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The Disinformation Governance Board and Other Attempts to Fight Fake News
by
Posted On August 23, 2022
A chapter in the 2020 book Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field and Prospects for Reform explains today’s increasingly fraught public discourse this way: “Not long ago, the rise of social media inspired great optimism about its potential for flattening access to economic and political opportunity, enabling collective action, and facilitating new forms of expression. … Several political upheavals and an election later, the outlook in both the popular press and scholarly discussions is decidedly less optimistic.” Today, this lack of optimism pertains to not only social media, but also scholarly research, formal publication, and even daily political discourse. One of the reasons is the prevalence of disinformation online.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OFFERS A POTENTIAL SOLUTION … BRIEFLY

The federal Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) was launched on April 27, 2022, as an advisory board within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Within a month—long before any significant actions were even initiated—it was announced that the DGB’s work was “paused” pending a review. The DGB was created to address misleading information, including “disinformation coming from Russia as well as misleading information that human smugglers circulate to target migrants hoping to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.

ABC News noted that “the Orwellian name and an admittedly clumsy rollout immediately raised eyebrows as well as ignited a pre-existing debate about free speech and partisanship. …” Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS secretary, described the DGB as an internal working group having no operational authority or capability; instead it would focus on best practices for defending against disinformation threats and would have no role in monitoring citizen free speech.

DGB director Nina Jankowicz resigned as a result of public backlash, including not only from the political right, but also from progressives and civil libertarians who cited free speech as a concern. AP noted, “What remains to be seen is how the board’s disastrous rollout and ensuing criticism around it will damage ongoing U.S. efforts to counter disinformation used as a weapon by Russia and other adversaries. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the board’s controversy had become a distraction to the department’s other work, which includes safeguarding U.S. elections. …”

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT DISINFORMATION?

In addition to the U.S. government, a wide variety of organizations and think tanks have studied disinformation and misinformation and offer perspectives on handling these issues. A November 2021 report from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder provides “a viable framework for action,” including 15 recommendations for “how government, private industry, and civil society can help to increase transparency and understanding, build trust, and reduce harms.”

“The problem of fraudulent news right now is compounded by social and political divisions that undercut the traditional ways in which truth ordinarily prevails,” notes PEN America. “Investigations, exposes, and studies fall short in a situation where a significant portion of the population distrusts a wide array of sources they perceive as politically or ideologically hostile—including sources that traditionally commanded broad if not universal respect.” It continues, “The debate over solutions to fraudulent news has centered on what the government, news outlets, social media platforms, and civil society actors like fact-checking groups can do. Each has an important role to play, but they also must respect sharp limits to their interventions.”

In his 2022 book Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics—and How to Cure It, University of California–Irvine law and political science professor Richard L. Hasen suggests that “the matter is urgent, and the stakes could not be higher.” We now face “a media firehose that has diluted trusted sources of information. …” Cautioning that nothing is certain to work in these precarious times, his book “proposes legal and social measures to restore Americans’ access to reliable information on which democracy depends. In an era when quack COVID treatments and bizarre QAnon theories have entered [the] mainstream, this book explains how to assure both freedom of ideas and a commitment to truth.”

In 2019, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford released a report in which professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and co-authors examine available options for a European digital media policy, stating, “We have not identified a silver bullet, and indeed, we do not believe there are any. Those looking for an easy solution will not find it; but that does not mean that there are no options.” They offer steps that they hope “can command broad political support to create a more enabling environment for independent professional journalism while limiting the risk of regulatory uncertainty and of further politicising the media.”

More reports and other potential solutions have been offered by organizations and universities across the globe, including the USENIX Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the La Salle Institute of Governance, and RAND Corp., as well as research articles in key journals across the disciplines, such as The New England Journal of Medicine and Misinformation Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

A CRITICAL ISSUE FOR INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS

AP reports that 95% of Americans identify misinformation as a problem when they’re attempting to access important information, according to a September 2021 poll from The Pearson Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But the difference between opinion and disinformation is often contested—and many argue that the government shouldn’t be responsible for drawing the line—especially if the government is contributing to the problem. A March 2022 report in Social Science & Medicine cautions, “In the digital era, recent studies have uncovered that more than two dozen governments have been deeply involved in disinformation campaigns to pursue their own domestic or international purposes. …”

Stanford Law School professor Michelle Mello tells Stanford Medicine’s SCOPE blog, “The Supreme Court has held that many kinds of false statements are protected speech under the First Amendment.” She shares an example: “In a 2012 case called United States v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court struck down a law that made it a criminal offense to lie about having received military medals. It refused to hold that a statement’s falsity put it outside the realm of First Amendment protection.” Mello notes that “there are some kinds of false speech that can be penalized by the government, including lying in court, making false statements to the government, impersonating a government official, defaming someone and committing commercial fraud. But it’s a pretty limited list. The Supreme Court’s general finding is that false statements can often be valuable in terms of allowing people to challenge widely held beliefs without fear of repercussions, and that things could go pretty wrong if the government had a wider berth to regulate them.”

“The breakdown of trusted sources of information is probably one of the most serious problems today,” notes a June 2022 preprint by Brazilian researchers, “since in the absence of a common ground, it will be impossible to address the problems that trouble our contemporary world.”

ALA points out, “Today, with increasing reliance on both digital news outlets and social media for news, sifting through the messages for non-biased sources requires attention, and possibly reviewing multiple sources—including seeking out a reliable original source.” It’s hard to imagine a more critical or complex challenge for information professionals across the world. I believe we are up to the task.


Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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