WASHINGTON — The expert appointed to oversee a new disinformation board at the Department of Homeland Security resigned Wednesday after the program was paused amid criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Nina Jankowicz said in an interview after her resignation that the board’s purpose was to ensure that DHS followed best practices in combatting disinformation while protecting Americans’ freedom of speech, privacy and civil liberties.
“Every characterization of the board that you heard up until now has been incorrect, and frankly, it’s kind of ironic that the board itself was taken over by disinformation when it was meant to fight it,” she said in an interview on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.”
Jankowicz said she and her family received numerous death threats amid the pushback over the board, which was formed in April.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday about the pausing of the board, which was first reported by The Washington Post.
Jankowicz said she wanted to put together creative programs “to equip people with the tools” to decipher disinformation in today’s environment and “not say what was true or false — that was never the intention.” She explained that disinformation is “false or misleading information spread with malign intent” and is usually spread by bad actors such as China, Iran or Russia.
In addition to responding to disinformation meant to cause election interference, she said DHS has to address false information that drives migrants to the U.S. and affects critical infrastructure like gas pipelines and financial systems because “all of that has very real effects for the safety of Americans.”
Jankowicz and the board faced backlash from congressional Republicans, who alleged it would be used as a tool by Democrats to stifle free speech. House Republican leaders called on Congress last week to pass legislation that would shut the board down and block federal funds from being used for similar activities.
Before being appointed to run the board, Jankowicz was a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, a public policy think tank, where she studied the intersection of democracy and technology in Central and Eastern Europe.
Jankowicz said Wednesday, “To say that I am just a partisan actor is wildly out of context.”
“Then beyond that, it wasn’t just these mischaracterizations of my work, it was death threats against my family,” she said. “Over the last three weeks, I think maybe there were one or two days where I didn’t report a violent threat, something like ‘we’re coming for you and my family, you and your family should be sent to Russia to be killed,’ encouragement of me to commit suicide.”
Jankowicz said she had no time for such “childishness” and wouldn’t let the threats silence her from continuing to build awareness about disinformation in the future.
Rebecca Shabad is a politics reporter for NBC News based in Washington.