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Partisan Fight Breaks Out Over Recent Disinformation Board


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Nina Jankowicz’s latest book, “The best way to Be a Woman Online,” chronicles the vitriol she and other women have faced from trolls and other malign actors. She’s now at the middle of a latest firestorm of criticism, this time over her appointment to steer an advisory board on the Department of Homeland Security on the specter of disinformation.

The creation of a board, announced last week, has changed into a partisan fight over disinformation itself — and what role, if any, the federal government must have in policing false, at times toxic, and even violent content online.

Inside hours of the announcement, Republican lawmakers began railing against the board as Orwellian, accusing the Biden administration of making a “Ministry of Truth” to police people’s thoughts. Two professors writing an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal noted that the abbreviation for the brand new Disinformation Governance Board was only “one letter off from K.G.B.,” the Soviet Union’s security service.

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 brand new board was a small group, that it had no operational authority or capability and that it will not spy on Americans.

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“We within the Department of Homeland Security don’t monitor Americans,” he said.

Mr. Mayorkas’s reassurance did little to quell the furor, underscoring how partisan the talk over disinformation has turn into. Facing a round of questions on the board on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said it represented a continuation of labor that the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had begun in 2020, under the previous administration.

Its focus is to coordinate the department’s response to the potential impacts of disinformation threats — including foreign election influence, like Russia’s in 2016 and again in 2020; efforts by smugglers to encourage migrants to cross the border; and online posts that might incite extremist attacks. Ms. Psaki didn’t elaborate on how the department would define what constituted extremist content online. She said the board would consider making public its findings on disinformation, although “plenty of this work is admittedly about work that individuals may not see day-after-day that’s ongoing by the Department of Homeland Security.”

A lot of those criticizing the board scoured Ms. Jankowicz’s past statements, online and off, accusing her of being hostile to conservative viewpoints. They suggested — without basis — that she would stifle legally protected speech using a partisan calculus.

Two rating Republicans on the House committees on intelligence and homeland security — Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John Katko of Recent York — cited recent comments she made in regards to the laptops of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and about Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter as evidence of bias.

Ms. Jankowicz, 33, has suggested in her book and in public statements that condescending and misogynistic content online can prelude violence and other illegal acts offline — the sorts of threat the board was created to observe. Her book cites research into virulent reactions that outstanding women have faced, including Vice President Kamala Harris after her nomination in 2020.

Ms. Jankowicz has called for social media corporations and law enforcement agencies to take stiffer motion against online abuse. Such views have prompted warnings that the federal government mustn’t police content online; it has also motivated Mr. Musk, who has said he desires to purchase Twitter to free its users from onerous restrictions that in his view violate freedom of speech.

“I shudder to take into consideration, if free speech absolutists were taking on more platforms, what that might be like for the marginalized communities around the globe, that are already shouldering a lot of this abuse, disproportionate amounts of this abuse” Ms. Jankowicz told NPR in an interview last week about her latest book, referring to those that experience attacks online, especially women and folks of color.

A tweet she sent, using a portion of that quote, was cited by Mr. Turner and Mr. Katko of their letter to Mr. Mayorkas. The note requested “all documents and communications” in regards to the creation of the board and Ms. Jankowicz’s appointment as its executive director.

The board quietly began work two months ago, staffed part time by officials from other parts of the massive department. The Homeland Security Department made the choice to form the board last 12 months after it accomplished a study in the summertime that really useful establishing a bunch to review questions of privacy and civil liberty for online content, in line with John Cohen, the previous acting head of the department’s intelligence branch.

“And ensuring that when the department’s components are doing that evaluation, they’re operating in a fashion consistent with their authorities,” Mr. Cohen, who left the administration last month, said in an interview.

Mr. Cohen pushed back on claims that the group can be policing language online.

“It’s not a giant room with feeds from Facebook and Twitter popping up,” Mr. Cohen said. “It looks at policy issues, it looks at best practices, it looks at academic research regarding how disinformation influences the threat environment.”

After studying policy questions, the board is then imagined to submit guidance to the homeland security secretary for a way different agencies should conduct evaluation of online content while protecting the civil liberties of Americans, and the way widely the findings of that evaluation might be shared.

Based on an announcement released on Monday, the department said the board would monitor “disinformation spread by foreign states equivalent to Russia, China and Iran, or other adversaries equivalent to transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations.” The statement also cited disinformation that may spread during natural disasters, like false information in regards to the safety of drinking water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

It’s not the primary time the Department of Homeland Security has moved to discover disinformation as a threat facing the homeland. The department joined the F.B.I. in releasing terrorism bulletins warning that falsehoods in regards to the 2020 election and the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, 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 that germinate within the fecund atmosphere online. At the identical time, he acknowledged mishandling the announcement of the board — made in an easy press statement last week.

“I believe we probably could have done a greater job of communicating what it does and doesn’t do,” he told CNN.

Ms. Jankowicz has been a well-known commentator on disinformation for years. She has worked for the National Democratic Institute, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy that promotes democratic governance abroad, and served as a fellow on the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

As a Fulbright fellow, she worked as an adviser to the Ukrainian government in 2017. Her 2020 book, “The best way to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Way forward for Conflict,” focused on Russia’s weaponization of knowledge. It warned that governments were in poor health prepared and in poor health equipped to counteract disinformation.

A quote posted on her biography on the Wilson Center’s website underscores the challenges for many who would fight disinformation.

“Disinformation shouldn’t be a partisan problem; it’s a democratic one, and it should take cooperation — cross-party, cross-sector, cross-government, and cross-border — to defeat,” it says.

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