DHS suspends its new disinformation board, following criticism

The Homeland Security Department announced Wednesday that it would suspend the work of an internal advisory committee aimed at combating disinformation after what the department described as a deliberate disinformation campaign.

The creation of the panel, called Disinformation Governance Board, started a firestorm of criticism when it was announced last month. Although the criticisms came from across the political spectrum, including civil liberty groups, the most ferocious complaints came from the right. Republican leaders and commentators spoke of it as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that would control people’s speech.

This was never the council’s mandate, a department spokesperson said 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 criminal groups.

Just a few weeks after its inception, however, its fate is now in doubt. Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation authority chosen in the spring to lead the council, filed her resignation Wednesday after suffering vitriolic and highly personal harassment and abuse online.

“The fake attacks have become a significant distraction from the department’s vital work to combat disinformation that threatens the safety and security of the American people,” the department’s statement said.

Department secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas asked a bipartisan pair of former officials to look into the issue of combating 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 the recommendations within 75 days and said the council would not meet during that time. “His work will be suspended,” the statement said, confirming the suspension, which it was previously reported in the Washington Post.

The departure of Ms. Jankowicz, coupled with the troubled launch of the council, makes it unlikely that it will resume functioning in anything like its current form.

“We killed the Ministry of Truth!” one of the board’s many Republican critics, Florida Rep Matt Gaetz tweeted.

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, the left-wing surveillance group, said opposition to the council consolidated quickly and fiercely, suggesting an organized and motivated effort. He noted that the fight against disinformation has long been part of the government’s efforts, dating back to the Soviet Union’s campaigns during the Cold War.

The current political climate, however, has made the topic itself a lightning rod which, he said, officials should have predicted better. Instead, they seemed taken aback by the answer.

“I think it’s a disservice for all of us to lose this feature, especially in the wake of what we just saw in Buffalo, because it’s a consequence of this information landscape,” Carusone said, referring to the Racist mass shooting there. “It’s a box of bait.”

As director of the board, Ms. Jankowicz, 33, has borne the brunt of the attacks, a subject she is familiar with. Her most recent book, titled “How to Be a Woman Online,” chronicles the abuses she and other women face by trolls and other malicious actors on the Internet.

In a resignation letter submitted Wednesday, she said she joined the department this year to help address the impact of disinformation.

“It is deeply disappointing,” he wrote, “that the Board’s mischaracterizations have become a distraction from the Department’s vital work and, in fact, coupled with recent events globally and nationally, embodies why it is needed.”