Documents provided by a whistleblower to Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Charles Grassley this week show Biden administration officials withheld the true purpose of a short-lived disinformation office when they said it would only focus on dealing with foreign disinformation sources.
Critics of the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were quick to raise concerns that the effort would be used to police constitutionally protected free speech activities within the U.S. In May, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the DGB against criticisms and said the board will not “monitor American citizens.” Mayorkas said the board’s true purpose would be to “gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from the cartels, and disseminate those best practices to the operators.”
Former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also claimed that the Board would be focused on “human traffickers and other transnational criminal organizations.”
This week, however, internal DHS documents provided to Hawley and Grassley by a whistleblower instead show that the board was focused on targeting disinformation sources by topics rather than specific points of national origin. The documents show the board was concerned about “conspiracy theories about the validity and security of elections,” “disinformation related to the origins and effects of COVID-19 vaccines or the efficacy of masks,” and “falsehoods surrounding U.S. government immigration policy.”
A document does express concerns about disinformation coming from foreign terrorist organizations and nation-states but does so right alongside concerns from domestic violent extremists (DVEs). The document states “these actors often amplify and exploit narratives that already exist in public discourse, such as disinformation surrounding the validity of the 2020 election underpinning calls to violence on January 6, 2021.”
One of the documents, dated April 28, 2022, also detailed instructions to meet with Twitter to discuss a “public-private partnership” to discuss misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation (referred to in the documents as MDM) and “countering DVE.” The document further states that the purpose of the meeting is “that Twitter become involved in Disinformation Governance Board Analytic Exchanges on Domestic Violent Extremism (DVE) and irregular migration.”
The documents don’t communicate any limits on the Disinformation Governance Board’s authority pertaining to foreign versus domestic sources of alleged misinformation. The documents do stress that the issues “must not be politicized and must be protected from perceptions of politicization” and that the board’s actions “do not have the chilling or suppressing free speech and free association or of infringing on individuals’ privacy or other First Amendment protected activity.”
In a joint letter to Mayorkas, Hawley and Grassley wrote that contrary to the assurances that the DGB would be focused on foreign disinformation sources, “some of the examples of disinformation given in the memo relate not only to foreign disinformation but issues that have been at the heart of domestic political discourse for the past several years. For instance, the
memo refers to ‘[c]onspiracy theories about the validity and security of elections’ and ‘[d]isinformation related to the origins and effects of COVID-19 vaccines or the efficacy of masks.’”
“The First Amendment of the Constitution was designed precisely so that the government could not censor opposing viewpoints – even if those viewpoints were false,” the senators added later on in their letter. “DHS should not in any way seek to enlist the private sector to curb or silence opposing viewpoints.”
The DHS paused the Disinformation Governance Board in May, but had reportedly given the board’s inaugural executive director, Nina Jankowicz, the opportunity to stay on with the board even as its work was on hold, suggesting the DHS may seek to restart the effort at a later date.