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4 outstanding questions the federal government needs to answer about the Disinformation Governance Board

4 outstanding questions the federal government needs to answer about its Disinformation Governance Board

“Key questions about the Disinformation  
Governance Board remain unanswered.” 

  • – AFP Foundation on May 9, 2022 

More than a year after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security  announced and subsequently disbanded its Disinformation Governance Board, there remain numerous questions about the justification for the Board, the lack of guardrails for DHS components working on disinformation issues, and the agency’s disturbing lack of transparency.  

Americans for Prosperity Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit last year to try to answer these questions. To date, AFPF staff have reviewed nearly 1,700 pages of heavily redacted internal DHS documents, including over 1,000 pages obtained through litigation.

The documents do little to dispel the initial concerns about the Board raised by AFPF and civil liberties advocates across a broad ideological spectrum—from the ACLU to the Knight First Amendment Institute to GOP Congress members.  

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will testify before the House Judiciary Committee today. Here’s what lawmakers should focus on. 

On the formation of the Disinformation Governance Board: 

According to statements made by Secretary Mayorkas and DHS officials, DHS purportedly has rogue components conducting disinformation work without guidelines or guardrails. So, either that’s true and needs to be investigated, or DHS misled the public about the need for the Board.   

  • Background: In May of 2022, Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the Board was necessary to make sure ongoing disinformation work in DHS “does not infringe on people’s free speech rights” and that the Board would be developing “guidelines” and “guardrails.” Now the Board has disbanded.  
  • Question: Are there DHS components threatening the free speech rights of Americans without guidelines and guardrails today?   
  • Follow up: DHS told reporters in April 2022, “[I]ronically, this Board is designed to protect the freedom of speech that critics are falsely claiming it is attempting to trample.” Mayorkas also said, “[I]t was quite disconcerting, frankly, that the disinformation work that was well underway for many years across different independent administrations was not guided by guardrails.” Can you identify any components or programs working on disinformation that needed the guardrails? Do they have them now that the Board has disbanded? 
  • Background: The September 2021 memo Mayorkas received recommending the creation of a governance board to combat disinformation listed four “serious homeland security risks.” One of them was: “Disinformation related to the origins and effects of COVID-19 vaccines or the efficacy of masks undercuts public health efforts to combat the pandemic.” The memo framed “medical evidence regarding COVID” as an “area where there are clear objective facts” that DHS should address as a homeland security risk.  
  • Question: Did you believe then and do you believe now that DHS is well-positioned to adjudicate what are “objective facts” with regard to debates about COVID? 

On the lack of transparency: 

A DHS Fact Sheet from May 2, 2022, said,

“The Department has renewed its commitment to transparency and openness with the public and Congress. DHS will proactively release comprehensive quarterly reports about the working group’s activities to Congress, including its oversight committees.” 

But DHS is still not transparent about the Board even though it was disbanded over a year ago. The agency is withholding whole documents about the Board’s work and redacting large swaths of text, including innocuous information that was withheld for no apparent reason. For example, DHS withheld the following text from an email produced to AFPF: 

DHS email to AFP Foundation regarding Disinformation Governance Board.

But released the text in response to an inquiry from Senator Hawley and Senator Grassley: 

DHS email to Sens. Hawley and Grassley in response to questions about the Disinformation Governance Board.

There is no rhyme or reason to these withholdings, and they undermine any claim that DHS is committed to transparency.  

  • Background: In another example, the Disinformation Governance Board began working on misinformation related to “irregular migration” and “Ukraine before it was disbanded. The details of these plans are redacted or not provided in the documents.  
  • Question: Did the Board’s work on these topics cover domestic speech? Would you be willing to provide unredacted versions of these documents?
     
  • Background: The Homeland Security Advisory Committee recommended to DHS that it “can and should also bring such disinformation to the attention of other government agencies for appropriate action and to platforms hosting the falsehoods.”   
  • Question: Would you be willing to proactively disclose DHS communications with “platforms hosting the falsehoods?”  

DHS wields significant authority over Americans, so its deeply troubling that a year later there remains a lack of transparency around the agency’s proposed government program to monitor speech. AFPF will continue to push for more transparency from DHS and to uncover the truth about the Disinformation Governance Board.  

(Check out the New York Post feature on how Secretary Mayorkas used private email for government business.) 

Document Productions 

  • December 9, 2022 Production  

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