A veritable firestorm erupted last week when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that they were forming a “Disinformation Governance Board.” The press release about the board was vague and stirred up free speech concerns from people all across the political spectrum.
The comparison between George Orwell’s 1984 and the dystopian, authoritarian “Ministry of Truth” came easily and quickly.
So, what is this board? Why does it exist? And will it take away your free speech?
So, what is this “Disinformation Governance Board” supposed to do again?
The board initially made it sound like they would actively “address” the threat of disinformation. People interpreted this to mean that they would police social media. However, they later clarified that they would only “advise” other departments within the DHS, acting as an “internal working group.”
The disinformation board basically acts as a consultant group, making sure the DHS stays consistent while providing “guardrails” around what it should and should not do. This is ironic since the press release demonstrated their absolute incompetence in how to communicate to the American public. The secretary of the DHS Alejandro Mayorkas even admitted that they could have “done a better job of communicating what the department does.”
Democratic senator Chris Murphy remarked sarcastically to Mayorkas, “There has been a lot of misinformation about your department’s work to combat misinformation.”
But, let’s back up. What is disinformation to begin with? According to the government fact sheet about the board, disinformation is “false information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead.”
The government says that the aim of the DHS in regards to disinformation is “focused” on bad international actors, like Russia, China, and Iran, and human smuggling operations spreading lies within the US. For example, the sheet references when human smugglers falsely claim that the US border with Mexico is open so that they can drum up business. The DHS has already taken steps to address “disinformation” like this, and the new “Disinformation Governance Board” would review those practices.
The government fact sheet also says that a goal of the board is to make sure the DHS protects free speech and the right to privacy as the DHS does “disinformation-related” work. The board does not have “operational authority or capability.”
“The Department of Homeland Security is not going to be the truth police,” the Secretary of the DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas said. “That is the farthest thing from the truth. We protect the security of the homeland.” Of course, that’s hardly reassuring, considering how protecting security is nearly always the justification for infringements of citizens’ rights.
Nina Jankowicz’s political leanings are a red flag to some
Despite the assurances of the DHS that the board will be non-partisan and that it won’t police social media or free speech, concern remains. Criticism centers around the controversial head of the board named Nina Jankowicz. On paper, she has qualified credentials, but her work seems plagued by her political biases.
For example, Jankowicz has previously characterized the Hunter Biden laptop scandal as “a Trump campaign product,” when in fact it turned out to be largely factual. She also praised Christopher Steele, the author of the Steele dossier which again turned out to be based on misleading information to undermine former President Donald Trump. On an NPR podcast, she also heavily criticized “free speech absolutists,” a reference to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Even if we give her the benefit of the doubt, and these first two missteps were honest mistakes instead of politically motivated, that still proves our point: the US government should not hold the final power to determine whether speech is true.
Did the DHS form this board to censor free speech? No, but it might be the first step towards such a reality. Especially since the details of the board remain foggy.
The question always boils down to “who defines misinformation and disinformation?” Does our government give us the confidence to vest this power to them without checks and balances?
“Disinformation’s” frightening origin
According to reporting by the New York Times, Jankowicz “has suggested in her book and in public statements that condescending and misogynistic content online can prelude violence and other unlawful acts offline.” While no Christian should affirm misogynistic or hurtful words, much less speak or write them, there is good reason to defend other people’s freedom to use them. And, when basic biblical beliefs on sexuality are labeled “transphobic,” could that eventually be unfoundedly taken as a “prelude to violence?” This leap in logic may not take much in today’s culture.
Some have compared the DHS disinformation board to the KGB. The supposed similarities are perhaps best supported by the US government’s new use of the word “disinformation.” One analyst writes that the word came from a Russian word used by the KGB, dezinformatsiya. The fact that disinformation is so broad means that the government might use it to apply generally to ideas they disagree with. We should be wary when the government uses unclear terms that obscure, rather than clarify what’s going on.
Again, we must clarify: this particular board won’t directly censor free speech, nor will it directly monitor American citizens, or anyone. So ironically enough, this kind of small group might do some good in the department if it actually protects citizens from the DHS’s intrusion on free speech.
On the other hand, if the US government eventually “finds” a connection between speech it doesn’t like and “violence,” we might find ourselves in a more Orwellian place. While the board itself sounds Orwellian, it doesn’t quite meet the standards for that label. That said, it may be the first step to something more Orwellian soon.
The pushback against this disinformation board continues, which thankfully puts the DHS and disinformation board under closer scrutiny.
Should Christians fear for our liberty?
In our last podcast, American commentator David French spoke with insight into how we can respond biblically to threats to our rights: “Every syllable [in the New Testament] written to the church and to Christians about loving your enemies, speaking the truth in love, was written in a time when Christians could not imagine the wealth and power we have… Our religious liberty concerns, they would think that’s hysterical that that keeps us up at night… Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t defend the American constitutional structure. In fact, I think that’s part of our responsibilities as good citizens.”
In other words, the entire New Testament was written to Christians whose government didn’t protect their religious liberty or free speech. And yet, Jesus calls us to love our enemy. Just because our rights are threatened doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore the commands of the New Testament.
As Christians, we should not allow fear to overrule our highest calling: love. While concern about the future of our freedom is understandable, such fear shouldn’t overwhelm us. Panic will only make us more vulnerable to authoritarianism. Let’s partake in the “wisdom from above,” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)
As good citizens, we should resist authoritarianism from both sides of the political aisle. For citizens of the US, that means protecting the Constitution.
For citizens of Christ’s kingdom, we do that without compromising the command to love others. Although we are dual citizens, we are citizens of heaven first and foremost.