from the information-lacking dept

The Biden Administration just announced the creation of a DHS subagency apparently intended to confront “disinformation.” The biggest problem with it is that it is impossible, right now, to even know whether it’s a good idea or not, because it is so unclear what this board is intended to do.

Further, its name does not inspire confidence. It is very easy to read “Disinformation Governance Board” and think it is some Orwellian government program designed to qualitatively analyze information in order to deem it either suitable to be expressed, or forbidden. And if that’s what is planned, then such a program should be loudly and immediately condemned.

Indeed, the decision to announce this in a weird, furtive way, without details, focus, or explicit limitations, only served to create a firestorm of rage among the Fox News set. By not explaining what the agency is actually going to do and calling it a “governance” (?!?) board, it allowed provocateurs and nonsense peddlers to jump in and fill up the void — perhaps somewhat ironically with disinformation insisting that this board was going to be “giving law enforcement power to punish people who think the wrong things.”

Of course, that’s almost certainly not what’s in store (beyond the Constitutional problems with such a thing, it wouldn’t make any sense at all). But without knowing what is instead planned, it’s hard to know what to think about it. Some reports suggest that it’s an agency effort designed to counter specific disinformation about the US government, particularly circulating rumors about US immigration policy that, when believed, make vulnerable immigrants even more vulnerable. From the AP article about the board’s launching:

A newly formed Disinformation Governance Board announced Wednesday will immediately begin focusing on misinformation aimed at migrants, a problem that has helped to fuel sudden surges at the U.S. southern border in recent years. Human smugglers often spread misinformation around border policies to drum up business.

There isn’t really anything objectionable about the government wanting to make sure people are not hurt by misunderstanding policies actually intended to help them, and it makes sense for it to want to have some faculty to be able to correct the record when it needs to be corrected.

But, as usual, the details matter, and HOW the government responds to specific disinformation will dictate whether the effort is something helpful, or instead something liable to only make a bigger mess (or, worse, unconstitutional). Much care will need to be taken to avoid the latter outcome, and it would be helpful if there was more initial transparency about what was planned so that the public can help make sure that such care is taken.

And the milquetoast statement from the (already Orwellian-named) Homeland Security that the board will “protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties” is basically worse than useless. It provides no concrete explanation of what the board will do to accomplish that, and again it allows political opponents to just make up whatever they want.

Meanwhile, the other thing that seems like it could be an interesting idea for a government “disinformation board” to do is simply to do more research into how and why disinformation has traction. It isn’t clear, though, that this will be one of its tasks, although appointing Nina Jancowicz, herself a social science researcher, to lead the board does spark hope that such projects may be in store. The sociology of mass communications is a deep and rich subject, and one that bears very heavily on the policy challenges of the day. If we care about disinformation at all, then we should be doing more to study it, if not directly by the government then via grants to social scientists with the methodological ability to do effective research.

We should be doing that anyway, more social science research at the intersection of information technology and people, so that we can build more effective policy in response to the insights we glean, instead of the constant guesswork that currently informs our political reactions to the challenges we face.

But everything about the way this Disinformation Governance Board has been rolled out has been a disaster. The lack of clear information about what it is, what it does. The naming of it. The fact that the White House simply left this giant open void to be filled by the misinformation peddlers themselves, suggests that the White House itself is not at all comprehending how any of this works. And that, alone, does not bode well for this terribly named board.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, dhs, disinformation, disinformation governance board, free speech, nina jancowicz


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