US disinformation board paused and executive director steps down

Board lasted for three weeks before its leader resigned after personal attacks

A disinformation board at the US Homeland Security Department has been suspended pending a review. AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The head of the Biden administration's disinformation-fighting advisory group has resigned and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it had paused the group's activities.

Nina Jankowicz, who started work as the executive director of the DHS's Disinformation Governance Board in March, said she was expecting a baby and “spending time with my family is first priority”.

The board's creation and last month's announcement that Ms Jankowicz had been appointed to run it provoked a fierce reaction from right-wing critics and drew scepticism from some experts in the field.

Far-right figures — many of whom have spread Republican former president Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud — accused the administration of setting up a “Ministry of Truth” in the vein of the totalitarian propaganda agency described in George Orwell's novel 1984.

Ms Jankowicz herself became a particular focus of abuse.

The DHS said in a statement that the board was being “grossly and intentionally mischaracterised”.

“It was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner. It was designed to ensure we fulfil our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constitutional rights.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted the board had never met and neither the department nor Ms Jankowicz had any power to censor or remove content labelled as disinformation.

DHS said the board was intended to advise the government on how to fight lies spread by, for example, foreign countries such as Russia or China, or human traffickers using false assurances to lure migrants into crossing the border into the US.

But the message was lost among the backlash from the right, and DHS said it was pausing the board's activity pending a “thorough review”.

The Washington Post first reported news of Ms Jankowicz's resignation and a pause to the board's activity.

While the board has not formally been closed down, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that is expected to make recommendations in 75 days.

Although some experts had doubts about the appropriateness of a disinformation board operating out of DHS, they condemned the attacks on Ms Jankowicz.

“I welcome the pausing of the 'Disinformation Governance Board' after just three weeks — I believe this was a major strategic error of the administration,” said Emma Briant, a visiting research associate at Bard College in New York state.

But she said that it was “utterly abhorrent” that Ms Jankowicz had been turned into a punching bag.

News agencies contributed to this report

Updated: May 19, 2022, 5:26 PM