Nina Jankowicz’s new book, How to Be a Woman Online, chronicles the viciousness she and other women face from trolls and other malicious actors. She is now at the center of a new firestorm of criticism, this time over her appointment to chair a Department of Homeland Security advisory panel on the threat of disinformation.
The creation of a panel announced last week has escalated into a partisan struggle over disinformation itself – and what role, if any, the government should play in policing false, sometimes toxic and even violent content online.
Within hours of the announcement, Republican lawmakers began lashing out at the board as Orwellians, accusing the Biden administration of setting up a “Department of Truth” to police people’s minds. Two professors write an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal written down that the acronym for the new Disinformation Governance Board is just “one letter away from the KGB,” the Soviet Union’s security agency.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security, is on the defensive. In a television interview on CNN on Sunday, he insisted the new board was a small group, had no operational authority or ability, and would not spy on Americans.
“We at the Department of Homeland Security don’t monitor American citizens,” he said.
Mr Mayorkas’ assurance did little to quell the furor and underscores how partisan the debate over disinformation has become. In light of a question and answer session on the board on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it represents a continuation of work the department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency began in 2020 under the previous administration.
Her focus is on coordinating the department’s response to the potential impact of disinformation threats – including foreign interference in elections, such as Russia’s in 2016 and again in 2020; efforts by smugglers to persuade migrants to cross the border; and online posts that could incite extremist attacks. Ms Psaki did not elaborate on how the department would define what constituted extremist content online. She said the board will consider releasing its findings on disinformation, although “a lot of this work really relates to Department of Homeland Security work that people might not see every day.”
Many of those criticizing the board have trawled through Ms Jankowicz’s previous remarks online and offline, accusing her of being hostile to conservative viewpoints. They suggested – without any basis – that she would use partisan calculus to suppress legally protected speech.
Two senior Republicans on the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees — Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York — cited her recent comments the laptops about Hunter Biden, the President’s son, and about Elon Musk Offer to buy Twitter as evidence of bias.
Ms Jankowicz, 33, has suggested in her book and in public statements that condescending and misogynist content online can deter violence and other unlawful acts offline – the types of threats the panel was created to monitor. Her book cites research on virulent reactions faced by prominent women, including Vice President Kamala Harris after her nomination in 2020.
Ms Jankowicz has urged social media companies and law enforcement to crack down on online abuse. Such views have prompted warnings that the government should not monitor online content; it’s also motivated Mr Musk, who has said he wants to buy Twitter to free its users from onerous restrictions he says violates freedom of expression.
“I shudder to think if free speech absolutists took over more platforms, as it would for the marginalized communities around the world who already shoulder so much of this abuse, disproportionately much of this abuse,” Ms. Jankowicz told NPR a an interview last week about her new book, which relates to those who experience attacks online, especially women and people of color.
A tweet She sent, using part of this quote, quoted by Mr. Turner and Mr. Katko in their letter to Mr. Mayorkas. The note requested “all documents and communications” regarding the formation of the board and the appointment of Ms. Jankowicz as its executive director.
The board quietly began its work two months ago, staffed in part by officials from other parts of the large department.
Corresponding a statement The department released on Monday said the board would “monitor disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China and Iran or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and people smuggling organizations.” The statement also cited disinformation that can spread during natural disasters, such as misinformation about the safety of drinking water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
It’s not the first time the Department of Homeland Security has attempted to identify disinformation as a threat to the homeland. The department joined the FBI in publishing terrorism bulletins Warning of untruths about the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots could embolden domestic extremists.
Mr Mayorkas has defended Ms Jankowicz, calling her “a renowned expert” who is “eminently qualified” to advise the department on security threats burgeoning in the fertile atmosphere of the Internet. At the same time, he admitted to mishandling the board’s announcement — made in a simple press statement last week.
“I think we probably could have communicated better what it does and doesn’t do,” he told CNN.
Ms. Jankowicz has been a well-known commentator on the subject of disinformation for years. She has worked for the National Democratic Institute, a branch of the National Endowment for Democracy that promotes democratic governance abroad, and was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
As a Fulbright scholar in 2017, she worked as an advisor to the Ukrainian government. Her 2020 book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict focused on Russia’s information-weapons weapon. It warned that governments are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to counter disinformation.
A quote posted on her biography on the Wilson Center’s website underscores the challenges facing those who would combat disinformation.
“Disinformation is not a partisan issue; it is a democratic one, and it will require cooperation — across party, sector, government and borders — to defeat it,” it said.