Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
On April 27, 2022, two days after Elon Musk announced his plan to purchase 100% of Twitter, the Biden administration announced the formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “Disinformation Governance Board.”
Speaking of Musk’s effort to acquire Twitter, the Board’s head, Nina Jankowicz, said in an interview with NPR, “I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would look like for marginalized communities.”
Understandably, detractors immediately compared the ominous-sounding “Disinformation Governance Board” to George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” in his fictional yet predictive book, 1984. The book’s protagonist, Winston, works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to modify historic documents to reflect the government in the best light and destroy anything that would prove that the government has said anything false. The Ministry is also involved in creating the “Newspeak” language that would make it difficult to express dissent without running afoul of social conventions.
The name “Disinformation Governance Board” brings to mind a government program that would determine what speech and topics can be expressed online and what is prohibited. According to the DHS, the Board will “protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” but it is not clear how that will work if freedom of speech is censored or limited. Despite the announcement, perhaps rushed out because of the Musk Twitter announcement, the government has not given clear information about how it will operate. We don’t know even know how the Department of Homeland Security defines the “disinformation” it intends to stop.
It is hard to believe that those who communicate information that violates the official narrative will find DHS officers on their doorstep. Still, the Board may encourage private communication companies to limit their speech. So far, it has worked with major providers, including Facebook and pre-Musk Twitter. Whenever people complained that their social media companies violated their freedom of speech, censors argued that “these are private forums, not government actors.” But as the government continues to pull the strings by asking private companies to curtail freedom of speech, that does not otherwise violate obscenity and existing criminal laws, it increasingly becomes an actor in unconstitutionally curtailing freedom of speech.