Talking Points

Who's disinforming whom? Why the DHS board failed

The Department of Homeland Security's ill-fated disinformation board met its predictable, if temporary, end this week. The people involved in the Biden administration's efforts naturally lamented it as a victim of the very forces it was conceived to combat.

This framing illustrates precisely the problem, of course: viewing disinformation, at least the bad kind, as a more or less conservative phenomenon while ignoring dubious views common on the left. This was personified by Nina Jankowicz, the defenestrated face of the now-paused board, who believed all the conventional things about Trump-Russia collusion, Hunter Biden's laptop, and COVID-19's origins that turned out to be wrong or at least not as cut and dry as the received wisdom would have it.

Disinformation has a specific definition involving the deliberate spread of propagandistic and false claims, often by hostile foreign powers. It was this phenomenon that the Biden administration insisted their board was intended to combat, not bad tweets. But the inclination of Jankowicz and her circle to speak publicly as if the problem was anything that undercut liberal narratives or amplified conservative ones, no matter how debatable, made it impossible for many ordinary citizens to take this seriously. 

All this was made inevitable by sloppy disinformation talk that long predated the Biden White House, including an imprecise definition of what constituted Russian election interference in 2016. Those efforts ranged from crude propaganda to stealing emails in an attempt to swing American public opinion, as opposed to altering vote totals (as many partisan Democrats believe without evidence). And it included some information that, however illegally or unethically obtained, that was both accurate and a legitimate object of public concern. Among the revelations were some of Hillary Clinton's opinions and the Democratic National Committee's less than neutral stance toward Bernie Sanders.

The propriety of all this and what to do about it can be debated. We don't want Russia, or other foreign governments (much less illiberal ones) influencing our elections. But a lot of good journalism is based on leaked information, and the whole affair was swept up under the rubric of the Kremlin "hacking the election."

It was into that climate, plus the argument over Big Tech censorship and gatekeeping, that Jankowicz and her merry board stepped. No surprise that it failed.