She joined DHS to fight disinformation. She says she was halted by… disinformation
Three weeks: That’s how long it took for the Department of Homeland Security to go from announcing a board intended to combat disinformation to suspending it.
In those three weeks, both the Disinformation Governance Board and its leader, Nina Jankowicz, came under relentless and sometimes vicious attack from right-wing media and Republican lawmakers.
DHS initially shared few details about the board’s function and purview, leading to speculation and fears it would police online speech.
As the board’s public face, Jankowicz became a lighting rod. A well-regarded authority in online disinformation, who has studied Russian information operations and advised governments including that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, she was accused of being a Democratic hack.
Conservatives seized on her tweets and past public statements as evidence of her partisan bias. The attacks got personal: Jankowicz has been barraged with abuse, harassment and death threats.
It all culminated Wednesday in DHS’s decision to put the board on pause for 75 days while the agency reviews its work addressing disinformation. The same day, Jankowicz quit.
Jankowicz spoke with NPR about the board’s botched rollout, what she had hoped to accomplish, and the irony of an effort to combat disinformation being derailed by disinformation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the purpose of the Disinformation Governance Board?
Basically, everything you may have heard about the Disinformation Governance Board is wrong or is just a flat out lie. The board was quite simple and anodyne. What it wanted to do was to coordinate among the Department of Homeland Security’s components — agencies like FEMA or the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency or Customs and Border Patrol — and make sure that Americans had trustworthy information about issues connected to homeland security.
But we weren’t going to be doing anything related to policing speech. It was an internal coordinating mechanism to make sure that we were doing that work efficiently, we were doing it to the best of our ability, and we were doing it in a way that respected privacy, civil rights, civil liberties and, most importantly, the First Amendment.
Can you give an example of the work the board was meant to do?
Let’s say that there was a deepfake video about how to access disaster aid or how to get out of a city during a disaster released by a malign actor like Russia, China or Iran in order to put Americans in danger.
The board would support FEMA in getting good information out there. How do we want to reach this audience? What’s the best way to do that? Let’s look at best practices in resilience building or counter-messaging, to make sure that Americans are safe during this natural disaster.
Why was the board’s purpose so poorly communicated?
I think DHS had other priorities at the time the rollout was happening. They didn’t anticipate this fierce backlash and weren’t able to mount a transparent, open, rapid response when these criticisms came down the pike.
I wish it went differently. And I definitely think that the information vacuum that we created allowed people to fill in the blanks. It frankly showed exactly how disinformation campaigns work.
You have not been shy about sharing your opinions on Twitter, on television. That’s given your critics fodder to accuse you of being partisan. What’s your response to those criticisms?
My response is that there are 250,000 employees at DHS. When I was at DHS along with them, I checked my politics at the door. So these deliberate misconstruals and stripping of nuance and context of my previous statements is nothing but a bad faith, childish distraction from real national security issues that has now hampered the department and the federal government’s response to these issues.
That makes me extremely sad. These are serious issues that have deadly consequences as we’re seeing in places like Ukraine right now. I have always said that disinformation is not a partisan issue. It is a small-d democratic issue. It knows no political party.
The term “disinformation” means one thing for people working in your field. It’s also been used politically to dismiss ideas people disagree with. How would you address concerns that this work can be politically manipulated?
We’re not just talking about speech that happens to be inconvenient for someone’s political viewpoint. Disinformation is false or misleading information spread with malign intent. In this case, the intent would be to hurt or harm the American people. That’s the type of stuff that we were looking at: where disinformation had a nexus with offline action. So violence or making people unsafe in some way.
The idea is to help people understand how these techniques of manipulation look when they encounter them online. To help people recognize when they’re being manipulated or when they’re being scammed.
Why didn’t DHS and you anticipate that this board, however it was intended, would get backlash?
We should have anticipated this response. I think that we absolutely should have done better in communicating it. I understand the American people’s hesitance to get behind an initiative that sounds as scary as the name communicated.
I think there was a little bit of myopic thinking going on when the board was named, which was prior to my tenure at DHS. The thinking was, OK, it’s going to govern the work that DHS is doing in that sphere – it’s not going to govern the entire internet, right? And that should have been communicated more clearly as well.
I believe that I gave the department the best advice that they could have received. That advice was not always heeded.
And, frankly, it speaks to why efforts like the one I was supposed to lead are needed. I don’t think governments are equipped to handle disinformation campaigns. I don’t think governments are thinking very deeply about what to do when their employees are the subject of harassment and death threats and absolute mischaracterization of the work that they’ve done and committed their careers to.
Why did you choose to resign?
My decision to leave was in part because of hesitancies about whether the department is up to the task. And the uncertainty of the future of the board. I’m about to have a baby in two weeks and I really didn’t want this rancor and partisanship and uncertainty to hang over what should be a very happy time for me and my family.
You wrote a book called How to Be a Woman Online about the harassment women, including yourself, face on the internet. Was what happened in the last three weeks different?
It was way more overwhelming and exhausting than anything I’ve experienced before. This was three weeks of a barrage of sexualized, gendered attacks. Attacks on my personal life, attacking my hobbies and my own personality.
But the worst thing, especially as somebody who’s about to become a mom, was these death threats. I think I had maybe one, two, or three days over the three weeks where I wasn’t reporting one to DHS. It was about killing me and my family, taking away everything I held dear. Encouragement for me to commit suicide. Doxxing me and my family.
It should be said that the people who are spreading these childish characterizations of me and my work encourage this type of behavior online, whether or not they say those words themselves.
How has this experience changed the way you see the challenge of disinformation?
It’s made me a lot less optimistic about the American response to disinformation.
This needs to be a wake-up call that things aren’t getting better in this country by ignoring them. That our democratic discourse, the way it is so polarized and so, again, childish and not focused on the real threats, leaves us vulnerable to attacks from without and within. And our adversaries know that.
That’s what I worry most about. I’m coming out of this experience pretty pessimistic. But I’m still committed to the work, because I don’t want my son to grow up in a world where you can’t tell truth from fiction and where you can’t trust anything anybody says.
I’m going to keep working on it as long as I have the energy to.