June 14, 2024 9:20 pm

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The Disinformation Governance Board debunked and disbanded

The Disinformation Governance Board’s existence was made known on Apr. 27, when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas first uttered its name during a congressional hearing on the border crisis.

After noting how disinformation campaigns have been targeting Spanish-speaking voters, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) asked the Secretary what his department has done and plans to do to address the issue.

In his response, Sec. Mayorkas said, “Our Undersecretary for Policy Rob Silvers is co-chair with our Principal Deputy General Counsel Jennifer Daskal, in leading a just recently constituted misinformation disinformation governance board” (emphasis added).

A quick fundamental analysis of Sec. Mayorkas’ words would conclude that many Americans’ worst, Orwellian-fueled nightmare has finally come true, that the DHS has essentially formed a “Ministry of Truth.”

“Disinformation,” by definition, is false information that’s designed to mislead. Information in general, regardless of its prefix, inhabits language—verbal and written communication, and information that is factual is often regarded as truth. “Governance” denotes control or authority, and “Board” implies an official committee or organization. The three words together would indicate that the DHS has created an organization that will dictate what is and is not true in America.

The biggest issue with this interpretation, however, is that the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) is none of those things. 

It’s not a Board…it’s a group

The board, according to the DHS’s Fact Sheet released the same day Sec. Mayorkas said “disinformation governance board” at the congressional hearing, is actually a “working group.”

In an attempt to clarify the role of this DGB, former DHS counterterrorism official John Cohen told Politico that the DGB is a “policy coordination group.”

The fact that the Board is actually just a group is repeatedly noted in the DHS Fact Sheet, which uses “group” instead of “board” when referring to the DGB nine times out of ten. 

When accused by Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) of creating a board and later reducing the DGB to a group during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on May 4, Sec. Mayorkas said, “I certainly haven’t downgraded this to a working group; that’s what it is.”

Seemingly confused, Sen. Capito asked, “Well, it started as a board though, right?” Sec. Mayorkas responded by suggesting they discuss the nomenclature later. 

A non-governing group that doesn’t control speech

Despite the name suggesting otherwise, the DGB does little to no governing, even when it comes to information and truth. 

According to the Fact Sheet, “The working group does not have any operational authority or capability.” How much governance can come from a group with no operational authority?

The Fact Sheet further indicates that the DGB is not meant to control speech; on the contrary, its role is to protect “Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.”

The group was “established with the explicit goal of ensuring these protections are appropriately incorporated across DHS’s disinformation-related work and that rigorous safeguards are in place.”

An aspect of this role is to inform other departments and agencies how issues involving disinformation ought to be handled. As the Fact Sheet states, “[the DGB] seeks to coordinate the Department’s engagements on this subject with other federal agencies and a diverse range of external stakeholders.”

During the May 4 hearing, Sec. Mayorkas said the working group was an answer to the question: “What policies and procedures—what standards of conduct do we have in place to ensure that […] homeland security work is done in a way that ensures that it does not infringe on fundamental rights?”

Cohen further simplified the DGB’s role to Politico when he explained, “[The DGB is] not sitting there saying, ‘Hey, what should we be doing about Russian disinformation focusing on X, Y, and Z? They’re focusing on, ‘Hey, information is being gathered and collected under different sets of legal authorities. What is the appropriate way to share that information, so we’re not in conflict with those legal authorities?’”

Given that the Disinformation Governance Board is a non-governing group designed to protect freedom of speech, the group’s own name runs the risk of being disinformation. 

Whether or not that’s fair to say is anybody’s guess, even Sec. Mayorkas acknowledged the confusion surrounding the exact purpose of the group, saying he “could have done a better job of communicating what it is and what it isn’t.”

Disinformation Governance Board: A poorly conceived working group

Deliberating over the ethics and implications of the Disinformation Governance Board makes for sensational headlines, but the DHS only has themselves to blame for any misinterpretations and widespread speculation surrounding this group. 

A botched rollout

First, the announcement of this new group was made haphazardly—briefly mentioning it during a congressional hearing and publishing a fact sheet for damage control purposes hours later. Sec. Mayorkas even confessed it could have been handled better, saying the DHS rolled out the group “not as effectively as we had hoped to.” 

Disinformation Board
DGB’s Executive Director, Nina Jancowicz. Source: Department of Homeland Security.

The DGB’s Executive Director, Nina Jancowicz, who has been a very controversial pick, was first announced in a Politico News Letter, which read in part, “DHS is standing up a new Disinformation Governance Board to coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia. Nina Jankowicz will head the board as executive director.”

And even Jancowicz seemed surprised by the rollout. In response to Sec. Mayorkas’ mentioning of the DGB in the April meeting, she tweeted, “Cat’s out of the bag.”

Questionable director pick

Now, Jancowicz has been a controversial pick for many reasons, but regardless of how one feels about her theatrics, a serious concern is that Jancowicz herself has been a proponent of misinformation—a fact that Sec. Mayorkas was unaware of when he selected her to lead the Disinformation Governance Board.

During the October 2020 presidential debate, Jancowicz called Hunter Biden’s laptop Russian disinformation in a tweet, referring to it as the “laptop from hell.” The laptop story, which many news outlets have been reluctant to cover, has since been substantiated, with the New York Times even authenticating the cache of emails therein. 

While Jancowicz wrote the laptop off as Russian disinformation, she praised Chris Steele, a former British spy made famous by the “Steele Dossier” that suggested Russia had dirt on Trump, making him a compromised president.

In August 2020, Jancowicz tweeted a link to an Infotagion podcast episode and said, “Listened to this last night- Chris Steele (yes THAT Chris Steele) provides some great historical context about the evolution of disinfo. Worth a listen.”

In contrast to Hunter Biden’s Laptop, however, the Steele Dossier story has held less and less water over the years, forcing even the likes of CNN, who once called it a “reckoning” and a “bombshell,” to admit the dossier was unverified

After all, it is human to error, but in Jancowicz’s case, her two main fields of expertise are Russia and disinformation. But worse still, Sec. Mayorkas was unaware of Jancowicz’s failure to discern disinformation from factual information, further indicating the DGB was poorly conceived.  

“When the department picked her, did it know that she had said that Mr. Hunter Biden’s laptop is Russian disinformation?” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) asked the Secretary during a Senate Appropriations Meeting.

“I was not aware of that,” Sec. Mayorkas responded. “We do not discuss the internal hiring process. Ultimately, as a secretary, I’m responsible for the decisions of the Department of Homeland Security.”

“When the department picked Ms. Jankowicz,” Sen. Kennedy began again, “did it know that she had vouched for the veracity of the Steele Dossier?”

“Senator, let me repeat myself and add an additional fact. One, we do not discuss internal hiring processes. Two, I was not aware of that fact. Three, as the Secretary of Homeland Security, I am responsible for the decisions of the department, and four, it’s my understanding that Ms. Jankowicz is a subject matter expert in the field in which she will be working on behalf of the department,” Sec. Mayorkas explained.

The worst name imaginable: Disinformation Governance Board

As has already been explained here, the name given to the working group was inaccurate at best and, at worst, counterintuitive. This was noted by Sen. Capito during the May 4 hearing.

“First of all, the name in and of itself has, I think, implications to all of us,” she began. “I heard all about this all over the weekend—concern of sort of an Orwellian policing of speech. You yourself even admitted […] that the rollout of this has been vastly misunderstood.” 

Sen. Capito even suggested the Secretary disband the working group altogether. “I think, quite honestly, for the good of the rest of the department, that now’s a good time to abandon this ludicrous and much-maligned idea,” she said.

“[I]t seems such a subjective and undefined what disinformation is, I would challenge you to punt this and rethink, for the reasons that you mentioned, […] to make sure that the American people really understand what’s going on here.”

Whatever the DHS was hoping to accomplish by forming this group, it seems unlikely that it’ll get much done without serious pushback from media outlets and the social media populace. The botched rollout of the group, its counterintuitive name, its questionable director pick, and the confusion surrounding its functions are all reasons to “rethink.”

The Disinformation Governance Board officially “paused”

The DHS seems to have taken Sen. Capito’s advice to heart. On Wednesday, just three weeks after Sec. Mayorkas let it slip that the group existed, the DGB has been officially shut down, according to multiple employees at the DHS, and Executive Director Jankowicz has resigned. The Washington Post reported that she had already drafted her resignation letter by Tuesday morning.

Today, when asked if the Disinformation Governance Board was being shut down because of disinformation, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “The board was put forth for a purpose, right? To make sure that we really did address what was happening across the country when it came to disinformation. It’s going to pause; there’s been a mischaracterization from outside forces.”

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