Nina Jankowicz forms new group to defend misinformation research

Two years ago, Nina Jankowicz briefly led an agency at the Department of Homeland Security created to combat disinformation, the establishment of which prompted a political and legal battle over the government's role in policing lies and other harmful content online that continues to reverberate.

Now she has re-entered the fray with a new nonprofit intended to combat what she and others have described as a coordinated campaign by conservatives and others to undermine researchers, like her, who study the sources of misinformation.

Already a lightning rod for critics of her work on the topic, Jankowicz launched the organization with a letter accusing three Republican committee chairs in the House of Representatives of abusing their subpoena powers to silence think tanks and universities that denounce the sources of disinformation.

“These tactics echo the dark days of McCarthyism, but with a frightening 21st century twist,” Carlos Álvarez-Aranyos, a public relations consultant who in 2020 was involved in the efforts to defend the integrity of the American electoral system.

The birth of the group, the American Sunlight Project, reflects how contentious the issue of identifying and combating misinformation has become as the 2024 presidential election approaches. It also represents a tacit admission that informal networks formed at major universities and Research organizations tackling the explosion of online misinformation have failed to mount a substantive defense against a campaign, waged largely on the right, that portrays their work as part of an effort to silence conservatives.

The campaign, which took place in the courts, conservative media and the Republican-led House Judiciary Subcommittee on Arming the Federal Government, largely succeeded in gutting efforts to monitor misinformation, particularly regarding the integrity of the system American election.

Many of the nation's most prominent researchers, faced with lawsuits, subpoenas and physical threats, have backed away.

“More and more researchers were being overwhelmed by this, and their institutions were not allowing them to respond or they were responding in a way that was simply not up to the moment,” Ms. Jankowicz said in an interview. “And the problem, of course, is that if we don't push back on these campaigns, then that will be the prevailing narrative.”

This narrative is prevalent at a time when social media companies have abandoned or scaled back efforts to enforce their policies against certain types of content.

Many experts have warned that the problem of false or misleading content will only increase with the advent of artificial intelligence.

“Misinformation will remain a problem as long as the strategic benefits of engaging in, promoting and profiting from it outweigh the consequences of its spread,” Common Cause, the nonpartisan public interest group, wrote in a report released last week that warned from a risk of a new wave of misinformation about this year's vote.

Jankowicz said her group will run advertisements about the threats and general effects of disinformation and produce investigative reports on the background and funding of groups running disinformation campaigns, including those targeting researchers.

She joined two veteran political strategists: Álvarez-Aranyos, a former communications strategist for Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that seeks to counter domestic authoritarian threats, and Eddie Vale, formerly of American Bridge, a liberal group dedicated to rallying the opposition research on Republicans.

The organization's advisory board includes Katie Harbath, a former Facebook executive who was previously a top digital strategist for Senate Republicans; Ineke Mushovic, founder of the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that tracks threats to democracy and gay, lesbian and transgender issues; and Benjamin Wittes, national security legal expert at the Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of Lawfare.

“We need to be a little more aggressive in how we think about defending the research community,” Wittes said in an interview, describing attacks against it as part of “a coordinated assault against those who have tried to thwart the disinformation and electoral interference”.

In the letter to congressional Republicans, Jankowicz noted the appearance of a fake robocall in President Biden's voice discouraging New Hampshire voters from voting in the state's primary and artificially generated images of former President Donald J. Trump with supporters blacks, as well as renewed efforts by China and Russia to spread disinformation to the American public.

The American Sunlight Project was established as a nonprofit organization under the section of the Internal Revenue Code that allows it greater lobbying leeway than the tax-exempt charities known as 501(c)(3)s. She also is not required to disclose her donors, which Ms. Jankowicz declined to do, although she said the project had initial pledges of $1 million in donations.

The budget pales in comparison to those behind the counteroffensive like America First Legal, the Trump-aligned group that, with a war chest of tens of millions of dollars, is suing researchers at Stanford and the University of Washington over the their collaboration with government officials to combat misinformation about voting and Covid-19.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a federal lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana that accuse government agencies of using researchers as proxies to pressure social media platforms to delete or limit the reach of accounts.

The idea for the American Sunlight Project grew out of Ms. Jankowicz's experience in 2022, when she was named executive director of a newly created disinformation governance committee at the Department of Homeland Security.

From the moment the council became public, it faced fierce criticism that painted it as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that would censor dissenting voices in violation of the First Amendment, although in reality it had only an advisory role and no oversight authority.

Ms. Jankowicz, a Russian disinformation expert who once served as an adviser to Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, resigned shortly after her appointment. Even then, she faced such a torrent of personal threats online that she hired a security consultant. The council was suspended and then, after a brief review, abolished.

“I think we exist in an information environment where it is very easy to use information as a weapon and make it seem sinister,” Álvarez-Aranyos said. “And I think we're looking for transparency. I mean, this is sunlight in the most literal sense of the word.”

Ms Jankowicz said she was aware that her involvement with the new group would attract its critics, but that she was well placed to lead it because she had already “been through the worst”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *