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After a discrediting campaign, DHS pauses a board created to combat disinformation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three weeks. That's how long a board that was launched by the Department of Homeland Security to help fight disinformation lasted. In those three weeks, both the Disinformation Governance Board and its leader, Nina Jankowicz, came under relentless attacks from conservatives. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here. She talked with Jankowicz yesterday, shortly after she resigned.

Shannon, it's a pretty good get. Can you start by telling us about Nina Jankowicz and her background?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Yes. She's a well-regarded authority on disinformation. She studied Russian information operations. She's advised governments, including Ukraine's. And previously, she was a fellow at D.C. think tank, and - where she focused on democracy and technology in Europe.

MARTIN: So how did she become the subject of so much conservative ire?

BOND: Well, there was a lot of criticism of this Disinformation Governance Board, including from the left. But conservatives seized on Jankowicz herself - her perceived partisanship, her tweets, even a silly TikTok video she made.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

NINA JANKOWICZ: (Singing, imitating English accent) Oh, information laundering is really quite ferocious. It's when a huckster takes some lies and make them sound precocious by saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet so disinformation's origins seem slightly less atrocious.

Ha, ha, ha. Woo.

MARTIN: Wow.

BOND: Yeah. But it was much more than just making fun of a cringe video, right? Jankowicz received this onslaught of abuse, harassment, even death threats. And the problem here is DHS did not explain what this board was designed to do. And in the absence of information, given that name, many assumed the worst; this was an attack on free speech by the Biden administration.

Here's Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin on FOX News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON JOHNSON: This is Orwellian. This is a ministry of truth, and the person they've appointed is a Democrat propagandist.

BOND: And so on Wednesday, Jankowicz quit.

MARTIN: And as we noted, you talked to her yesterday.

BOND: Yes. And from the outset, she wanted to make one thing clear.

JANKOWICZ: Basically, everything you may have heard about the Disinformation Governance Board is wrong or is just a flat-out lie.

BOND: So to start off, what's a concrete example of the kind of thing the board was meant to do?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So let me give you a hypothetical, right? Let's say that there was a deepfake video released about how to access disaster aid or how to get out of a city during a disaster time by - released by a malign actor, like Russia, China, or Iran, in order to put Americans in danger. The board would consult with FEMA, which had been doing this work for more than a decade at this point, and support FEMA in getting good information out there. And they're really good at that already.

But we'd make sure - how do we want to reach this audience? What's the best way to do that? Let's look at best practices in resilience-building or countermessaging to make sure that Americans are safe during this natural disaster. That's just one example. It wouldn't have to do with, again, adjudicating what is true or false or anything like that.

BOND: There is a lack of public clarity, I would say, from DHS about exactly what the board was supposed to do about the kind of things you were describing. And I think that may have been, you know, what, allow this in ways to be mischaracterized - right? - allowed people like Republican Ron Johnson to describe the board as this Orwellian ministry of truth. Why was it so poorly communicated?

JANKOWICZ: That speaks again to the behemoth agency that DHS is. There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen when these decisions are being made. And unfortunately, I think the agency, the department had had other priorities at the time the rollout was happening, and they didn't anticipate this fierce backlash and weren't able to mount a transparent, open, rapid response when these criticisms came down the pike. I wish it went differently. And I definitely think that the information vacuum that we created allowed people to fill in the blanks. It frankly showed exactly how disinformation campaigns work. And sadly, a lot of the vacuum that was created directed a lot of vitriol and ire and threats and harassment, even, toward me and my family because people were looking for something to latch on to.

BOND: Right. I mean, I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, you have not been shy about sharing your opinions, you know, on Twitter, on television. That's giving your critics fodder to say that you are a partisan actor. You know, they've cited things like tweets about Hunter Biden's laptop, saying, you know, you can't be trusted. You are a Democratic partisan. What is your response to those criticisms?

JANKOWICZ: My response is that, again, there are 250,000 employees at DHS. When I was at DHS, along with them, I checked my politics at the door. So these misconstruals - deliberate misconstruals and stripping of nuance and context of my previous statements is nothing but a bad-faith, childish distraction from real national security issues that has now, you know, hampered the department and the federal government's response to these issues. And that makes me extremely sad.

BOND: You have experienced harassment online before. You wrote an entire book about it called "How To Be A Woman Online." Was this experience different from what has happened to you before?

JANKOWICZ: Oh, gosh, Shannon. It was way more overwhelming and exhausting than anything I've experienced before. Other campaigns that I've dealt with, you know, probably numbered in the thousands of tweets or pieces of content or had to do with specific interviews and, you know, would go away after a number of hours. This was three weeks of a barrage of sexualized, gendered attacks - attacks on my personal life, attacking my hobbies and my own personality. Obviously, you know, my appearance was always in play as well.

But the worst thing, especially as somebody who's about to become a mom, was these death threats, which - I think I'm at maybe one, two or three days over the three weeks where I wasn't reporting one of them to DHS. And they were pretty staggering. It was about killing me and my family, taking away everything I held dear, encouragement for me to commit suicide, doxxing me and my family. And, you know, I think it should be said that the people who are spreading these childish characterizations of me and my work encourage this type of behavior online, whether or not they say those words themselves.

BOND: I mean, I'm so sorry this has happened to you. As an expert in disinformation, given the work this board was supposed to accomplish, you know, how has this experience changed the way you see the challenge of disinformation and, you know, the challenge of how governments can and should respond to it?

JANKOWICZ: It's made me a lot less optimistic about the American response to disinformation. I don't think that dooms us. But I think this needs to be a wake-up call that things aren't getting better in this country by ignoring them, that our democratic discourse, the way it is so polarized and so, again, childish and not focused on the real threats, leaves us vulnerable to attacks from without and within. And, you know, our adversaries know that. And that's what I worry most about. I'm coming out of this experience pretty pessimistic but, again, still committed to the work because I don't want my son to grow up in a world where you can't tell truth from fiction and where you can't trust anything anybody says. That's not something that I'm going to abide. And I'm going to keep working on it as long as I have the energy to.

BOND: Nina Jankowicz told me, right now she doesn't know if this was all worth it. Meanwhile, DHS says the board is on pause but not dead yet.

MARTIN: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon. We appreciate it.

BOND: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.