099 Nina Jankowicz and the political aspect of disinformation

We sat down with Nina Jankowicz, an American researcher and writer, currently working as the Vice President at the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, to talk about fight against disinformation and online harassment, the role of different actors in this area and the differences between EU and USA in this field.

Nina is the author of How to Lose the Information War, on Russian use of disinformation as geopolitical strategy, and How to Be a Woman Online, a handbook for fighting against online harassment of women.

She briefly served as executive director of the newly created United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Disinformation Governance Board, resigning from the position amid the dissolution of the board by DHS in May 2022.

Transcript of the episode:

Expand the transcript

00:00:06 Domen Savič / Citizen D

OK, welcome everybody. It’s the 12th of April 2024, but you’re listening to this episode of Citizen D Podcast on the 15th of May 2024. With us today is Nina Jankowicz, an American researcher and writer currently working as the vice president at the UK Based Center for Information Resilience.

She’s the author of how to lose an information war on Russian use of this information as geopolitical strategy and how to be a woman online, a handbook for fighting against online harassment of women. She briefly served as an executive director for the newly created United States Department of Homeland Security disinformation Governance board resigning from the position amid the dissolution of the board in May 2020.

Welcome, Nina. First of all, thank you for joining us. It’s really a pleasure.

00:00:56 Nina Jankowicz

Thanks for having me on Citizen D, yeah, I’m excited to be here.

00:01:00 Domen Savič / Citizen D

Excellent. First let’s start at the beginning, right. This information government board, your brief tenure, the critique which you wrote for Foreign Policy where you highlighted the issue of political say squabbles that are limiting the fight against this information.

Uh, it seems that no matter where you go in the US, in the UK, it’s always the same, right? Every time somebody tries to do something in terms of regulating the disinformation, fake news, propaganda and other issues, the backlash, it’s always, you know, they’re going to take our freedoms, we have to defend democracy, free speech and everything else.

Would you say that this is something that just needs to be taken into the account or is there a correct approach to these types of regulatory bodies where people actually feel that the body will have an actual benefit on the entire of society, not just the political parties or sides or whatever.

00:02:08 Nina Jankowicz

Sure. So let me start with kind of a little description of what the board actually was and what people say it was. For the listeners that may not be familiar, so prior to joining DHS, I’ll say a little bit about myself too.

I had been an expert on disinformation and analyst, focusing particularly on Russia and Eastern Europe, but increasingly especially during the pandemic in the lead up to the January 6th insurrection, looking at some of the domestic disinformation that we had seen so that’s my background.

I had testified before Congress for both Republicans and Democrats. I had worked with members of Congress across the aisle as I was a fellow at the Wilson Center and I had done a lot of work kind of supporting policymakers all around the world and trying to put forward solutions to disinformation that upheld democracy right that made sure that our democratic freedoms were protected.

I came to the job optimistic because I didn’t really expect to get a political appointment from the Biden administration, and so when they came and said, you know, will you serve your country? I said, of course, this is in my area of expertise. It seems like there’s actually room to do something here, so let’s get something done. And I’m bringing with me everything I’ve learned in my research, including a lot of policy analysis of the things that had been tried in Central and Eastern Europe that that may or may not have worked right, which is what I write about in my first book.

The Disinformation Governance Board was meant to be an internal coordination body bringing together all of the different components as we call them of the Department of Homeland Security, which have very disparate missions. It’s a huge organization, and in some ways of Frankenstein, right?

It includes everything from our emergency and disaster management agency, FEMA, to our Customs and Border protection to TSA, the guys that make you take your shoes off at the airport to our cyber security and Infrastructure Security Agency, SISA, which actually dealt with election security and kind of beefing up local and state election partners ahead of elections and potential incursions by the Russians or the Chinese, so a lot of different missions and the idea was to bring everybody together, make sure that we had a shared definition of disinformation, make sure that in the work that each agency or component was doing, that it was upholding civil rights, civil liberties and the right to privacy which Americans of course hold dear.

That was the brief that I was given that I was going to bring these people together. I was going to assess what was going on in the agency and make recommendations for the board to adopt or not adopt. And we would go forward and make policy as a policy making body. How was to in the policy part of DHS, right, the policy shop, as we say.

When the board was announced, I had been working at DHS for about 8 weeks at that point, at the very beginning of my tenure, I said to my bosses, I think it’s important that we announced this and that we announced it transparently. There had been incidents for similar agents announced that they there were I wouldn’t even call it backlash, there were rumors there were lies about them.

I’m thinking in particular of the Czech Center against terrorism and hybrid threats when they were announced, there was a lot of excitement among disinformation researchers and, you know, people in the national security space. And then people on kind of who were skeptical of the government in in the Czech Republic really didn’t like the idea of this center against terrorism and hybrid threats, which in part was dealing with disinformation. And that was because they communicated poorly about it.

They weren’t going to be doing any fact checking, they were very narrowly focused on the mission of the Ministry of Interior and, you know, threats related to terrorism. But they didn’t communicate that very, very well and I write about that in my book. So I said to my bosses we need to make sure we communicate well, that did not happen.

You know, I wasn’t actually a very high-ranking person within DHS, I wasn’t confirmed by the Senate. There were, you know, a lot of people who outranked me there. And my job is to give them advice. And I gave lots of advice about different approaches to communication that I thought we should take. And they were all kind of rejected in favor of an approach that was announced to the board but didn’t give a lot of detail about it and the problem with that was that we left a vacuum for the adversaries, both political adversaries.

But I will also say Russia wrote about this to fill in the blank and what they filled in the blank with was wise. They said that this information governance Board was going to govern what was true and false on the Internet, which was not true. They said that I was going to have the power to send men with guns to the homes of Americans with whom I disagreed – also not true. I was not a law enforcement official. I had no budget. I had no operational authority.

That operational authority lied with all lay with all the components, but even they were not going to send men with guns to the homes of Americans with whom they disagree. That was just preposterous. And also, in that vacuum, because there was so little information about the board it was ironic, of course, having written about online abuse and studied online abuse that I would then be subjected to a very widespread hate and harassment campaign that looked it.

I mean, my family was doxxed, our personal information was released on the Internet at the time I was pregnant, people were saying horrible things about my reproductive status, my baby, my husband, whatever.

There other members of my family were targeted. There was wide skepticism about my personal life, I got death threats and all sorts of other nasty, unsavory, violent threats. And also, it’s not the same, like the violent stuff is worse, of course, but people just lied about me, they lied about all sorts things they said that the Hunter Biden laptop was a Russian disinformation operation.

I actually never said anything like that. I urged people to be skeptical about the laptop given when it was released and who was shopping it around. Rudy Giuliani. He does not exactly have a very good track record of telling the truth. Right. And I said, listen, we don’t know what this is. It can’t be independently verified right now, treated as a Trump campaign product, and somehow that has been construed to say that I believe that it’s Russian disinformation that’s been repeated over and over. They said that I believed in the Russia gate conspiracy theories, if you read my book I kind of say we don’t really have the evidence that says that Russia, Russia was colluding with Trump, but we do have evidence that Russia tried to interfere in our election, right, that’s open-source evidence, we know about that.

So, my opinions, my thoughts were totally misconstrued. I was painted as a young woke liberal woman who was coming away to take your coming into governments, take your rights. And so, to this day, people believe that I committed treason against the United States because I was attempting to violate the 1st amendment and take that away from my fellow citizens.

And I’m sure my grandfather is rolling over in his grave. So, my grandfather was 10 years old when he was deported to a gulag by the Soviet Union, made his way through Central Asia and ended up in the UK in the early 50s and immigrated to the United States. Kind of looking for the American dream.

So that is very much an experience that I carry with me and that is in my DNA, and for somebody to say that I wanted to take away Americans fundamental rights and freedoms is just so anathema to me.

And of course, what happened with this in the end I was pregnant at the time I decided to resign because the department really didn’t have my back. They were not pushing back vociferously on these lies. They thought that strategic silence was the right thing to do, that like this would blow over.

I kept being told that it would blow over the next weekend or the weekend after and as we waited and time grew and, you know, issued a fact sheet that wasn’t very good. They had, you know, people give various statements to the media. But I wasn’t allowed to speak for myself. And it was my record and my family that was being disparaged and endangered. So I decided to leave. They had asked me to stay on as a policy advisor and I just decided it wasn’t worth it, then they disbanded the board after I left later that summer.

And you know, I was at home with my baby trying not to think about anything.

This is a really frustrating and sad moment for me, and I think it’s one that’s important for your audience to understand as well as much as there has been political backlash against some of the counter disinformation in attempts in Europe, there’s never been anything like what we’re seeing in the States right now.

And it’s not just about me, it has now expanded from the disinformation Governance Board and me in 2022 where kind of the Democrats presented the board as a fait accompli to the Republicans and said, OK, you win. We’re not going to fight you at all and that’s kind of an admission of guilt, right?

It looks like one, even though nothing there was no wrongdoing and then.

Having had that proof of concept, the Republicans went further and said look at all the rest of this censorship happening, and they basically redefined the term of censorship as any person studying the information environment. They’re a censor.

Any cooperation or communication between an academic or somebody at a think tank and a social media platform or the government that’s also censorship, right? That’s the claim right now. And I think that that is a completely false definition of censorship.

Censorship has a clear definition of what that looks in the American context. But B, it is it is doing the opposite effect of what it says it is. It’s not defending people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, it is having a chilling effect.

I’m the researchers who are doing this work and just trying to stand up for democracy. So that’s where we are right now in the states. It’s not a not a pretty picture and to me, it represents the most fundamental threat to academic integrity and freedom of expression since the McCarthy era.

00:12:01 Domen Savič / Citizen D

Why do you think looking back on your involvement with the DHS, the backlash, the response because it sounds like the arguments you wrote about in your op-eds and everything everywhere else.

They sound like there is a little black book on how to discredit people, right? And anybody can rent it out in a library, read the paragraphs, and then use it in in different contexts in the US and EU all around the world, right? So why do you think this is such a transferable procedure?

So why do you think the same things people are using to you know, media assassinate type person or gather up gather up like reasoning for personal attacks. Why do you think this works like literally anywhere in the world?

0:13:05 Nina Jankowicz

A good question. I mean, I think ultimately, whether it’s online or in a newspaper, or just gossiping with coworkers around the water cooler, right, people are interested in personal stories, and the more salacious, the better.

And so, you know, claiming that I’m this crazy woke, you know, feminazi, working in the DHS, that’s a good narrative, and it makes money for people. It makes money for people.

I know because it’s been repeated over and over and over again. Whenever anybody has a chance to just mention me, that’s how they describe me. Right? So, it clearly is resonating with people. And I think also there’s been a normalization, at least in the United States and our politics of these sorts of personal attacks since Donald Trump’s presidency.

We have seen that sort of personalization not just happen within him and his office, but also being normalized in the Republican Party to some extent. I wouldn’t say all Republicans do this, but people there are certainly people within the party who have enormous influence who act this way.

And it’s interesting because they do it bombastically in public, but when you get them behind closed doors, they don’t act that way and so you know that it is – it is something that is done for show. It is something that is an act and it’s really depressing to me.

And I have actually said directly to members of Congress who have attacked me in this extremely personalized way and put me and my family in danger that I thought they were engaging in a dereliction of duty as elected officials. They have an important role to play in setting the tone of discourse in our country and by acting the way that they do, they are telegraphing to their constituents that that is OK and generally some of the constituents, not all, but some will go farther.

They will say worse things they will, you know, send violent threats. They might show up to people’s houses. They might engage in violence like, that’s not beyond the pale. We’ve seen that already in the United States over the past four years. And so I really think we need to call that out and make sure that people recognize how strange that is.

I remember there was a conversation with a governor and I forget which governor; it was a state governor here in the States and he was asked about the gendered and misogynistic attacks on Nikki Haley, who was running for president for the Republican Party nomination at the time.

He said that’s just politics and actually if you look at other countries, other developed democracies, it’s not as accepted in other places, it still happens. Yeah, there are still misogynistic comments, but they are not the norm. And I think we really need to get back to that. And of course, the Internet getting back to the global nature of all of this.

Internet really supercharges that ability to be mean and personalized, and downright violent, right? There’s no consequences for any of this stuff.

00:16:25 Domen Savič / Citizen D

So, so would you say, you know looking at potential, I’m not going to say remedies because that would be too optimistic, but the right way to sort of address these issues, right? So we’ve had like spanning from let’s say the first election of Donald Trump, the Golden Age of, this information writing and fact checking and active citizenship we’ve had nothing but failures up to up to today, right?

Nothing that we’ve advised on in 2015, worked. In fact, if you compare, the first notes about, you know, the media is lying to you, you have to check everything, everything is disinformation and propaganda. I think it’s sort of… like to me, it seemed that the biggest blowback came during the pandemic crisis, right? I usually joke in a very sarcastic way about this and say that the best fact checkers or the best people that really took fact checking to heart were the antivaxx community during pandemic, because they said nothing is true, everything is a lie, we have to figure out everything on our own, right?

So moving forward, are there some lessons, not to be learned, but are there some lessons we can take as a basis to sort of reformat the discussion the framework in which we are addressing the fight against this information, a fight against propaganda.

00:18:03 Nina Jankowicz

Yeah, I’ve always been. I don’t want to say skeptical of fact checking. I think it has a time and a place and serves useful purposes, but I think we need to be very clear about its limits, so a fact check, a reactive fact check of a piece of disinformation or misinformation is not going to necessarily reach the people who already believe the mistruth, right.

In fact, it often causes them to double down on that mistruth and so I am much more in favor of investing in information literacy and people react poorly, especially in the states.

That’s beginning to be another kind of divining or lightning rod issue here because they think that means that people are gonna be told, OK, this media outlet is trustworthy and this one is biased, this one just publishes false news.

And that’s actually not what media literacy is. It’s giving people the tools that they need to navigate today’s information environment and while I don’t want to put all of the emphasis on people, right, I think there needs to be other parts of the solution. I do think that if people understand how social media platforms work, why they’re being shown certain content, if I’m looking for a new pair of shoes and then suddenly I’m getting Instagram ads about different pairs of shoes that are, you know, that have the characteristics of the ones that I’ve been looking for, like there’s a reason it might not be the best shoe for me, it’s just that they’ve got a very good online advertising team and similarly, you know, knowing that the platforms are targeting you based on your interests and the things that you’ve engaged.

Before I wrote a piece in 2020, about how it’s so easy to go from in our context, we had a big movement to reopen businesses in about, let’s say, April or May of 2020. And even if you just have that as a purely economic argument, if you knew like, if you didn’t believe in any COVID misinformation, you didn’t think vaccines, you know had 5G we didn’t have vaccines back then but you know all these crazy conspiracy theories?

Yeah if you didn’t believe in all of that, but you just wanted to reopen your business, it was a couple of steps removed from joining a a reopening Facebook Group to going into like crazy conspiracy theories about heavy metals and like the vaccine was a conspiracy to get people to become sheep.

And it was just a few steps removed and that’s the sort of thing that I think people need to be… they need to understand.

So I’ve always advocated that governments, in addition to taking kind of the national security precautions that they all should take in addition to making sure that they’ve got like one belly button of policy coordination within their government so that that can all go out to different ministries or agencies that they that they need to be investing in information literacy as well.

And it wouldn’t be prescriptive… it wouldn’t say Fox News bad, New York Times good, it would say you know today’s information environment is very polluted and we all need to kind of recognize that navigating it is difficult and here are some tools to do that.

So that’s part of it. I think the other thing that we have seen from the countries that have actually been successful at this is that they have publicly prioritized that disinformation is a problem, like they’ve publicly declared that.

So if you look at Sweden and Finland and the psychological defense that they do with their populations or Ukraine, obviously Ukraine is in war, so it’s an extraordinary situation. But, you know, people recognize that this information is being used to undermine them and undermine their efforts as they try to resist this enemy.

And so that’s part of it. And then also, and this is something that governments struggle a little bit more with, again creating that policy center somewhere at the heart of government with full political buy in from the very top of an administration and something that’s going to stay from administration to administration that can’t quickly be undone by political upheavals, is incredibly important and no president since 2016, while Trump didn’t prioritize it and Biden didn’t figure out a way to do it right.

I think DHS what I was supposed to do was a smaller version of this within the department itself, and it failed miserably.

And now, as a result, a lot of the counter disinformation work that the US government is doing has been rolled back. So, it’s difficult and you have to telegraph it the right way, you have to be very transparent about what you’re doing and say we’re not doing any fact checking.

You know, we’re going to be putting good information out there. We’re looking at what’s happening online, and we’re going to provide Americans with information about how to get to the polls, how to vote, where to find their voting place. You know, we see a lot of misinformation and disinformation about that sort of stuff that that might be all it means, but you need to be transparent about it and for some reason the US government couldn’t figure out how to do that.

I will say one final thought, which is that when the Salisbury poisoning happened in the UK in 2018, that was, in my opinion, a very good example of how to be transparent, how to declassify information quickly?

How to work across government from very different parts of government, from the police to the foreign and Commonwealth Office to the people who dealt with chemical weapons to get information out to the public quickly and I think we could all learn a lot from that.

I know there are probably still people who believe the Salisbury operation was a conspiracy or a plant by MI5 or whatever, but I think the majority of the world and certainly the majority of Brits believe the truth, which is that Russia did this on purpose as retribution against Scripal.

00:23:47 Domen Savič / Citizen D

So, my next question would be like the difference or looking at the different, let’s say sources of this information, right. So, you have these let’s say let’s call them like homegrown disinformation outlets that are operating within a certain interior politics or party politics, within a specific geographical area like a country or a region and then you have these, you already mentioned them, foreign ops, influencing or trying to lower the attention of the enemy, of the foreign countries.

Would you say that dealing with these different types, so to say of disinformation could be the same or is there like a huge difference between addressing these two issues. Because we’ve been, like the pandemic was sort of like a highlight of everything mashed together, from local disinformation outlets that were basically just monetizing the pandemics informational black hole, then you had the Russian foreign operations that were trying to sort of, yeah, dissolve or inject sort of incoherence and stuff.

00:25:03 Nina Jankowicz

Yeah, it’s difficult to draw the line right. I think everyone wants there to be a very clear line between what our foreign adversaries are doing and what’s going on at home, and this is something that’s been incredibly misunderstood by almost everyone from the press to policymakers since the very beginning of the kind of current era of interest in disinformation and I talk about in my book how the most successful disinformation is the disinformation that manipulates pre-existing grievances in society.

So, if you have again to use a US example, if you’ve got people who believe Texas should secede from the rest of the United States, that’s a really easy grievance to identify and manipulate. If you are Russia and you might identify some local actors who believe that, like you know, local civil society groups or a local media outlet that that takes that kind of position for themselves as an editorial position and you can work with them. And that’s when you get information laundering.

Right, so we see narratives or pieces of, quote UN quote, intelligence introduced to local actors and then they are able to spread it without kind of the Russians or the Chinese or the Iranians, showing their hands that aha, this is a foreign actor and it’s so it gives them a layer of insulation, plausible deniability.

And it also makes it harder for at least in the American context because of our free speech laws, which I agree with, just to put that out there so no one can slice this and say that I didn’t say that it makes it much harder to respond, because if you’ve got somebody who fervently believes something, they have a right to say it right.


So how do you respond to it then? And that’s where you get into kind of the idea of counter speech. You know, somebody putting out that information and hoping that the story that they tell is more compelling than the lie.

So, it’s really difficult and I guess the other thing that I would say is that the nations that have been good at this and I think the UK is another good example again and also probably the Nords and the Balts.

They have an actor agnostic approach, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from Russia or coming from inside the house. It means that you know they’re going to respond to disinformation that affects public safety, public health or democracy in the same way, but and I think that’s the right approach, I don’t think that in any of these cases, well if it’s a, it’s if if it’s a fake Russian account, by all means take it off, take it off of Twitter.

But we need to be sure of that or Facebook or TikTok or whatever. I don’t think that you know, I have in fact if you go back to my very first New York Times op-ed in 2017, September 2017, I say that playing whack a troll is not the right approach to countering disinformation, we need to do better strategic communications.

We need to tell better stories. We need to, you know, prioritize this as a policy area and talk about it transparently, not playing whack control, not removing those accounts. And unfortunately, you know, I think as you and I have talked about, that’s where we’ve ended up that people still think that the response to disinformation is censorship, that the response to disinformation is removing stuff online. And that is just not true.

00:28:21 Domen Savič / Citizen D

And how would you compare like the current, let’s say regulatory uptick in in the EU that is sort of, you know, I mean they’re on the way out. You know, elections are coming in two months, but they’re still trying to sort of push out a lot of regulatory frameworks that address, you know, financing of the media transparency of the operations, the role of digital intermediaries…

They’ve had some success in terms of addressing or highlighting these issues, California and other states in the US started, you know, writing their own versions of, let’s say, the same regulatory frameworks. Do you think this is part of the solution or is it just like a PR stunt for the politicians to sort of show off and say yes, we’re doing something?

00:29:17 Nina Jankowicz

DSA and related pieces of legislation are good. I don’t know if they’re gonna work. I think we have to wait and see to, you know, see if the implementation is as good as the idea. But I think we need to start somewhere and particularly with the transparency and oversight question that one, I think is the most critical.

So, when people ask me what I would do to regulate social media, I tell them that we can’t even have a conversation until we’re all using the same set of facts and right now, that’s true, right?

And researchers, I don’t have to tell your audience, I’m sure, but researchers access to data on social media platforms has been almost entirely cut off or monetized to the point where they can’t get access to it.

So, what we’re dealing with now is basically hearsay. It’s like when Elon Musk decides he wants to release snippets of conversations without their full context to pre-selected journalists. That’s part of what we get or whistleblowers or stuff that’s been gotten through. You know, these congressional investigations that are going on here again released in a retaliatory or untransparent manner. And what I think the DSA can solve and other regulatory regimes, including the E Safety Commissioner in Australia, who has the power to essentially, ask questions of social media platforms based on safety related issues that allows us a shared set of facts.

It means that we will know how the platforms are dealing with content moderation questions. We will know how they’re dealing with foreign interference questions. We will know in in issues where people feel aggrieved that their content was removed or demoted or they have their account shut down. We will know why that happened.

And until this point we’ve not had anything that has allowed us to do that. We could make inferences even when we had access to more data, but we would. We would only have kind of what the data showed and the inferences that we could make and then what the platform said.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, right? So, I’m excited about that part of it. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done thinking about the way that our information environment today has effects on public safety and the online safety bill in the UK makes some attempts to square that circle, but it also has a couple of concerning elements to it, including the requirement to break encryption, things like Signal, who  have been really pushing back on that and I think rightly, but on the other hand, it also, you know, I think makes it legal deep fake porn and other types of harassment that are based on protected characteristic.

So, it’s a difficult dance to do, but I think that that is going to be the longer term harm that we have to kind of iterate on and see as things are developing, what’s going on the transparency issue. And if we solve that and we make sure that there is a non-partisan intermediary body overseeing that data and distributing it to researchers and journalists, frankly, then then we’ll have a conversation. We’ll have the basis on which we can have that conversation and make it more productive.

00:32:32 Domen Savič / Citizen D

And what would be the result of this conversation? You often hear about transparency that is the cornerstone against fight against disinformation, but then they never mention the next steps, in terms of, OK, we have transparency, we know what’s going on behind the curtain. What’s next?

00:32:59 Nina Jankowicz

Yeah. I mean, I think then we have some sort of intermediary regulator who can respond to exigent threats on the platforms and either give guidance or set regulations for what they must do if a certain thing happens. So, I like to compare it to the airline industry. I like to actualize what goes on the Internet, because I think a lot of people still believe that there is a firm line between the online and the offline worlds and that just isn’t true anymore.

So, Boeing obviously has been having a lot of problems over the past couple of years recently here in the States ad door blew off an airplane and immediately we had an investigation by the FAA into Boeing and what was going on there.

I think we need regulation similarly for technology platforms that have such an immense influence on our lives and have so much of our personal data as well, right? We need to make sure that they’re safeguarding that appropriately, and that if they are not safeguarding it appropriately, if they are not, you know, investing enough in making sure that child sexual abuse material or terrorist content, or if we ever get there, you know, other online harms that deal with adults and everyday people.

Deep fake pornography is one example, right? If they’re not doing their due diligence and expending a certain level of effort, then they get fined or then they have some sort of penalty. That’s what happens in every under every other industry, from finance to cars to airplanes to food. And to think that we are giving over so much again of our personal information to these companies for access to something that we use in our daily lives to connect with people, to do business, to, to stay in touch with families, and there is nobody, nobody who’s watching what they’re doing.

I mean, it’s shocking. It’s shocking. So, I think that would be the logical next step. But again, we need that shared set of facts to start from a common ground there, because otherwise we’re just going to get hoodwinked by political actors and private companies who are trying to make a buck.

00:35:00 Domen Savič / Citizen D

It seems to me like this is the perfect topic or this subject of regulating, let’s say intermediaries or online platforms. It’s like the perfect storm situation where everybody can or anybody can add to its own two cents. The political actors are trying to sort of lessen the encryption, as you’ve mentioned, and trying to sort of convince us that you know, terrorism will be gone if they just have access to everything.

Then you have the private sector that is just “No, no, no. Just leave us alone. We will handle this perfectly on our own because we are the only ones who know what to do.”

So, who do you think of all these actors should, let’s say, start the conversation about transparency and about next steps like you’ve mentioned political actors, you know, we’ve talked about the market forces… who should be the like the instigator of this conversation?

00:36:05 Nina Jankowicz

I think it’s got to be researchers. I don’t. I don’t think either. Nobody, nobody is unbiased enough of the political actors and the and the private companies to really drive the conversation, and it’s the researchers who have worked with the data. It’s the researchers who have uncovered some of the harms online, and it’s the researchers who want to be able to continue to do some so without this exorbitant cost?

And I think they they’re starting to do that. The problem is that with due respect to my beloved colleagues in academia, academia moves very slowly. It’s really difficult to get consensus on things because everybody has very strongly held opinions based in their own research and their own experiences and they don’t communicate very well.

So, I think most academics would agree with that, so you know, I think there’s a lot of work to be done to make those points to the public as well. And I’m doing some work with some academics to start to do that in the future.

But it is difficult. It’s a really difficult battle because everyone turns off their brains as soon as you start thinking about something technical, but I think again, that’s where the analogy to the airline or the food industry or whatever comes in very handy, because I think everyone hopefully agrees now that what happens online does not stay online and that means that it needs to be regulated.

 00:37:27 Domen Savič / Citizen D

Yeah. And speaking about regulation, just one more topic before we wrap up… your latest book talks about online harassment, it describes your experience, it talks about other women’s and other types of harassment online.

What’s your take on the current, let’s say regulatory situation in that area? Is this similar to this information or fight against this information? Is it something completely different? I’m guessing harassment is as old as this information operations if not older so?

How do we address this issue moving forward, especially now that we are, you know, walking, maybe even sleepwalking in in the era of generative AI, deep fakes, and everything else that just you know, turns the volume up to 11 in terms of harassing.

00:38:23 Nina Jankowicz

I mean, I could have spent an entire hour on that question alone, but I’ll try to be quick. I mean, I think the state of online harassment and online harms online safety, especially in the United States, but really, most places around the world is primitive at best, the state of regulation and in most cases, I think really discounts the harm, particularly that women and minorities face when they encounter online harassment, right?

The intent of this harassment, whether we’re talking about just, you know, trolling someone or deep fake pornography or violent threats, is to silence them. So, it is a speech issue.

And yet, when people turn 18, especially when women turn 18, right, we have a lot of conversation in, in the online harm space about girls and I had a student at Oxford asked me once, why is it that when girls turn 18, we no longer care about them and I think that’s a really, really good and trenchant question.

They’re not minors anymore. Sure, but are we asking just by raising our voices to receive rape threats, to be targeted in this way, to have to fear for our lives when we’re walking around, you know, outside? I mean, I have a cyber stalker who I had to get a protective order against, I had a bad experience with law enforcement when I did that.

The detective who handled my case basically said, well, he lives in New York. Why do you think he’s gonna show up here in your home in Virginia? And I’m like, because he has my address and he has a habit of showing up at people’s homes and places of employment and events that they’re at. And I have a baby, and I don’t want him to, you know or see my baby or be in proximity to him.

There are many law enforcement agencies that react similarly. So, I think I think we need much more help there. The fact that deep tech pornography has not been criminalized or even civil penalty instituted at the federal level in the United States is shocking to me. When the harm is so, so, so clear. And it has become so easy to create stuff like this and you asked if this is a similar question to disinformation or not.

I mean, I think the response that I hear from skeptics is that this is just, you know, you should have to deal with it. You should just buck up and deal with it. Often, that’s white men who say that. They just don’t get the same sorts of harassment that their female counterparts do. There’s a lot of data on that. And so, what do I think needs to happen? I mean it’s tricky, right? Because it runs into speech questions. But I think in regulating the platforms we might be able to find a happy medium there.

Obviously like these, these platforms have terms of service that they are meant to implement that already say that you’re not allowed to harass somebody based on protected characteristics like gender, age, religion, ethnicity. The problem is they don’t enforce them, so perhaps there’s an enforcement mechanism that says if you don’t enforce your own terms of service, you are not upholding your duty of care to your users and that’s a market problem, right? That’s kind of a consumer protection problem.

There’s a lot of different ways to do it, but I think until people recognize the harm that online harms do cause that it’s not just sticks and stones, but there is a real physical threat that that comes from a lot of this stuff, then we’re going to be going around in circles.

But I am hopeful. Danielle Citron, who’s a privacy scholar, a former MacArthur fellow, she has two great books. One of them is hate crimes in cyberspace and the other is her newer one is called the fight for privacy, and she mentions how in the 70s, of course, it was legal, perfectly legal and normal to get sexually harassed at work.

And women came together and we banned it against that, and now it is very much not legal. Right. And you can you can have harassment claims against your bosses, your coworkers, for creating an unsafe work environment. We just need to bring America, bring the world up to speed. That that’s not OK online either because it is a speech issue, like I said, coming back around to it, it means that people, women, marginalized communities are silencing themselves because they are afraid of these horrible things that might happen to them online if they do speak out, so that’s where we are. I’m hopeful that we can change it for right now, situation is not very good.

00:42:51 Domen Savič / Citizen D

And just one more question before we wrap up. Like there is a, there is a ton of political movement in the US and the European Union, EU, US election is coming up the EU election is coming up. Do you see this these topics well addressed or during the election cycle? I sometimes think it’s a generational issue, like the older people, let’s say above 50, they just don’t have, as you said, the same experience or it almost looks like they don’t live in in the same world.

So, is this a generational issue? Do you see like working in this field working with younger or young people? Do you see a change of narrative and perceptions of these issues as people go, you know, are younger and are more involved in these types of situations?

00:43:59 Nina Jankowicz

Yeah, I think so. I think younger people understand the harms that the Internet can cause more, more acutely than people, a couple of generations ahead of them. But I’ve also had some really enlightening and encouraging conversations with people who are many years my senior, so I wouldn’t entirely write them off, though I do think we’ll see more and more legislation coming from kind of younger MP’s, younger members of Congress as we start to address these issues.

00:44:33 Domen Savič / Citizen D

  1. Thanks so much Nina, for dropping by. This has been really informative and really great. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors. And yes, fingers crossed me move, you know upwards, not yeah, downwards.

00:44:48 Nina Jankowicz

Yes, I agree. I’ll be watching the elections in the EU and I wish you all the same as well. Bye bye.


Citizen D advice:

  • Rethink the connection between disinformation and political parties
  • Develop new approaches to financial ties of disinformation research
  • Empower disinformation researchers with political support

More information:

  • New Group Joins the Political Fight Over Disinformation Online – article
  • How disinformation fuels violence — and makes our politics worse – article
  • ‘A surreal experience’: Former Biden ‘disinfo’ chief details harassment – article

About the podcast:

Podcast Citizen D gives you a reason for being a productive citizen. Citizen D features talks by experts in different fields focusing on the pressing topics in the field of information society and media. We can do it. Full steam ahead!

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