A surprise popped up on my Twitter feed last week – the launch of BBC Verify, as announced by BBC journalist Marianna Spring. Apparently, the state broadcaster is now going to verify what is fact and what is fake news. Better late than never, I suppose, given the BBC’s relentless promotion of pro-lockdown and pro-vaccine misinformation during the Pandemic. However, as the presentation went on it revealed a somewhat different agenda – less of the fact-checking and more of the “searching for conspiracy theories from the far-right”. This was in support of the noble goal of protecting the British people from outbreaks of civil disorder supposedly linked to ‘conspiracy theories’, like the Jan 6th brouhaha. And Spring herself is going to get her hands dirty, at least as much can be done using such tools as Google Maps and Facebook, along with 60 other BBC journalists. (How much is this costing?)
There was something very familiar about Ms. Spring for U.S. audiences. We had a ‘disinformation tsar’ just like her a year ago in the form of Nina Jankowicz.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided last year that it had fulfilled its primary mission of securing our borders by throwing them wide open, and instead decided to take on real issues such as rooting out disinformation to protect the homeland. In April 2022, DHS Top Man, Alejandro Majorkas, announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) and the hiring of disinformation ‘expert’ Nina Jankowicz to run it.
Ms. Jankowicz was not exactly well qualified for the job of rooting out fake news. She agreed with the 51 former Intelligence officials who proclaimed the laptop owned by Hunter Biden was Russian disinformation, when in fact the officials’ statement turned out to be disinformation. Ditto the Steele dossier procured by the Hilary campaign to trash Trump in the 2016 Presidential race. She believed this dodgy dossier was true even after reporting in 2017 showed it was not, and after 2019 when the Mueller Report confirmed this beyond doubt. In an unfortunate Tik Tok video, Jankowicz channeled Mary Poppins with an updated version of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ which referenced Democrat Party talking points on Ukraine and Covid. None of this is surprising as Jankowicz’s professional career up until that point had been spent in traditional Democrat Party training grounds such as the National Democratic Institute.
The brief of the DGB (one letter different from the KGB as the Wall Street Journal pointed out) was remarkably similar to that of BBC Verify, although it was based in a state agency as opposed to the state broadcaster. It intended to put a government imprimatur on what was fact and what was disinformation. To most Americans outside of Washington DC this is anathema. Americans believe the arbiter of truth is the individual, not the state, and that belief is enshrined in our Constitution as well as our laws.
Within three weeks of being born, the Disinformation Board was dead. The battle was not won on philosophical or constitutional grounds, but because of the ridicule inspired by Jankowicz’s antics. She came across as a less sympathetic version of Elizabeth Warren, if such a thing is possible, with the icing on the cake being the Mary Poppins video. Although in the minority in both the House and the Senate, Republicans killed the Board by mostly playing or referring to the video.
But a word of warning to those thinking that laughing at Spring and the rest of the BBC Verifiers will bring about another easy victory for free speech. The DHS may have ‘paused’ the Board and got rid of Ms. Jankowicz in May 2022, but the need to fight against certain points of view under the guise of protecting the American people from ‘far-right’ extremism is still being pursued only in more devious ways.
Last week, for example, the Media Research Center published some interesting reporting on the DHS. The DHS has changed the focus of the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program (TVTP) from real terrorism to the political Right. In the last two years, it has provided $40 Million in funding for 80 projects by various public institutions and private organisations that seem to be operating under the assumption that ‘far-right’ includes 50% of the American population, and that it is directly tied to white supremacy. One particularly disgraceful chart, taken from material developed by one of the grantees – the University of Dayton – shows the Republican Party, Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, Prager U and Quillette, among other perfectly respectable organisations, linked directly to Nazi-supporting fringe organisations.
Given that the organisations at the top of this pyramid supposedly pose the biggest threat to the homeland since Al-Qaeda, it’s remarkable that no-one seems to have more than a hazy idea of who they are. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center has acknowledged that the number of these supposedly dangerous, far-right organisations is down and identifies the threat as follows: “as organisational loyalty has dwindled and the internet has become white nationalism’s organising principle, however, the ideology is best understood as a loose coalition of social networks orbiting online propaganda hubs and forums.” Of course, such vagueness is ideal for the anti-disinfo grant applications – the vaguer things are, the easier it is to conjure up far-right conspiracies. No need to bother with real terrorists coming through our open borders when shadowy people linked to right-of-centre media companies and free speech organisations represent the real threat.
This is BBC Verify’s view as well, if their launch video is anything to go by. Spring defines their journalistic approach as setting up fake accounts on social media, aka ‘trolls’, to monitor sinister stuff going on in chat rooms, FB groups, and no doubt Twitter, now Elon Musk has gone over to the dark side with his support for free speech, a tool of white supremacy. Spring is promising a podcast called ‘Marianna in Conspiracyland’ inspired by Alice In Wonderland (she has to go down various alt-media rabbit holes to chase the conspiracy theorists).
The predilection of these two young women an ocean apart for using children’s literature to articulate their concerns about disinformation is not a coincidence. Our real problems in both the U.S. and the U.K. are largely the responsibility of our dysfunctional governments – porous borders, high inflation, rampant crime, Net Zero, the blowback from the disastrous lockdown policy. The narrative that the real threat to our prosperity and well-being is lurking in dark corners of the Internet is essentially a fairy story.
Stop Press: If you want to see what a coordinated misinformation campaign really looks like, check out this video.