Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
How on earth does one spark controversy from that blandest of government creations, the internal working group?
One way is to give it a scary, Orwellian name like the Disinformation Governance Board.
That is the dystopian moniker the Department of Homeland Security chose to bestow upon a group that it now insists has no operational authority.
It was in late April that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas publicly touted creation of the board as critical in combating propaganda, or false information intended to deceive or manipulate the public. "We've just established a mis- and disinformation governance board," he testified to a House subcommittee. The board, he said, would "more effectively combat this threat not only to election security but to our homeland security."
Now, there is little question that propaganda, or disinformation, is an insidious player in American politics and has been for years. Through social media its effects have become pervasive. They range from Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election to violent domestic terrorists who have threatened members of Congress, to those engaged in human trafficking who distort U.S. border policies in their attempt to lure migrants.
These efforts go as far back, department officials said, as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and other natural disasters, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was forced to frequently correct false information that was being spread.
The Aspen Institute laid out the problem in a report late last year, noting that "The spread of false and misleading narratives, the incitement of division and hate, and the erosion of trust have a long history, with corporate, state actor, and political persuasion techniques employed to maintain power and profit, create harm, and/or advance political or ideological goals.
"Malicious actors use cheap and accessible methods to deliberately spread and amplify harmful information. … False narratives can sow division, hamper public health initiatives, undermine elections, or deliver fresh marks to grifters and profiteers, and they capitalize on deep-rooted problems within American society. Disinformation pours lighter fluid on the sparks of discord that exist in every community."
Those are serious problems indeed, affecting a multitude of issues.
But there is a disturbing and unacceptable lack of clarity both in the stated mission of the newly created board and its authority that cannot be allowed to stand.
It's not necessary to pass a bill disbanding the board, though that effort is fast gathering steam among House Republicans. The effort — led by the firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., of all members — has quickly become a cause célèbre among the caucus, drawing support of, among others, Minnesota's own Rep. Tom Emmer, also head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The bill would also prohibit the federal government from spending money on similar efforts.
There are critics on the left as well. The American Civil Liberties Union recently said on Twitter that "The DHS hasn't adequately explained the need for or scope of its eerily named Disinformation Governance Board. We're skeptical of the government arbitrating truth and falsity. How concerned we should be depends on the function and authority of this position."
There are also attorneys general in 20 states threatening a lawsuit to challenge the board's constitutionality. Having a federal board slap a "federal-government label of 'disinformation' or 'misinformation' on speech that government bureaucrats ... decree to be improper" is "an unacceptable and downright alarming encroachment on every citizen's right to express his or her opinions, engage in political debate, and disagree with the government," the attorneys general wrote in a letter. For the record, the new board has not stated it would label communications.
But that's what happens when a rollout is as badly bungled as this one has been.
Too late, Mayorkas has conceded that his department "could have done a better job of communicating what it is and isn't." The board, he said, is intended to "gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from cartels and disseminate those best practices to the operators that have been executing in addressing this threat for years."
That sounds like more of a low-key information clearinghouse than a governance board.
There is nothing wrong with a strong, multiagency effort to counter lies and propaganda with facts. It is, in fact, needed. But it cannot — must not — stray into censorship.
Mayorkas and his staff should go back to the drawing board on this effort, scrap the terrible name and focus first on formulating a more specific plan that details how best to promulgate accurate, verifiable information without tilting into excessive monitoring or outright censorship.