A new board at the Department of Homeland Security will focus on countering misinformation and disinformation, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers today, with Wilson Center fellow Nina Jankowicz separately confirming that she would be executive director of the board.
During a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security to discuss the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget request, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ohio) stated that disinformation is a “huge threat to our homeland” and said Mayorkas has “noted that it’s a concern of yours at the border with human smuggling organizations peddling misinformation to exploit vulnerable migrants for profit.” Citing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on tactics used in the 2016 election campaign, she added that “foreign adversaries attempt to destabilize our elections by targeting people of color with disinformation campaigns.”
“A newer trend that we saw in the 2020 election and already in the 2022 midterms is that disinformation is being heavily targeted at Spanish-speaking voters, sparking and fueling conspiracy theories,” Underwood said to Mayorkas. “DHS and its components play a big role in addressing myths and disinformation in Spanish and other languages. Can you share what steps you’ve taken and what future plans you have to address Spanish-language myths and disinformation through a department-wide approach?”
Mayorkas replied that DHS has “a number of different offices engaged in this critical effort” as part of their mission set including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which recently published infographics explaining information manipulation and how bad actors use social media bots as well as an update of the Disinformation Stops With You infographic set.
“Our Undersecretary for Policy Rob Silvers is co-chair with our Principal Deputy General Counsel Jennifer Daskal in leading a just recently constituted misinformation/disinformation governance board,” the secretary said.
Politico Playbook reported that DHS is standing up a new Disinformation Governance Board “to coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia.”
Nina Jankowicz, who studies the intersection of democracy and technology in Central and Eastern Europe as a Wilson Center global fellow, has advised the Ukrainian government on strategic communications, and is the author of How To Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, confirmed on Twitter that she would be executive director of the board.
“Honored to be serving in the Biden Administration @DHSgov and helping shape our counter-disinformation efforts,” Jankowicz tweeted, adding that “a HUGE focus of our work, and indeed, one of the key reasons the Board was established, is to maintain the Dept’s committment [sic] to protecting free speech, privacy, civil rights, & civil liberties.”
“More to come as we dig into the big job ahead,” she added. “For now, thanks for the support.”
In February, the latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin assessed that the converging factors of disinformation, persistent calls for violence against critical and often-soft targets, and recent calls by foreign terrorist organizations for attacks on the United States have “increased the volatility, unpredictability, and complexity” of the threat landscape.
Disinformation and misinformation propagated and disseminated by both domestic and foreign actors were listed as the first key factors influencing the heightened threat environment, with grievances stoked by unsubstantiated widespread election fraud conspiracy theories and COVID-19 mis/disinformation noted as inspiring violent extremist attacks during 2021.
The bulletin said that calls for violence have been notably targeting “U.S. critical infrastructure; soft targets and mass gatherings; faith-based institutions, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques; institutions of higher education; racial and religious minorities; government facilities and personnel, including law enforcement and the military; the media; and perceived ideological opponents.” Violence against these locations or groups could stem from anti-government extremism, racially or religiously motivated extremism, and/or disinformation or conspiracy theories; for example, “COVID-19 mitigation measures—particularly COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates—have been used by domestic violent extremists to justify violence since 2020 and could continue to inspire these extremists to target government, healthcare, and academic institutions that they associate with those measures.”