Below is a slightly expanded version of my column in The Hill on the appointment of Nina Jankowicz as the new head of the federal government’s announced Disinformation Governance Board. This Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas assured CNN viewers that there is nothing to fear from his new Disinformation Governance Board, which will “gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation.” I think we can guess what the “best practice” might be from one of the most vocal advocates of corporate and state censorship.
Here is the column:
“You can just call me the Mary Poppins of disinformation.” That Twitter intro to a TikTok parody of the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is now indelibly connected to Nina Jankowicz, the new head of the federal government’s announced Disinformation Governance Board.
Given her record of spreading disinformation and advocating censorship, Jankowicz hardly needed the musical-inspired persona. Yet, for the Biden administration, Jankowicz — like Mary Poppins — is “practically perfect in every way” to keep track of whether we all “measure up” in our public statements.
It is still unclear from the administration’s public statements what authority the board will wield, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the board as intended “to prevent disinformation and misinformation from traveling around the country in a range of communities.”
It was no accident that Jankowicz alighted on this Administration. She is the perfect nanny to tidy up the mess of free speech. President Biden already has established himself as arguably the most anti-free speech president since John Adams. During his transition period, Biden appointed outspoken advocates for censorship; as president, he has pushed social media companies to expand censorship, while his administration has been criticized for spying on journalists.
Now, with Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and his pledge to restore free speech values to the platform, panic has set in among Democrats — including Jankowicz, who told National Public Radio, “I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would look like for the marginalized communities.”
Jankowicz’s singing voice may be impressive, but her appointment is tone-deaf.
She has been ridiculed for pushing the false “Russian disinformation” claim about the original reporting on Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop, stressing that “we should view it as a Trump campaign product.” She continued to spread that disinformation, including tweeting a link to a news article that she said cast “yet more doubt on the provenance of the NY Post’s Hunter Biden story.” In another related tweet, she added that “emails don’t need to be altered to be part of an influence campaign. Voters deserve that context, not a [fairy] tale about a laptop repair shop.” Conversely, she cited Christopher Steele, author of the discredited “Steele dossier” during the 2016 presidential campaign, as a source on how to stop disinformation.
An even more tone-deaf figure may be Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who appointed Jankowicz to her new role. Mayorkas seemingly follows that other Mary Poppins command — “I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything” — as he and President Biden have maintained one of the most disgraceful examples of disinformation: the accusation that U.S. border agents whipped migrants in Texas.
The whipping story is a chilling example of real disinformation that can be devastating for individuals and destructive in politics. The story of white officers whipping Haitian migrants at the southern border was utterly irresistible and eagerly embraced by many media and political figures. It was based largely on a misleading photograph of a mounted border officer, despite an available video that clearly refuted the whipping claim. Even the image’s photographer stated at the time that the story was false and “nobody saw a Border Patrol agent whipping” anyone.
Still, many in the media went into a familiar feeding frenzy, encouraged by key political figures. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) declared that the alleged whipping was just the latest example of “white supremacist behavior.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said the incident was “worse than what we witnessed in slavery” and decried that “the cowboys who were running down Haitians and using their reins to whip them.” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) condemned the purported “inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants by Border Patrol — including the use of whips.”
The verdict was in, and President Biden went on every network to announce it at the start of the investigation. He expressed disgust over watching what he termed the “horrible … outrageous” actions of the agents as they “strapped” migrants, and he declared, “I promise you, those people will pay.”
For his part, Mayorkas — the official tasked with investigating the allegation — said that the alleged conduct of the agents “correctly and necessarily were met with our nation’s horror.” He then promised that his department would complete the investigation “with tremendous speed and with tremendous force … thoroughly, but very quickly. It will be completed in days, not weeks.”
That was more than six months ago.
As early declarations of Biden and others quickly fell apart, the White House went into uncharacteristic silence. The promised speedy investigation mysteriously dragged on. The facts supporting or disproving the whipping allegation were evident within 24 hours — but a finding that the agents never whipped any migrants would be embarrassing to Mayorkas and the president. Accordingly, rather than announcing a finding in a matter of days, the agents continue in limbo.
This month, it has been reported that the agents were cleared of criminal assault. Yet the White House has refused to apologize, and Mayorkas has refused to publicly state that the agents were cleared.
Instead, the White House’s Psaki was confronted recently by Ebony McMorris, of American Urban Radio Networks, who asked for the president’s response to the lack of punishment for “patrol agents that were seen whipping Haitian migrants.” Keep in mind there is no video showing agents whipping Haitians but, instead, a video showing the contrary. Yet some in the media are still demanding punishment, and the White House refuses to alter its original condemnation.
What would the Mary Poppins of Disinformation call that?
As Jankowicz sang in her video:
“Information laundering is really quite ferocious.
“It’s when a huckster takes some lies and makes them sound precocious.
“By saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet so
“Disinformation’s origins are slightly less atrocious.”
The new Disinformation Governance Board head may have a theme song, but Jankowicz may be quickly losing her credibility. Psaki first admitted she didn’t know who Jankowicz was — and then the following day offered a tepid defense that she was someone with an extensive background, including testimony in both the British Parliament and Congress. (She failed to mention Jankowicz was advocating public and private censorship.) Psaki then stressed twice that Jankowicz was selected by Mayorkas and Homeland Security.
For his part, Mayorkas said he was unaware of the past positions and statements of an appointee he had just praised as uniquely qualified.
In Washington speak, that’s a signal that “wind’s in the east, mist comin’ in” — and it may be time for Janlowicz to grab her the umbrella and blow.
However, even if that happened, it would leave the question of who will appear next to “measure up” an impressionable public. If the east wind blows, two things are certain. Any replacement will have the same anti-free speech sentiments and will not have a TikTok account.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.