One woman's Orwellian experience with disinformation
A little over a year ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security created a new advisory board aimed at better understanding and countering disinformation. They called it the Disinformation Governance Board, and DHS tapped an expert in the field, Nina Jankowicz, to lead it.
Almost the moment her appointment was announced, however, Jankowicz became a lightning rod and found herself on the receiving end of a very specific kind of online abuse: the kind that seems to be reserved for women. The attacks against her were as much about the idea of disinformation itself as they were about her qualifications.
Jankowicz resigned, and the board never actually met. Jankowicz has now filed a defamation lawsuit against her tormentors, including Fox News, in a case that looks a lot like the Dominion Voting Systems suit that was settled earlier this year. The Click Here podcast team sat down with her to discuss her case and the way women are attacked differently online than men.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CLICK HERE: A lot has been said and written about the Disinformation Governance Board. What was it really intended to do?
NINA JANKOWICZ: It was a body within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to bring together all of the different agencies working on disinformation and countering disinformation and help them identify best practices and coordinate with each other. For example, a lot of work by FEMA involves handling natural disasters and emergencies, but they also have a lot of work to do to debunk disinformation. That work doesn’t necessarily transfer to the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) or Customs and Border Protection. So that was the idea behind the board to bring those people together. The idea was to really put guardrails on that work to really make sure that we were respecting civil rights, civil liberties and privacy.
CH: You and the board were on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks almost immediately. When did you realize this was going to get out of control?
NJ: My husband came in one day to tell me that some conservative influencers started tweeting about the Disinformation Governance Board and calling it a Ministry of Truth. I immediately got myself out of bed and said, “OK, this is like a worst case scenario because these are folks with millions of followers,” and I knew it wouldn't be long before this narrative jumped from the conservative Twittersphere to Fox News to members of Congress. My face was on “Tucker Carlson” and it was on Fox News pretty much every hour on the hour for the next few weeks and every week.
CH: Did any of this surprise you?
NJ: No, because after all I do study disinformation, I knew it wouldn't be long before this narrative jumped from the conservative Twittersphere to Fox News to members of Congress.
CH: So give me an idea of what all this was like?
NJ: I had people sending me empty egg cartons, which is a way that online abusers say, Oh, you know, you're, you're past your prime. You better stop getting, making babies and things like that. These are these coded ways of abusing women.
My husband and I were so freaked out that we started kind of sleeping with chairs upended under the door, like you do when you're in a hostile environment training as a journalist, so that people can't push their way into the house. I hid behind a mask and a hat and sunglasses on advice of someone who I hired to advise me on security. He said that I shouldn't get gas by myself, that I shouldn't go out for a cup of coffee because there were people who were actively trying to harm me.
CH: So even after they get what they want, you resign, they keep up the campaign?
NJ: Yes, but even then the abuse continued. I remember the night I resigned, I went on MSNBC on Chris Hayes’ show. Somebody wrote, ‘I love how defeated she looks. And I'm like, “I don't look defeated, I just look like I'm 38 weeks pregnant.”
NJ: Then the New York Times did a piece on me and they sent out a photographer. I had just given birth two weeks before, and I think I looked damn good for two weeks postpartum. My bust was quite significant at that point, let's just say, and there were all these men online commenting on the size of my chest. It was just like, can you not see the person here, rather than just seeing me as a piece of meat? If I had been an older white man, I think I would have just been so much less attractive to them as a target.
CH: Is there a pattern to these kinds of gendered attacks, a common toolbox that people use?
NJ: Yeah, if you look at Poland, for example, the women who are involved in the abortion movement there have been, you know labeled sluts and things like this. There, it's never about their politics. It's always about their moral fiber. I think it's just a way to say that women aren't meant to be in politics. Women aren't meant to be in government.
CH: You’ve filed a lawsuit against Fox News. What are you hoping to accomplish?
NJ: I think Fox and other networks that use the power of their corporate heft to ruin people's lives for profit need to be aware that there can be consequences, even if it's just like a fly in the ointment for a little while.
They said I was going to have authority to decide what was true or false online. Not only did I not have any authority, the board didn't have any authority to decide what was true or false online and certainly had no law enforcement or operational authority to pursue any of that. I have spent my career standing up against censorship in places like Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. So the idea that I would be censoring anyone is just patently false and ridiculous.
CH: And did you get help from DHS or the Biden administration while all this was going on?
NJ: I think they really didn’t know what to do with this level of vitriol. There was no playbook for what to do to support me both morally, but also physically. I think for people who are in positions of power, let's say the White House spokesperson, obviously they've got round-the-clock protection. But I was just a run-of-the-mill political appointee, a civil servant trying to do her job. There was no playbook for what to do to support me both morally, but also physically.
Even after I resigned, it was devastating to see the Biden administration absolutely crumble to these attacks. They had the Homeland Security Advisory Council review the Disinformation Governance Board, and they put together a report that came to the conclusion that DHS didn't need a disinformation governance board, which I just found laughable and sad.
I think the idea behind the attacks was absolutely intimidation. In many cases, I think they achieved their goal. But they didn't achieve their goal with me. I'm clearly not shutting up, and I am calling them out for the normalization of political violence that they have engendered in this country. Women especially are just expected to grin and bear it in some ways, the way women used to be expected to grin and bear sexual harassment on the street or in the workplace, but we’ve changed that norm now and I hope that we can change it for the online environment as well.