'Not the opinion police': Disinformation board is latest headache for White House

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WASHINGTON — Questions about whether a new Department of Homeland Security panel to combat disinformation will curb Americans’ free speech, and whether the woman named to run the board is too partisan for the position, have emerged as the latest headache for the Biden administration, which appeared to be unprepared for the controversy.

“I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted to Dana Bash of CNN, in one of several interviews he conducted on Sunday morning to explain why Americans should not be worried about what he came to describe as merely a “working group” to counter foreign influence campaigns.

But by then, the Orwellian narrative had spread far and wide.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before the a House committee.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before the House Judicary Committee on Thursday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The extensive effort at damage control was a tacit recognition that since Mayorkas somewhat casually mentioned the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board last Wednesday at a House budgetary hearing, the administration had not done enough to explain its function, letting imaginations run wild.

“I really haven’t dug into this exactly,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday as criticism of the new board was building. While some of that criticism was ideological, some was also driven by the appointment of Nina Jankowicz, a former Wilson Center disinformation scholar who has been unabashed in her political views — and colorful in her musical endeavors, which ranged from tributes to Harry Potter, the fictional wizard, to Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

“I don’t have any information about this individual,” Psaki said Thursday as videos of Jankowicz’s performances were making their way across social media, leading some Twitter detactors to dub her “J. Edgar Jazzhands,” in reference to the infamous former director of the FBI.

Compared with a deadly pandemic or a war in Ukraine, the controversy is relatively minor. But it poses a fresh challenge for a White House seeking to find its political footing in a difficult climate. And though the administration sees some culture wars worth fighting, this one seems to have caught it by surprise.

A potentially substantial part of the problem for the Biden administration — and, arguably, for society as a whole — is that there is no agreed-upon definition of disinformation; the White House did not provide one in this case. And though it says the new board will combat foreign outlets without infringing on Americans’ own First Amendment rights, a globalized media landscape could make such distinctions difficult — and, very likely, contentious.

President Biden speaking at the memorial service for former Vice President Walter Mondale.
President Biden speaking at the memorial service for former Vice President Walter Mondale in Minneapolis on Sunday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

The administration says the panel will flag reports persuading migrants to come to the border with Mexico, falsely raising their expectations of entering the United States. Mayorkas also wants to head off influence campaigns targeting minority communities within the U.S. ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Such campaigns have, in particular, focused on Spanish-language populations.

“The spread of disinformation can affect border security, Americans' safety during disasters, and public trust in our democratic institutions,” DHS said in a statement last week, without offering the kinds of details that may have reassured Americans who are concerned with freedom of speech and other liberties.

The vacuum allowed some Republicans to brand the whole effort as something akin to the Ministry of Truth from “1984,” George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

"It can only be assumed that the sole purpose of this new Disinformation Governance Board will be to marshal the power of the federal government to censor conservative and dissenting speech,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in a statement. “This is dangerous and un-American. The board should be immediately dissolved."

Criticism also came from mainstream outlets like Politico (“hopeless”) and the New Republic (“a bad idea”). A government agency, such critics added, was hardly the way to increase media literacy and institutional trust among Americans.

Then there was Elon Musk, whose acquisition of Twitter has led liberals to worry that he would turn the social media outlet into a hate-speech free-for-all.

“Discomforting,” Musk declared in a one-word verdict.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk deep in thought, with eyes closed and hands clasped.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the opening of a Tesla plant in Germany on March 22. (Christian Marquardt — Pool/Getty Images)

The appointment of Jankowicz has proved a challenge of its own, leading to questions about whether the board could ever engender the kind of trust it would need in order to be effective. The author of “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict,” Jankowicz has worked in Ukraine, making her ostensibly well equipped to craft a strategy against the nation’s (if not the free world’s) top informational malefactor.

Yet her rich online presence has also allowed conservatives to malign Jankowicz — and the disinformation board itself. A lot of that presence has to do with her singing, including for a Harry Potter-themed band called the Moaning Myrtles that she started in 2015.

Neither Jankowicz nor DHS replied to a Yahoo News request for comment.

Conservatives have seized on Jankowicz’s dismissal of New York Post reporting into the fate of Hunter Biden’s laptop, a story that keeps resurfacing to the White House’s dismay. She has also endorsed the anti-Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The most controversial parts of that document have since been discredited as precisely the kind of disinformation that Jankowicz will be tasked with identifying.

Fox News commentators found Jankowicz an irresistible target, with former George W. Bush political strategist Karl Rove dismissing her as a “political hack” on Saturday night.

Just hours later, Mayorkas was on the same network, defending both the disinformation board and its new head. “Don't question her objectivity," he said, adding that his department is “not the opinion police.”