The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday that it was suspending the work of an internal advisory board designed to combat disinformation after what the Department described as a deliberate disinformation campaign.
The creation of the panel, called the Disinformation Governance Board, kicked off a firestorm of criticism when it was announced last month. While criticism has come from across the political spectrum, including civil liberties groups, the harshest condemnations have come from the right. Republican leaders and commentators spoke of it as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that would control people’s speech.
That was never the task of the board, says a department spokesperson in a written statement. Instead, it was intended to coordinate the various agencies of the department in the fight against malicious disinformation by foreign adversaries, drug or human traffickers or other international crime groups.
However, just weeks after its founding, its fate is now in question. Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation authority elected to head the board in the spring, tendered her resignation on Wednesday after being confronted with vicious and highly personal harassment and abuse online.
“Fake attacks have become a significant distraction from the department’s critically important work to combat disinformation that threatens the safety and security of the American people,” the department statement said.
Department secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas has asked a bipartisan pair of former officials to review the issue of fighting disinformation: Michael Chertoff, who served as department secretary under President George W. Bush, and Jamie S. Gorelick, Deputy Attorney General under President Bill Clinton.
Mr Mayorkas asked them to prepare recommendations within 75 days and said the board would not meet during that period. “His work will be interrupted,” the statement said, confirming the suspension, which was… previously reported in the Washington Post.
The departure of Ms Jankowicz, coupled with the arduous roll-out of the board, makes it unlikely that it will continue to function in its current form.
“We killed the Ministry of Truth!” one of the board’s many Republican critics, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, wrote on Twitter.
Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, the left-wing watchdog group, said opposition to the administration was rapidly and fiercely consolidating, suggesting an organized and motivated effort. He noted that fighting disinformation has long been part of the government’s efforts, tracing back to Soviet Union campaigns in the Cold War.
However, the current political climate has made the subject a lightning rod that, he said, officials should have anticipated better. Instead, they seemed taken aback by the response.
“I think it’s a disservice to all of us that we’re losing this position, especially in the wake of what we’ve just seen in Buffalo because that’s a consequence of this information landscape,” said Mr. Carusone, referring to the racist mass shooting there. “It’s a tinder box.”
As director of the board, Ms Jankowicz, 33, bore the brunt of the attacks, a subject she knows well. Her most recent book, How to Be a Woman Online, describes the abuses she and other women face at the hands of trolls and other evil actors on the Internet.
In a letter of resignation filed Wednesday, she said she joined the department this year to address the impact of disinformation.
“It is deeply disappointing,” she wrote, “that mischaracterizations of the board became a distraction from the essential work of the department, and indeed, along with recent events globally and nationally, embodies why it is needed.”