Testifying in front of a House committee, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently announced DHS’s formation of a “Disinformation Governance Board.” The board’s stated mission would be to address “disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China and Iran,” as well as “transnational criminal organizations and human-smuggling organizations.”
Little is known about the board, and Mayorkas has claimed it will have “no operational authority or capability.” Still, leading media instantly heralded its creation. The Associated Press (4/28/22) accepted the premise that a DHS-helmed body would “counter disinformation” coming from Russia and “human smugglers” targeting people seeking to immigrate to the US. MSNBC (4/29/22) maintained that the initiative “makes sense.” Notably, not a single reference to the DHS’s history of incessant violence against immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter organizers and other activists was deemed relevant to either story.
A ‘Soviet’ plot?
Despite their decidedly uncritical framing, media have acknowledged broadsides against the board—but almost exclusively those from the far right. In the wake of Mayorkas’ announcement, right-wing policymakers like Sen. Josh Hawley (R.–Mo.) and Fox News personalities including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity groused about the Disinformation Governance Board, condemning it as an Orwellian, “Soviet,” Democrat-masterminded ploy to spy on and muzzle conservatives. News outlets subsequently alarmed readers of a brewing “tempest” (Washington Post, 4/29/22), “uproar” (CNN, 5/1/22) and “partisan fight” (New York Times, 5/2/22) over the board.
Taking these right-wing cries of persecution at face value, CNN’s Dana Bash (5/1/22) asked Mayorkas to address them, handing him an opportunity to paraphrase a DHS press release. Other than a fleeting question about a disinformation board under a hypothetically re-elected President Trump, Bash inquired no further regarding any harms the board may pose, nor did she so much as flinch when Mayorkas—deputized to manage “disinformation” about immigration—reiterated his enduringly callous message to would-be US immigrants: “Do not come.”
The same day, CNN’s Brian Stelter (5/1/22) invited Moira Whelan of the federally funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) on his show to tout the board as a civil liberties–honoring public good. The think tank’s funding comes in part from the National Endowment for Democracy and US Agency for International Development—both of which function as facilitators of US covert operations—as well as the State Department, rendering Whelan a dubious source. Stelter welcomed the development of the board as “common sense,” while raising only the concerns of the right, and characterizing the discourse as “mostly a Fox world story.” Any further interrogation of the board, apparently, was unnecessary.
‘Cruel, unlawful and ineffective’
While it’s entirely justifiable to impugn right-wingers’ tantrums, it’s inaccurate to suggest those objections are the only ones that exist.
As noted, outlets have been conspicuously incurious about a decision to place the stewardship of “disinformation” directly under the authority of the DHS. Conceived in the thick of post-9/11 anti-Muslim “counterterrorism” hysteria, the department oversees ICE and Customs and Border Patrol, two gravely abusive agencies that have been responsible for the death and disappearance of at least tens of thousands of undocumented asylum seekers. The DHS’s cruelty is notorious, prompting activists, journalists and organizations like the ACLU to call for its dissolution. More recently, DHS continued its pattern of violently disrupting civil rights protests in the US when it descended on Los Angeles demonstrators defending the right to an abortion amid a pending overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Mayorkas, a Biden appointee and former US attorney for the Central District of California, offers little hope that any of this will change. Though he’s voiced mild disagreement with DHS’s rhetoric and tactics, activist groups have described Mayorkas’ DHS as implementing “cruel, unlawful and ineffective deterrence-based policies that extend rather than dismantle the previous administration’s approach to migration.” A glossy Washington Post profile (11/1/21), largely heedless of these concerns, informed readers that Mayorkas “leans into his days leading a team of prosecutors when wooing politicians skeptical that he will aggressively enforce America’s immigration laws.”
Overseeing Mayorkas’ new board is Nina Jankowicz, a self-described “expert on disinformation” and alum of the National Democratic Institute. At NDI, Jankowicz “managed democracy assistance programs to Russia and Belarus”—a phrase that can’t be divorced from the think tank’s soft- and hard-power funding sources.
‘A certain amount of gumption’
When considered in concert with Mayorkas’ and the DHS’s virulent jingoism, one might start to view Jankowicz with suspicion. Mainline media, however, have instead embraced Jankowicz as a credentialed, principled and neutral authority (New York Times, 5/2/22), and defended her from the right’s vitriol. “Spare a thought for Nina Jankowicz, who has stepped up to lead this effort at the Department of Homeland Security,” Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce (4/29/22) implored. “Volunteering to be a piñata takes a certain amount of gumption.”
News media have issued some reservations about the board, but these amount to little more than process critiques, comments on semantics and light McCarthyism. Esquire’s Pierce opined:
I am concerned what this operation would look like under, say, President DeSantis, and there had to be a more deft way to roll it out than having DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas just drop it into his testimony before a House committee.
The Washington Post (4/29/22) also chimed in, calling the name Disinformation Governance Board “a bit ominous; it sounds less like an effort to combat disinformation rather than to, well, govern it.” In a later piece, the Post’s editorial board (5/3/22) cautioned that the initials of the Disinformation Governance Board were the “Soviet-sounding DGB,” presumably meant to evoke the KGB.
The Post went on to assure readers that the board “could do a great deal of good” with just a bit of transparency and a few language tweaks, adding that “the reality isn’t nearly so scary” as the right suggests. But therein lies the problem: If only the right gets to weigh in on what’s “scary,” the voices of those who truly suffer will continue to go unheard.