A Department of Homeland Security effort to target the spread of foreign disinformation is on hold following a withering attack by Republican lawmakers.
DHS' recently created Disinformation Governance Board was revealed during a Congressional oversight hearing in April and was met with backlash from GOP lawmakers with concerns of government interference with free speech. In response, DHS issued a fact sheet May 2 explaining that it already targets disinformation that poses a threat to American security spread by countries including Russia, China and Iran, as well as criminal organizations.
Experts speaking during a panel hosted by the Hudson Institute on Monday said that announcing such a working group with limited information on how the group is defining and taking down disinformation was cause for concern.
Panelists said the effort seemed ill-thought-out and DHS did not prepare enough information about how the Disinformation Governance Board was going to operate.
"The announcement of this board … it was really mishandled," said Robert Corn-Revere, law partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, during the Hudson Institute panel Monday about the DHS effort. The institute is a conservative think tank.
Handling the spread of disinformation on social media has become top of mind for lawmakers. Still, the Disinformation Governance Board caused concerns about whether the government was overreaching to stop disinformation. Those concerns persisted despite DHS reiterating that the group's goal was to identify disinformation that posed a threat and not to censor content.
On Wednesday, DHS paused the Disinformation Governance Board, according to reporting from the Washington Post. Additionally, Nina Jankowicz, who was tapped to lead the board, resigned.
Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and one of the Hudson Institute panelists, said the idea behind the Disinformation Governance Board does point to the need to have a "serious discussion of what the role is of the gatekeepers of speech in the disinformation space."
He said setting a standard for identifying and defining disinformation could be crucial, but difficult.
"We should think very seriously about what are the types of disinformation that social media companies should be alert to," McConnell said.
Handling the spread of disinformation
Social media giants including Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have come under fire in recent years for facilitating the spread of misinformation -- misleading or incorrect information presented as factual. Misinformation and disinformation are different in that disinformation is spread with intent to be deceptive.
Michael McConnell Director of the Constitutional Law Center, Stanford Law School
Social media giants have faced increasing pressure to stop the spread of such information, and increasingly so at the federal level where talks to reform Section 230, which grants companies immunity from what is posted on their platforms, have begun.
Despite questions and concerns about the Disinformation Governance Board, Stanford's McConnell said the interest in how misinformation and disinformation is spread, as well as what can be done to stop it, needs more focus.
Even if it doesn't censor, social media is not a "pure neutral medium," McConnell said. It is "affecting the way in which free speech takes place."
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.