Barely three weeks later, the first-of-its-kind initiative was paused under pressure from relentless bad-faith, and largely misinformed, attacks from conservatives.
And so the disinformation board was canceled . . . well, by disinformation — the same plague it was meant to deal with. If that doesn’t perfectly capture these wild, upside-down times, I don’t know what does.
Yet for President Biden, the short-lived episode stands out as a self-inflicted political wound. The effort’s rollout was embarrassing, with a head-scratching, vague name that didn’t accurately reflect the board’s true scope. From the get-go, DHS officials struggled to explain exactly what the board’s mission was and wasn’t. Meanwhile, its critics, mostly Republicans and right-wing media, immediately pounced, with claims that the board would infringe on free speech, and characterized it as a means to government-sanctioned censorship. They targeted the board’s leader, Nina Jankowicz, with brutal online harassment.
The story of how the board collapsed offers a lesson on how misinformation and disinformation work (the former is false information spread regardless of intent to mislead, while the latter is knowingly spreading misinformation) — and the wrong way to fight them.
Initially, DHS said the new interagency entity’s focus would be to counter disinformation coming from Russia ahead of the midterm elections and from “coyotes,” or human smugglers, who typically prey on migrants at the US-Mexico border using false or misleading narratives.
“It seemed to me like the combination of academic expertise and government bureaucracy, and doing things purely based on political motivation, was a deadly combination in this scenario,” said Laura Manleyexecutive director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, in an interview. During planning, someone should have said, “‘hold on, this isn’t just about misinformation/disinformation or politics.’ They should have had a conversation about how the American public was going to interpret this,” Manley said.
For such a polarizing topic, Manley was shocked at the poor planning for unintended negative outcomes that went into the project. “To put ‘disinformation’ and ‘governance’ together in one title was a disastrous choice,” said Manley. “These are loaded words.” For the board’s title, she said, “I would have used words more akin to the national security field, which a lot of constituents in far-right spaces” are supportive of.
GOP politicians in Congress and conservative journalists and influencers were quick to exploit the information gap. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri even filed a bill to shut down the board.
As The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz reported when she broke the news Wednesday that DHS was putting the board on pause, far-right activist Jack Posobiec tweeted to his 1.7 million followers that the Biden administration had created a “Ministry of Truth” just hours after Jankowicz announced her new job leading the board. And so a targeted campaign of online misogynistic abuse against her was unleashed.
One of the biggest ironies of the effort’s demise is that Jankowicz was the perfect candidate to lead it. First, she’s a well-regarded disinformation and extremism authority, with expertise in Russia and Ukraine issues. In her book “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict,” she provides strategies to defeat disinformation and argues “it will take leadership at every level of government.” Among her recommendations: investing in information literacy programs and public media, and “stamping out the murky financial schemes that allow disinformation to flourish.”
Second, her latest book, published last month, is “How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back.” And yet, she didn’t fight back as she faced an onslaught of Internet harassment, presumably because she wasn’t allowed to. In fact, no one in the Biden administration forcefully defended her. In an MSNBC interview after she resigned, Jankowicz said she and her family had faced violent threats almost every day since she took the job roughly three weeks ago.
The scariest part is that there is no doubt in experts’ minds that there will be a deluge of disinformation campaigns in the coming months prior to the midterms. And there is still a role for the federal government to play in fighting them. Manley said it’s better to tackle those campaigns topic by topic rather than with one all-encompassing board. But please, keep the words “misinformation” or “disinformation” out of the branding.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.