May 5, 2022

The Disinformation Governance Board.

The Disinformation Governance Board.

Plus, a question about the topics Tangle covers.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering Biden's Disinformation Governance Board. Plus, a question about the topics Tangle covers.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of the DHS, who has struggled to explain the new board. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council
Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of the DHS, who has struggled to explain the new board. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council

Correction.

In a reader question on Tuesday, I noted that a lot of folks on the pro-choice side argue that "you can't know if you're having twins or triplets until roughly 10-12 weeks of pregnancy," which is often a case about the development of personhood/individualism coming after that period. As a reader pointed out, it may have been more accurate to say "there is no way to know whether you are having twins or triplets because the division into two or more organisms has not yet occurred until 10-12 weeks," but this is based mostly on the typical timing of an ultrasound.

Either way, an ultrasound as early as week five can tell you if you're having twins. So not much about the statement is accurate.

This is our 62nd Tangle correction in its 145-week history, and, unfortunately, our second correction note this week. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Tomorrow: Reader feedback.

As expected, I got a lot of reader feedback in the last 24 hours from yesterday's piece. And I'm sure a lot more will be coming in today. I'm going to spend the next day checking in with folks to ask if I can share their feedback, and will be publishing some of it tomorrow as our subscribers-only Friday edition. I just wanted to say thank you to the vast, vast majority of folks who were respectful with their disagreement, and to say how thrilled I was to see how few people unsubscribed yesterday even after I expressed my full-throated opinion. It means a lot to me.


Quick hits.

  1. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a half percentage point yesterday, the largest raise in two decades, and Fed chairman Jerome Powell predicted a "softish" landing for the economy. The stock market initially rallied on the news that harsher interest rate hikes may not be coming in the future, then lost those gains. (The rate hike)
  2. Donald Trump Jr. has testified to the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. (The testimony)
  3. The U.S. says it has provided intelligence to Ukrainian allies that has helped them target and kill Russian generals in the war. (The report)
  4. The U.S. now says WNBA star Brittney Griner is being "wrongfully detained" in Russia. Griner has been held for 77 days and faces up to 10 years in prison after being arrested for allegedly having cannabis vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage. (The charges)
  5. Police vehicles and heavy trucks are now blocking access to the Supreme Court as security is being enhanced following protests on the potential Roe v. Wade ruling. (The protests)
  6. President Biden approved a disaster declaration to unlock federal aid for New Mexico, where wildfires have ravaged more than 300,000 acres this year. (The declaration)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The Biden administration's disinformation board. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it is stepping up an effort to counter disinformation from Russia, along with misinformation that human smugglers use to mislead migrants traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border. Online misinformation and disinformation have both been topics of discussion over recent years, but the focus here appears to be on “disinformation” — information in that it is “deliberately deceptive,” though news reports and members of the DHS have repeatedly conflated the two.

The new board said Wednesday that it will focus on disinformation aimed at migrants that has helped create recent surges at the border. Smugglers often spread disinformation to increase their traffic, the Associated Press reported. For example, last summer, some 14,000 migrants were led to Del Rio, Texas after messages spread widely on Facebook and WhatsApp about changes to immigration policies that might allow them to stay, despite the fact many were going to be deported.

The DHS said the new board is also going to monitor Russian disinformation threats during the midterm elections. It appointed Nina Jankowicz, who researches Russian disinformation, as its head. Jankowicz's appointment immediately drew criticism for erroneous statements she had made about the Hunter Biden laptop story and the so-called Steele Dossier. In response to criticism, the White House has pledged the board will be "non-partisan and apolitical."

It's unclear exactly what the board will do when it encounters disinformation, or how it plans to limit its spread. Alejandro Mayorkas, head of the DHS, has said the board is an internal working group without operational authority, and will serve in an advisory role. He told CNN the idea is to gather best practices and support counter-disinformation activities, not monitor Americans.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is worried about rampant disinformation, but skeptical about the board.
  • Some say to ignore the hysterics and focus on what the board will do.
  • Others argue that it's a bad idea, but not for reasons the right says.

The Washington Post editorial board said to "ignore the hysteria" over the Disinformation Governance Board.

"Despite what some in the Republican congressional leadership might tell you, the Department of Homeland Security is not starting up a “Ministry of Truth.” But the agency should be as transparent as possible about what its Disinformation Governance Board actually will be up to," the editors wrote. "The Disinformation Governance Board, (whose acronym is the Soviet-sounding DGB) is supposed to aid coordination among DHS offices as they counter viral lies and propaganda that pose a threat to domestic security. Done right, this is a useful function. Mr. Mayorkas mentioned campaigns by human smugglers targeting migrants to trick the Haitian community into thinking they could enter the United States without risk of deportation. Russia’s persistent efforts to influence U.S. elections are well known. Studying the 'best practices' for stymying these attempts and sharing them with government actors could do a great deal of good.

"What the board is not tasked to do is to establish what is true and what is false, or to push Internet services or anyone else to take a tougher line on expression in general. Indeed, the board has no operational authority at all," the editors said. "The problem is that even after Mr. Mayorkas’s clarifications concerning the board, the particulars weren’t really clear at all. More details later released by the department have helped, but transparency will be essential as the group goes about its work. As long as fair-minded observers have to guess at what the board’s role is, players who have more nefarious agendas will have ample opportunity to, yes, spread disinformation."

Eugene Robinson said a ‘disinformation board’ is a bad name, even if disinformation is a real problem.

"Nothing is more important to the future of our democracy than the fight against disinformation," Robinson wrote. "But a new Department of Homeland Security unit — ominously called the Disinformation Governance Board — is not helping. The problems begin with the worst name I’ve ever heard the federal government come up with, and that’s saying something. Disinformation Governance Board? To call the unit’s name Orwellian is an insult to George Orwell... Beyond the issue of the name is the still-mystifying question about what the board is supposed to do. At congressional hearings this past week, Mayorkas veered from pitching it as an effort to counteract Russian-style meddling in our elections to portraying it as an effort to protect Spanish-speaking migrants from lies told by the criminals who smuggle them into the country. He failed to make clear exactly how the board was supposed to accomplish either of these tasks.

"I don’t believe for a minute that the purpose of the board is to somehow police the speech of American citizens," Robinson added. "But in the absence of a clear statement of mission and vision from Mayorkas — or, for that matter, anyone in the Biden administration — the far right is practically being invited to portray the Disinformation Governance Board as part of a vast (and imaginary) conspiracy to censor conservative voices. Disinformation is, indeed, a potentially mortal threat to our democracy... Solutions to the disinformation problem must be found — but surely not by some Department of Homeland Security panel, given the First Amendment’s prohibition against government abridgment of free speech."

Alex Shephard said it's a bad idea, but not for the reasons Tucker Carlson says.

"Naturally, what alarms the right about efforts to bring misinformation to heel is the fact that its political movement is built on a firehose of lies and falsehoods. Case in point: its depiction of this new Disinformation Bureau as a kind of cancel culture tribunal, where ordinary citizens will have to answer for their thought crimes before a panel of humorless woke drones," Shephard said. "All of this clearly overstates the Disinformation Board’s power. There’s no reason to believe that it will do anything other than produce documents and media aimed at quickly countering disinformation. But whether this effort will be effective—or that it’s even a good idea—is another matter altogether.

"Such an entity created by the Biden administration will likely struggle to achieve its intended goals by becoming a lightning rod for conservative culture warriors looking for anything they can twist into evidence that the federal government has gone 'woke.' Moreover, it’s easy to see how such a board could be weaponized by a Republican administration, which would use it to push its own disinformation—and to attack immigrants and other vulnerable communities in the process," he said. "Besides, for liberals, any expansion of the Department of Homeland Security or its powers should be steadfastly opposed. The department itself, which owes its existence to the authoritarian post-9/11 panic, should be abolished, as my colleague Matt Ford argued back in 2018."


What the right is saying.

  • The right says the board is a dangerous idea, and is already politically biased.
  • Some call out the historical significance of such a board.
  • Others say it is "laughable" the Biden administration wants to be arbiters of truth.

Roger Koppl and Abigail Devereaux criticized the stated goal and the people running the board.

"The stated goal of combating mis- and disinformation is framed to seem unobjectionable," they said. "Who objects to truth and pines for falsehood? DGB experts will guide the way, separating the informational wheat from the disinformational chaff. But there’s one small problem with empowering 'truth experts': Experts are people," they wrote. "By creating the DGB, the U.S. government is creating a crisis monitor with the dial permanently set to ‘existential threat.’ No one inside the board will have the incentive—or the courage—to dial it down. The dangers of the DGB will be amplified if it becomes the tool of partisan political actors. And it already has.

"Executive director Nina Jankowicz, who once described Hunter Biden’s laptop as 'a Trump campaign product,' has written that America’s 'information landscape' includes 'declining trust in the media, fed by the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on the fourth estate.' She has said: 'Unless we mitigate our own political polarization, our own internal issues, we will continue to be an easy target for any malign actor—Russian or Iranian, foreign or domestic—to manipulate.' Yes, you read that right. We must all fall in line because of the many grave threats—domestic as well as foreign—out there," they wrote. "Incorrect political opinions become a national-security threat. The DGB already looks frighteningly similar to the KGB."

In The New York Post, David Harsanyi called the plan "laughable."

"It gets tedious to point this out, but you can vividly imagine the thermonuclear meltdown the country would be (rightly) subjected to if a Republican president assembled a government panel tasked with weeding out 'disinformation,'" Harsanyi said. "To our technocrats’ dismay, this isn’t Europe, where the state can dictate allowable speech and sometimes arrests those who don’t abide. Here, citizens are the ones who call out the state for peddling misinformation, not the other way around.

"Indeed, these arbiters of truth not only happen to be some of the same people who ran around repeating ludicrous conspiracies about foreign interference for five years; they’re also the same people who used the menace of 'Russian disinformation' to lie and suppress news that undermined their electoral prospects, as they did with the Hunter Biden laptop story," they wrote. "Setting aside such a cynical use of 'disinformation,' are we really supposed to believe that an administration that tells us with a straight face that a $3.5 trillion spending bill 'costs zero dollars' or that showing an ID is tantamount to Jim Crow 2.0 or that your sex relies entirely on your perception is going to sort out the accuracy of rhetoric?"

John Maxwell Hamilton and Kevin R. Kosar said "we have seen this saga before."

"An episode from over a hundred years ago tells us a great deal about how such a venture can go wrong, and to some extent already has," they wrote. "We refer here to the Committee on Public Information, created by President Woodrow Wilson on April 14, 1917, one week after the United States entered World War I. This was done through a three-sentence executive order that offered no meaningful specifics other than that the CPI would be headed by the pyrotechnic, muckraking journalist George Creel.

"Wilson seems to have had in mind that the CPI would be responsible for censoring information that compromised military operations," they said. "This, of course, was a matter of legitimate concern. But in the next 18 months that the war lasted, the CPI grew willy-nilly into a ministry of propaganda. 'There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ,' Creel wrote after the war in his book How We Advertised America. It was one of the few times he made an understatement. The CPI soon began declaring “the facts,” calling out Americans who dared to dissent, and even chastising small town editors who took minor exception to administration policy."


My take.

It's a big "no thanks" from me, and it’s not particularly close.

There are obvious reasons that Americans should have an interest in limiting the spread of bad information. Mayorkas and the DHS have pointed to two solid ones: the campaigns targeted at migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border, and the foreign nations like Russia who stirred up trouble on social media with botnets and even organized political protests on U.S. soil, all in an effort to further inflame our already divisive domestic politics.

Both of those are very real things, and I don't want to pretend they aren't. But we should not inch any closer to a world where the government is dictating truth, either in name or appearance, to the American public. As a country we’re already turning more censorious both culturally and legislatively. It should be the role of the media to suss out truth and fiction, along with experts in their fields and responsible citizens. Unfortunately trust in the media is at an all-time low, and the corporate press is already littered with former CIA and FBI officials. Many journalists do little more than republish the government line without any context or criticism. Now we have a board with the power of the Department of Homeland Security behind it pledging to suss out the truth. It’s an unsettling prospect, to say the least.

It's also true, as members of both the left and right have pointed out, that the rollout of this entire thing was laughably bad. The name, the Disinformation Governance Board, is something out of a dystopian novel on how to limit free speech. The description of what that board was going to do was unclear for days, and remains so. This morning, the Associated Press published a story with the headline "DHS disinformation board’s work, plans remain a mystery." It's been over a week. How is that possible?

Mayorkas tried to explain that the board would examine how the DHS currently counters disinformation and ensure the agency “does not infringe on freedom of speech, rights of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties," but the DHS already has an office of civil rights and civil liberties. The woman leading the board, Nina Jankowicz, does not seem to have a good nose for the very task she's been assigned.

Again, it is still unclear how exactly this board is going to fulfill its vague goals, which makes the immediate distrust simultaneously understandable and illogical. But if you're going to roll out a new team with the federal government’s stamp of approval named the "Disinformation Governance Board," you better have a good, transparent explanation. The Biden administration hasn't come close. With any luck, they'll take the loss and shut it down before the board actually tries to exercise any power, which would only make the situation worse.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I haven't seen any of my usual "balanced" news collectors - you, The Factual, The Flip Side, etc - cover the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard situation. At first, I thought of it just as another celebrity thing that wasn't really important, but the more I learn about it, the more it seems like a really important case that brings to light a lot of issues about how we as a society — and a legal system — navigate these difficult, emotional, and complex situations. Do you have any ideas on why more people aren't reporting on this?

— Peter, Lake Isabella, California

Tangle: I can only speak for Tangle here, but we generally try to stick to national politics or cultural issues that touch national politics. Occasionally, we cover global news (which I know our readers love), but I really do try my best to "stay in my lane."

I haven't really spoken about this publicly, but long term, I do think there is an opportunity to expand Tangle into other areas — entertainment, sports, global news, state-level politics, etc. I think that would be a fun growth trajectory, and I know from talking to regular readers there is some interest in that (I can't tell you how many people asked me to write about the Will Smith slap).

I started my career in journalism as a sports reporter at my school paper. By the time I was a senior, I had a regular column (called "A Grain of Saul") where nearly every piece was at the intersection of sports and politics, so I know as well as anyone how these topics overlap. But generally speaking, people come to Tangle to read about politics, and that's where most of my expertise lies, so I try to stick to it. Also, specific to this, I haven't watched any of the Depp-Heard trial, and probably won't.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Academic research has now made official what many long suspected: Remote learning during the pandemic was a failure. On average, students who attended school in person for nearly all of 2020-2021 fell short of a typical year's math learning by about 20%, which researchers attributed to part time at-home learning and the difficulties of pandemic-era in-person learning. But students who stayed home for most of 2020-2021 fared much worse, losing about 50% of a typical school year's math learning in the same period. The findings are consistent with other studies, The New York Times reports. “It’s pretty clear that remote school was not good for learning,” Emily Oster, a Brown University economist and the co-author of another such study, told the Times. David Leonhardt has the breakdown of what we know.


Numbers.

  • 50%. The percentage of voters who say Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted immediately after the Politico story dropped.
  • 28%. The percentage of voters who said it should be overturned.
  • 22%. The percentage who are undecided.
  • 55%. The percentage of voters in Mississippi who say abortion should be "mostly illegal."
  • 39%. The percentage of voters in Mississippi who say abortion should be "mostly legal."
  • 15 million. The number of people worldwide who have died from the pandemic or pandemic-related causes, like overrun hospitals having to turn away patients, according to a WHO study.

Have a nice day.

In a major win for consumers, TurboTax owner Inuit has been ordered to pay back $141 million in restitution to millions of consumers who were "unfairly charged." The company has also been ordered to stop its "free, free, free" campaign that "lured customers with promises of free tax preparation services, only to deceive them into paying." The settlement was announced by New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday. TurboTax was charged with using misleading ads to guide people away from the IRS Free File program while promoting a "freemium" product that wasn't actually free to most consumers. The settlement applies to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ars Technica has the story.


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