Disinformation Has Become Another Untouchable Problem in Washington

WASHINGTON — The memo that reached the top of the Department of Homeland Security in September could not have been clearer about its plan to create a board to monitor national security threats caused by the spread of dangerous disinformation.

The department, it said, “should not attempt to be an all-purpose arbiter of truth in the public arena.”

Yet when Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas announced the disinformation board in April, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators denounced it as exactly that, calling it an Orwellian attempt to stifle dissenting views. So did some critics from the left, who questioned the powers that such an office might wield in the hands of future Republican administrations.

Within weeks, the new board was dismantled — put on “pause,” officially — undone in part by forces it was meant to combat, including distortions of the board’s intent and powers.

There is wide agreement across the federal government that coordinated disinformation campaigns threaten to exacerbate public health emergencies, stoke ethnic and racial divisions and even undermine democracy itself. The board’s fate, however, has underscored how deeply partisan the issue has become in Washington, making it nearly impossible to consider addressing the threat.

The failure to act, according to experts, has left openings for new waves of disinformation ahead of November’s midterm elections — and even for violence like the racist massacre at a Buffalo supermarket in May, which was motivated by a baseless conspiracy theory that global forces aimed to “replace” white Americans with immigrants.

“I think we’re in a really bleak situation here in this country,” said Nina Jankowicz, who briefly served as the board’s director before resigning when the controversy boiled over.

A prominent author and researcher in the field of disinformation, who once advised Ukraine’s government, Ms. Jankowicz became a focus of the furor, targeted online by false or misleading information about her role in what critics denounced as a Ministry of Truth.

“It’s hard to imagine how we get back from this,” she said in an interview, “when this is how our elected representatives are behaving — when we can’t agree on, you know, what is the truth.”

The threats from disinformation today involve issues that not long ago might have transcended partisan politics. Instead, disinformation has become mired in the country’s deepening partisan and geographical divides over issues like abortion, guns and climate change.

Even during the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security recognized the threat. The agency, along with the director of national intelligence, commissioned a 2019 study that concluded that disinformation could, among other things, “aggravate existing societal fissures” and “cause panic that reverberates through financial markets.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department and the Pentagon warned repeatedly of threats from foreign sources of disinformation. The Federal Election Commission held a symposium before the 2020 elections to address the issue as well.

By then, however, a partisan divide over the issue had already begun to take shape.

Its roots began in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump, which he and his allies repeatedly denounced as fake despite evidence compiled by federal investigators about Russian complicity.

Disinformation that continues to swirl around Covid-19 and the 2020 election of President Biden — which Mr. Trump continues to insist, against all evidence, was a fraud — have made many Republicans view the very fight against disinformation as a partisan assault.

“You can’t even use the word ‘disinformation’ today without it having a political connotation,” said John Cohen, a former top intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, who participated in discussions about addressing national security threats fueled by the internet-enabled rapid spread of false information.

By all accounts, the department failed to anticipate the furor that the creation of the advisory panel would cause — as well as the ease with which critics would tar it with the very kind of campaigns it was meant to monitor.

Mr. Mayorkas announced the board, offhand, at a budget hearing in April, followed by a Twitter post from Ms. Jankowicz. By then, the board had already been operating for two months, though it had not yet met formally.

In addition to its new director, its staff included four officials detailed from other parts of the department. It did not yet have a dedicated budget or enforcement authority. Even so, conservative commentators, including Jack Posobiec, pounced, joined by conservative media and Republican officials.

The board quickly became a new foil in an old Republican campaign narrative that overbearing Democrats want to intrude deeper and deeper into people’s personal beliefs — “canceling” conservative values. Ms. Jankowicz’s prominence in the discussion of Russia’s actions made her a particular target for the Republicans.

“The right recognizes it is a way to whip up people in a furor,” Ms. Jankowicz said. “The problem is there are very real national security issues here, and not being able to talk about this in a mature way is a real disservice to the country.”

Opposition came not only from the right, however.

Three rights organizations — Protect Democracy, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — welcomed the department’s recognition of the scale of the problem but cited the department’s “history of flouting the Constitution in flagrant ways” as reason enough to be wary.

“In the wrong hands, such a board would be a potent tool for government censorship and retaliation,” t
hey wrote in a letter to Mr. Mayorkas, calling for the department to reconsider the board.

The damage was done, forcing Mr. Mayorkas to reverse course. He put the board’s work on hold, pending a review from the department’s advisory council that is expected to be completed by Aug. 1.

He asked a bipartisan pair of former officials to review the issue of fighting disinformation: Michael Chertoff, the department’s secretary under President George W. Bush, and Jamie S. Gorelick, deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. Few expect the board to be reconstituted in anything like its intended form.

The rising polarization of disinformation — like so many other issues — has hamstrung the search for solutions by Congress and the Biden administration.

Legislation like the Honest Ads Act, which would regulate political advertising online the way it is on television or radio, has been stalled for years. The United States has failed to act on privacy or other matters to rein in the power of social media giants even as Europe, for example, has moved to force them to disclose how their services amplify divisive content and stop targeting online ads according to a person’s ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

In Washington, there is not even agreement on the threats, with Republicans seizing on the fight against disinformation as an effort to silence conservative voices.

According to internal Homeland Security Department documents that established the board, they include crises ripped from today’s headlines: Misinformation that undercuts public health emergencies. Human traffickers who sow falsehoods to steer immigrants on dangerous journeys across the southern border. Conspiracy theories that beget violence against state and local election workers.

The documents were made public by two Republican senators who vocally attacked the board, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri. They cited them as evidence not of the need to combat disinformation but rather of the board’s nefarious aims, even though the memorandums all emphasized the principal need to protect free speech. Among the documents, though, were talking points that Mr. Mayorkas had received for a meeting with officials from Twitter to address disinformation, which the senators characterized as an effort “to suppress disfavored content.”

Mr. Grassley did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. Hawley, Abigail Marone, said President Biden was “intent on leading the most anti-First Amendment administration in American history.”

“His idea of ‘disinformation’ is parents speaking out about their kids being taught critical race theory or concerned Americans asking legitimate questions about Covid vaccines,” she added. “Biden’s aim is to use the power of the federal government to shut speech down.”

The Department of Homeland Security added the threat of false information to its periodic national terrorism advisory bulletins for the first time in February. “The United States remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories,” the warning said.

Foreign and domestic actors, the bulletin added, “seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.” At that time, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, declared that the department was “policing the speech, thoughts and opinions of American citizens.”

The department reiterated that warning in a bulletin last month.

“We’re basically at this point unable to have a calm discussion about this problem,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. “And there’s a weird, circular, looping-around effect. The problem itself is helping make us unable to talk about the problem.”