Inviting Scorn on Truth

Terry H. Schwadron

May 2, 2022

Talk about waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas mentioned the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board this week, apparently as an attempt to rebut misinformation about border enforcement and human smugglers. But he later added that it would be used to counter Russian cyber and election misinformation — homeland security more generally.

Within a day, the political right was sarcastically attacking the would-be creation of a Ministry of Truth, the usual squashing of Republican criticism and, once again, free speech in political circles. At the least, the Biden team was displaying its tin ear for responding to something that shouldn’t require a formal answer. Any attempts by Mayorkas to explain it seemed to go nowhere.

Of course, Wrong Number One here is setting up a Disinformation Board without being clear what its purpose is, as Aaron Blake of The Washington Post noted.

Wrong Number Two is an extension — never explaining why we need such a state-sponsored truth squad. Isn’t this the job of Homeland Security leadership and the White House itself, to say nothing of 270 Democrats in Congress, if the problem is perceived as politically based?

Making it worse for opponents, Mayorkas said the board would be headed by Nina Jankowicz, who has been a vocal Democratic supporter and who has been active in seeking to stop spread of covid misinformation and tweeted skeptically about the legitimacy of claims about finding important, unproven dirt on that laptop that Hunter Biden’s left in a repair shop.

Timing and Need

As we’ve seen, this latest version of assigning official truth-telling comes as we have renewed debate about the efficacy of a billionaire Elon Musk taking over Twitter, as we have The Former Guy launching his own Truth Social brand as a Twitter knockoff, and as we have open propaganda warring over everything from the war in Europe, the culture wars and the status of migration at the border.

Indeed, what brought Mayorkas to Congress this week before multiple committees was required congressional oversight about what policies are and are not in place and what is or is not working right. Mayorkas deferred direct answers to the most critical comments and questions during the hearing, offering to provide specifics later.

But rather than Truth as a goal here towards effective policymaking, we now have an open debate about whether this is George Orwell’s 1984 coming to fruition.

It’s red meat for Republican opponents. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., opined “Rather than police our border, Homeland Security has decided to make policing Americans’ speech its top priority.” Jordan demanded to know whether the truth-finding will be about the discovery of the Hunger Biden laptop, and he attacked the choice of Jankowicz to head the group. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it an April Fool’s joke.

As The Post said, there are few details on what the board will actually do. Homeland Security has not said whether and how much it might monitor disinformation from foreign sources or Americans, whether it would be policing social media, or, from a broader view, what the effort would offer that is not being done now.

Mayorkas hinted that he wanted to rebut the message getting out in Spanish-speaking countries via coyotes and smugglers that border enforcement has loosened.

Free Speech, Again

For her part, Jankowicz tweeted this week that “one of the key reasons the board was established, is to maintain the (Homeland Security’s) commitment to protecting free speech, privacy, civil rights, & civil liberties.”

That administration critics — Republicans now — hyperbolize about misdoings of the current White House occupant has always been part of politics. Last year, Republicans chose to mischaracterize a Justice Department memo aimed at combatting threats being aired at school board meetings as an attack on parental rights, when Justice was saying it wanted to stop threats of violence. The entire Jan. 6 retelling is all about choosing favorable storylines to explain away one view or its opposite about the events that we all saw live on television.

The recent publication of lots of email traffic among Republicans, including members of the media and Congress, with Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, about planning towards Jan. 6, has demonstrated a huge gap between official truth-telling and plain recognition about the involvement of an inner White House team in messaging of all kinds.

It has been particularly noteworthy in that context to see the texts between Meadows and Fox News personnel, including Sean Hannity, that make clear that Hannity is serving in a partisan role on the information channel. Hannity now says he is a talk show host and not a journalist and attacked peers on other networks who do not own up to doing likewise.

That, of course, is not what Fox has been saying.

On Fox, federal and state lawmakers, constitutional scholars and other experts are expressing concerns with the new board as the Biden administration’s attempt to stifle free speech.

In 2018, the then Trump administration set up the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, to deal extensively with the spread of misinformation online — including both foreign interference in elections and the domestic spread of coronavirus misinformation, which sounds like this new board’s function.

Among a White House press secretary, agency secretaries, congressional representatives, and the political parties themselves, why exactly do we need a new misinformation board?




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