WASHINGTON (AP) – The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday suspended a new and controversial disinformation commission and accepted the resignation of its leader, ending several weeks of concerns about violations of freedom of speech and sometimes insane conspiracy theories about the council itself.
It remains to be seen whether the council debate will damage current US efforts to counter disinformation used as weapons by Russia and other opponents. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkos acknowledged that the council had begun to divert attention from the department’s other work, which includes protecting U.S. elections, two officials familiar with his decision said.
Director of the Disinformation Management Council Nina Jankovic wrote on Wednesday that the future of the council is “uncertain”, according to a letter of resignation received by the Associated Press.
Although the board has not been officially closed, it will be considered by members of the DHS Advisory Board, which is expected to make recommendations in 75 days. The Washington Post initially reported a pause in the board.
Federal and state agencies view disinformation as a threat to national security. In a statement announcing the launch, DHS said the new initiative would coordinate efforts around threats of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at the U.S. and false statements encouraging migrants to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its appointment, funding and uneven distribution, further confusing its mission. Mayorkas had difficulty answering questions about the council’s work before lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
According to two employees of the department, who spoke on condition of anonymity on condition of anonymity for internal discussions, Mallorca decided to suspend the council in response to cumulative negative reactions and growing concerns that it distracts from other work of the disinformation department.
“The council was rudely and deliberately misinterpreted: it was never about censorship or police speech,” the department said in a statement. “It was designed to fulfill our mission to protect the homeland while protecting fundamental constitutional rights.”
White House spokeswoman Caryn Jean-Pierre noted that the council never met, and neither the department nor Jankovic had the authority to censor or remove content marked as misinformation.
DHS representatives sought to allay concerns about how the council would affect freedom of speech and privacy issues online, describing it as an internal working group designed to study definitions of misinformation throughout the department.
But opponents remained unsure of the council’s work and goals.
Senior Republicans in the House of Representatives’ intelligence and home security committees issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the council “a political tool to be used by the controlling party.”
“This advice was successful only in confirming that the Department of Homeland Security’s priorities are very out of place,” wrote Mike Turner of Ohio and John Catko of New York, who said earlier that DHS had not disclosed information about the program.
Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, told Mallorca that the board was a “terrible idea” that “tells the world that we will spread propaganda in our own country.”
Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miares of Virginia, have threatened Mallorca with lawsuits against the council, “unless you turn around now and immediately dissolve this Orwell Disinformation Management Council,” Miares said in a statement.
Reception online and through conservative TV shows on the board was even worse.
The phrase “Ministry of Truth” – a reference to “1984” by George Orwell – became a trend on Twitter during discussions about the board. Conservative experts and social media users have promoted conspiracy theories and lies around their goal, with some falsely claiming that the board was quickly developed by DHS in response to billionaire Ilona Mask’s desire to buy Twitter. Others have falsely claimed that Jankovic planned to edit the tweets of regular Twitter users.
“It was really wrong from the start,” said Cindy Otis, a disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst.
Disinformation experts warn that controversy over the council could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false election stories and current issues in American society.
Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by spreading false stories and using social media to stir up controversy in American society over issues such as race and the coronavirus pandemic. She continued to spread false and deceptive stories about her invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of spreading misinformation to Americans. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk allegations of election fraud.
But Otis warned: “It would be unfortunate if they just decided that misinformation is too sensitive for the public.”
Jankovic has also become a center of sexist and anti-Semitic attacks and even death threats online. Fox News recently questioned whether Jankovic should have agreed to head the council during her pregnancy.
Critics have drawn attention to Jankovic’s statements questioning the origin of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the president’s eldest son, and played a video on TikTok that she recorded about misinformation on the tune of a song from Mary Poppins.
Yankovich’s supporters accused the agency of failing to protect it from trolls and internet attacks.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Council’s misrepresentations have distracted attention from the Department’s vital work and, indeed, along with recent developments globally and nationally, embodies why this is necessary,” Jankovic wrote in her resignation.
FILE – The Homeland Security logo was spotted during a joint news conference in Washington on February 25, 2015. The Homeland Security Department suspended its new disinformation council on Wednesday. The move answers weeks of criticism from Republicans and questions about whether the council will violate Americans’ rights to free speech. The statement said the National Security Department’s advisory board on national security would review the council’s work.