Reviews | The collapse of the Disinformation Governance Council highlights the problem

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The Disinformation Governance Council has been put on hiatus – leaving doubters of the new body within the Department of Homeland Security sighing with relief. The council was from the start too mired in controversy to fulfill its intended function. But its collapse is no cause for celebration.

The deployment of the DGB was strewn with pitfalls. His name was strange enough (and his unfortunate initials close enough to “KGB”) to conjure up the specter of an Orwellian”Ministry of Truthand details about the council’s function were sparse enough to cause even those who would have otherwise supported its concept to question its effect on free speech. the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, pointed out that any real enforcement authority allowing the DGB to order the removal of information from the Internet would be unconstitutional. The ACLU was right: the DGB could not and did not have real enforcement power. Instead, it was meant to be an internal coordinating body, tasked with establishing best practices for DHS in the work the agency is already doing to combat malign influence campaigns online.

That the creation of the DGB has been the most effective way to develop these best practices – which could range from offering advice on correcting false stories through public messaging to advising agencies on how to monitor social media for misinformation without infringing on civil liberties – has never been cleared. Yet this episode showed just how vulnerable the government is to the same types of campaign the DGB was supposed to help it run. Some of the questions about the scope of the board were legitimate; worries about the perceived liberal bias of the woman chosen to lead it, researcher Nina Jankowicz, though exaggerated, is nonetheless worth considering. But amid legitimate criticism came a targeted and aggressive right-wing effort to mislead citizens about the council’s role and to harass Ms Jankowicz until she tendered her resignation.

Most at fault in this imbroglio, of course, are the actors who have flooded the Web with lies and misogyny. But DHS’s own mistakes have been a showcase in some of the worse practices for blunting misinformation: failing to anticipate how opportunists might exploit its odd name or vague mission to sow mistrust, for example, then failing to mount a robust response as the libels spread far and wide. These failures are the reason why the DGB had to be, at least temporarily, dismantled. However, they are also a reason why a version of the job it was designed for is still needed. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Biden administration learns from this going forward.

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