Image for New Culture War Explodes Over How to Address Disinformation

Policing disinformation has become the latest frontier of the culture wars. The announcement earlier this month of Department of Homeland Security disinformation advisory board sparked an immediate Republican response that claims the Biden administration was creating a Soviet style “Ministry of Truth”.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the department’s secretary, seemed off-guard by the reaction and in media interviews tried to assure that the Disinformation Governance Board was small, had no operational authority and wouldn’t spy on Americans. Mayorkas admitted the initial announcement of the board’s creation was clumsy.

The flare-up underlines another partisan divide between Democrats concerned by the impact of disinformation, including inspiring acts of violence such as the Buffalo mass shooting over the weekend, and Republicans fearing an attempt by government to curb free speech by stifling conservative talking points.

At the center of this culture war firestorm is Nina Jankowicz, who was appointed to lead the advisory board. Jankowicz is the author of newly published book, How to Be a Woman Online, that depicts how she and other women have been subjected to misogynistic vitriol by trolls, which can be preludes to acts of physical violence.

A Fulbright Fellow, Jankowicz served as an adviser in 2017 to the Ukrainian government, which informed her 2020 book, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict that describes how Russia has weaponized disinformation and Western nations have failed to respond effectively. “Disinformation is not a partisan problem; it’s a democratic one, and it will take cooperation – cross-party, cross-sector, cross-government, and cross-border – to defeat,” according to Jankowicz.

It’s getting harder to tell the difference between information and misinformation, which is an underlying objective of disinformation campaigns.

Her critics point to social media comments and conclude she is hostile to conservative viewpoints and open to censorship. Jankowicz has specifically referenced Elon Musk, who is negotiating to buy Twitter, and called on media companies and law enforcement to treat threatening online comments more seriously. There is no evidence she supports censorship.

In response to sharp criticism, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement clarifying the board would monitor “disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations.” Now the agency has “paused” the advisory board, which has never met, and Jankowicz has stepped down, suggesting the disinformation board was undone by a disinformation campaign.

Concern over disinformation, both from foreign and domestic sources, has continued to build, amplified by domestic terrorism carried out by actors who post manifestos spouting conspiracy theories, including “Replacement Theory” that asserts a plot exists to replace white Christians.

Numerous studies have concluded that disinformation, often in the guise of fake news, erodes public trust in news coverage, government officials and even social institutions. The cynicism generated by eroded trust can morph into apathy and spite aimed at public discourse. It fosters people retreating to comfortable bubbles of thought, whether tethered to the truth or not. Americans witnessed how disinformation undermined public health efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic. One study determined fake news circulates faster than the truth, abetted by social media algorithms that reward online controversy.

Making the challenge worse for average citizens, disinformation comes in multiple flavors such as fabricated content, manipulated content, imposter content, misleading content, false context and satire. It’s getting harder to tell the difference between information and misinformation, which is an underlying objective of disinformation campaigns. A Gallup Poll marked a decline in public trust of traditional news media from 55 percent in 2000 to almost 30 percent in 2016. It has continued to fall.

In a Brookings Institution essay, Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies, writes, “Fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns are especially problematic in democratic systems, and there is growing debate on how to address these issues without undermining the benefits of digital media. To maintain an open, democratic system, it is important that government, business and consumers work together to solve these problems.”