WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday suspended the work of a controversial new council on disinformation and accepted the resignation of its chief, ending weeks of concerns about the encroachment on the rights of free speech and frenzied conspiracy theories about the council itself.
Former director of the Disinformation Governance Council, Nina Jankowicz, told The Associated Press hours after her resignation on Wednesday that the wave of violent attacks and threats she has launched since the council’s launch do not will not prevent denouncing the disinformation campaigns broadcast on American social networks.
“We need to have an adult conversation about how to deal with threats to our national security and that’s not what happened here,” says Jankowicz. “I will not be silent.”
What remains to be seen is how the disastrous board deployment and subsequent criticism will harm ongoing US efforts to counter disinformation weaponized by Russia and other adversaries. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has acknowledged the council’s controversy has become a distraction for the department’s other work, which includes safeguarding the US election, two officials familiar with his decision said.
Although the council has not been officially closed, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council which is expected to make recommendations in 75 days. The Washington Post first reported the board break.
Federal and state agencies treat misinformation as a threat to national security. In a statement announcing its launch, DHS said the new initiative would coordinate efforts around threats from Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the United States and false claims that encourage migrants to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The new board was dogged from the start by questions about its purpose, funding and work that Mayorkas struggled to answer even as he appeared before lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Mayorkas made the decision to suspend the board after the backlash and growing concerns that it was hampering DHS’s other work on misinformation, according to two department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
“The Council was grossly and intentionally misrepresented: there was never any mention of censorship or policing in any way,” the ministry said in a statement. “It was designed to ensure that we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting fundamental constitutional rights.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the council never met and that neither the department nor Jankowicz had the authority to censor or remove content labeled as disinformation.
DHS officials had tried to allay concerns about the council’s impact on free speech and online privacy issues by describing it as an internal task force to study definitions of disinformation across the world. department.
But opponents remained skeptical of the council’s work and purpose.
Top Republicans on the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on the board “a political tool to be wielded by the party in power.”
“This advice has only succeeded in reinforcing the fact that the priorities of the Department of Homeland Security are seriously misplaced,” wrote Representatives Mike Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, who previously said DHS had not released information about the program to them.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, told the mayor that the council was a “terrible idea” that “communicates to the world that we are going to spread propaganda in our own country.”
Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action against the board “unless you turn around now and disband this Orwellian Disinformation Governance Council immediately,” Miyares said in a statement.
Reception online and on conservative boardroom TV shows was even worse.
The phrase “Ministry of Truth” – a reference to George Orwell “1984” – trending on Twitter in board discussions. Conservative pundits and social media users have pushed conspiracy theories and lies around its purpose, with some falsely claiming the advice was quickly developed by DHS in response to billionaire Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter. Others made false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit tweets from daily Twitter users.
“He was really mischaracterized from the start,” said Cindy Otis, disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst.
Disinformation experts have warned that the controversy around the board could harm existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about the election and burning issues in American society.
Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronavirus pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. US intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.
But, warns Otis, “It would be really unfortunate if they just decided that misinformation is too publicly sensitive to an issue.”
Jankowicz has also become the center of sexist and anti-Semitic attacks, and even death threats online. A Fox News personality recently asked if Jankowicz should have agreed to lead the board during her pregnancy.
Jankowicz said Wednesday that she reports violent threats that arrive daily through phone calls, emails or Twitter messages. Some included rape or death threats. Others encouraged her to commit suicide.
“It was horrible. It was permanent” she says. “It’s obviously very scary and really unpleasant. I was trying to do important work to protect Americans from a real threat.
The department, she said, has not addressed concerns about confidentiality and free speech around the council’s work.
Other critics suggested Jankowicz was too partisan for the job, pointing to statements she made that questioned the provenance of a laptop believed to belong to Hunter Biden, the president’s eldest son, and replaying a video TikTok she recorded on disinformation to the beat of a song. from “Mary Poppins.”
Jankowicz’s supporters have accused the department of not doing enough to protect her from online trolls and attacks.
“It is deeply disappointing that the Board’s mischaracterizations have become a distraction from the Department’s vital work, and indeed, together with recent events globally and nationally, epitomize why it is needed,” Jankowicz wrote in his resignation letter.