AT one time, whenever there was an overreach in power by a government, someone would say: ‘They should realise that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning, not an instruction manual.’ We have now arrived at a position when this is the only appropriate response.
At first it seemed so implausible that it couldn’t actually be true – it had to be something put out by the Babylon Bee or the Onion. Unfortunately it is not fake news; the United States government really does have a Disinformation Governance Board (DGB), its very own Ministry of Truth.
Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee of Homeland Security, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas simply mentioned in passing that the department now had a DGB. Its task is not, as we might assume from its clumsy title, to govern and organise disinformation; rather it was created to fight the spread of what was described as disinformation on the internet.
This raises issues of profound importance: Who decides what is and what is not disinformation, and do the citizens of a free country wish to hand this power over to the government? The concept of mission creep is not unknown in Washington, or any bureaucracy. The battle against disinformation can all too quickly morph into a battle against disagreement.
Joe Biden’s choice to serve as the Executive Director of this branch of the powerful Department of Homeland Security does little to reassure Americans. Nina Jankowicz is the 33-year-old author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict and How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment and How to Fight Back.
She does not confine her writing to books: she is also a prolific user of social media. She has opposed Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, warning of its effects: ‘I shudder to think about, if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what would that be like for the marginalized communities around the world?’ This and other outpourings on social media make it clear that Jankowicz is no fan of free speech.
She has described the United States as ‘systemically racist’. She has also warned of what she has termed the ‘homegrown fascism which predated President Donald Trump’. In October 2020, she tweeted, gave media interviews, and wrote op-eds playing down the efforts of Iran to influence the 2020 election. Then Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe was criticised. However, the Biden Office of Director of National Intelligence has since agreed with the Trump ODNI’s assessment of Iran’s attempts to damage Trump’s election prospects. Just who was spreading disinformation?
Jankowicz has also publicly questioned whether the notorious laptop actually belonged to Biden’s son Hunter. The New York Times and Washington Post, which both pushed the same conspiracy theory that the laptop came from Russia to hurt Joe Biden and help Donald Trump, recently confirmed that the laptop and its contents belong to Hunter Biden. Just who was spreading disinformation? Jankowicz knows who she represents, and that is the Left of the Democrat party.
What does it mean for the USA now it has its own Ministry of Truth? Whilst a government should tell the truth, the sad fact is that we live in a fallen world and governments are not always as truthful as we wish them to be. This means that to maintain anything like a free society it is imperative that there be a free flow of information with the public able to check and criticise the government.
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security with 240,000 employees is the third-largest Cabinet department and has a budget for 2022 of $87billion.
The agency has unprecedented powers to conduct surveillance on American citizens, and now one of its departments has been given power to regulate which political views American citizens can read or watch.
There has been vocal opposition to the new department. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said: ‘The federal government has no business creating a Ministry of Truth. The Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Board is unconstitutional and un-American, and I’ll be introducing a bill to defund it.’ Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri wrote a letter to Secretary Mayorkas in which he said: ‘I write with deep concern about the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to create a new Disinformation Governance Board . . . Surely no American administration would ever use the power of government to sit in judgment on the First Amendment speech of its own citizens.’
Should a government attempt to counter untruth with truth? Yes, and this takes place all the time, but it must be in an open and transparent manner. Trying to stifle the free exchange of information shows both a desire to control the people and a contempt for the poor fools who have to be told what to think. A government which sets itself up as the sole arbiter of what is allowed to be said in print or online is a government which is on the way to controlling the lives of its people.