What happened to Nina Jankowicz when Fox News came for herPlay
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Listen: Nina Jankowicz joined us ahead of the 2020 election to talk about Russian disinformation. She also joined us in April last year, just after the publication of her book 'How to be a Woman Online.'
Nina Jankowicz is an expert on disinformation. So the federal government hired her.
"Last year, when I was appointed to lead a body within the Department of Homeland Security to counter disinformation, disinformation and hate speech came for ... me and my family," Jankowicz says. "And for the past year, we've been dealing with threats, harassment and worse."
First, the onslaught came from Fox News. Then, her social media feeds were flooded with death threats.
Today, On Point: What happened to Nina Jankowicz when Fox News came for her.
Nina Jankowicz, vice president at the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience. Former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board. Former fellow at the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center. Author of How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: A little over a year ago, the United States Department of Homeland Security created an advisory board to offer guidance on how to counter disinformation threats to national security. It was called the Disinformation Governance Board.
And from the moment the board was made public, Fox News and members of Congress who make regular appearances on Fox absolutely hated it.
TUCKER CARLSON [Tape]: This year, the Biden administration plans to launch a disinformation board. Now we're learning a lot more about what they plan to do, in fact, have done to censor the speech of American citizens.
REP. MIKE JOHNSON: It's something that sounds surreal. We can't believe that it would have come to this. It's effectively a ministry of truth. It's dystopian in its design.
SEN. JOSH HAWLEY: They've been pressuring private companies and really colluding with them to censor domestic speech, to censor American citizens, political speech on everything from COVID, to mask mandates, to CRT, to the war in Ukraine, all of it.
SEAN HANNITY: Nina Jankowicz was one of the biggest perpetrators and purveyors of disinformation in the entire country.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina Jankowicz. She's one of the nation's leading experts on how disinformation corrodes democracies. She's advised the Ukrainian government managed democracy assistance programs at the National Democratic Institute and is author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict. As such, DHS look to her to lead its new Disinformation Advisory Board. And that made Nina Jankowicz Fox News's direct target. Again and again and again.
FOX NEWS MONTAGE [Tape]: This chick is so absurd.
The government's campaign against disinformation is being led by someone who seems to be a cross between Madame Mao and Bette Midler.
It really feels so unhinged to me. I'm troubled they couldn't find someone else for the job. She doesn't look like a serious person.
A lunatic that somehow the Biden administration plucked out of somewhere. That is just sort of absurd.
... Whatever her name was. Mary Poppins. Exactly. She was going to come in and be like the czar of misinformation.
She looks like she's auditioning for a reality show called America's Got Issues.
What a fart party. These TikTok videos are embarrassing, to say the least. It's barf worthy. She's supposed to head a government agency. I'm embarrassed for her.
CHAKRABARTI: The constant personal attacks by Fox News oozed into social media, and then the attacks on her family started. Doxxing, death threats. Just three weeks after her appointment, the Biden administration put a pause on the DHS disinformation board. The toxicity was too much. Jankowicz resigned. Fox News gloated.
FOX NEWS MONTAGE [Tape]: You know the disinformation czar. She got booted this week. Yeah, well, now she's running around town complaining. She says that she's been killed by disinformation and that she's now under all sorts of threats.
She was the chief of spreading disinformation and misinformation, outright lies. And now she's the victim. She can dish it, but she can't take it. She got a couple of mean tweets.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina Jankowicz represents a unique case study in how disinformation spreads like political poison. She's not only the disinformation expert who got attacked by a disinformation campaign. Her story shows clearly how those campaigns can directly impact policies and how a government operates.
But could Nina Jankowicz also be an example of how to tame the disinfo beast? Because like Dominion Voting Systems, the company which brought a massive defamation lawsuit against Fox News. Nina Jankowicz is also now suing Fox. And she joins us today. Nina, welcome back to the show.
NINA JANKOWICZ: Hi, Meghna. Great to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: So there was something buried in the tape that we played of all those Fox News attacks on you, which I'd like you to explain. The Mary Poppins reference, what was that all about?
JANKOWICZ: Well, Meghna, in a past life, used to do a lot of musical theater. And long before I was appointed to the Biden administration to lead the Disinformation Governance Board, I tried to reach out to younger people, to different audiences on all sorts of social media platforms, including TikTok.
And I made a parody video of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious about information laundering, which is when disinformation origins are obscured. Either, you know, through the mainstream media or sometimes a foreign government will plant stories within influencers or things like that. So I was trying to explain this during COVID, I made a silly video, one that was, you know, intentionally self-deprecating. I've written parody songs like this all my life, and the video did moderately well. It had, I think, a couple of thousand views on TikTok. It did a little bit better on Twitter, but the right wing went absolutely ballistic about this video.
The idea that somebody like me could have a sense of humor or, you know, hobbies to engage in just made them, you know, just lose their minds, apparently. And I just want to state for the record that I'm still proud of that video. I wouldn't have taken that video back. And I don't think having hobbies or a sense of humor or being earnest about something is disqualifying for any sort of job.
And by the way, everything in that video, you know, even though it was rhyming and silly, was factual, it was about how information laundering works in today's information ecosystem. So if you want, you can go watch it. But Fox News played it hundreds of times in order to try to embarrass me out of my job.
Fox News played it hundreds of times in order to try to embarrass me out of my job.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. And so, in fact, I mean, you say that during the period of this onslaught that you'd been featured in more than 250 broadcast segments on Fox. And hosts and guest guests, repeated false and false information about you more than 400 times. ... It began right after the Biden administration made public about the DHS Disinformation board. At what point did you realize that this wasn't just like a 24-hour news cycle thing — that it was a major campaign against you?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah, well, there were a couple of, you know, different waves of it. I initially thought, you know, perhaps this will die down. Over the weekend. We had announced to the board on a Wednesday and thought that perhaps by Monday things would die down. But Fox just kept harping on me. And I think, you know, it shows how beneficial a strategy like this is for their bottom line.
Picking a main character, a villain, if you will, and just reminding the audience of them again and again, contriving these narratives that I had committed treason because it gets their viewers enraged, which keeps them engaged. And I think it's a tactic to distract from real issues in our society. And frankly, it's a tactic that harms our national security as well. The fact that this board doesn't exist is a detriment to our national security and to the safety and security of the homeland. ... The lack of coordination in the Department of Homeland Security, which is a large government body that was already working on disinformation.
Picking a main character, a villain, if you will, and just reminding the audience of them again and again, contriving these narratives.
The point of this board was to bring all those forces together, to make sure they were coordinated, to make sure that we were, you know, appropriately spending taxpayer dollars and to protect privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we want to talk more about exactly what the board was intended to do a little later in the program, Nina. But you mention that Fox News basically used you as the villain on this campaign of theirs, you know, and they created this caricature of you. And I want to play an example of what that sounded like. This is Laura Ingraham. And she's talking here about, again, your love of music, also where you went to college and places where you've worked.
LAURA INGRAHAM [Tape]: Part angry feminist, part frustrated karaoke singer Jankowicz is the last person who should be trusted with distinguishing between fact and fiction. She's a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. It's kind of a caricature of the modern left university. She worked at the liberal Wilson Center, a think tank Globalist, of course.
And as an expert in Eurasian affairs, you would think that Ms. Jankowicz would have authored articles maybe on the importance of preserving free expression in repressive regimes, right? Well, not quite. But she did publish this gem: Malign Creativity: How gender, Sex and Lies Are Weaponized against Women Online. Oh, can't wait to read that.
Contriving these narratives that I had committed treason because it gets their viewers enraged, which keeps them engaged.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina, why do you think that you became the primary target here rather than the disinformation board itself? I mean, Fox hosts and contributors also talked about the board, but not with the vitriol, I would say, that they talked about you.
JANKOWICZ: I think it's easier to be angrier at a person than it is to be angry at an inanimate board about which you have no information. So they were filling the vacuum with stories that were completely made up about me. And at the time, I should also mention, you know, not only have I lived this authentic life online, I've basically grown up on the Internet. I am, you know, a proud millennial. I was a week away, a couple of weeks away from giving birth at the time.
They were filling the vacuum with stories that were completely made up about me.
So I was this very, very pregnant, very female, very authentic, easy to dunk on face of the board. And again, I think that mobilized people in a way that just talking about this concept of a disinformation governance board didn't. So, yeah, and I should also add that almost everything that Laura Ingraham said in that little segment that you played is false. The Wilson Center is not liberal. It is proudly nonpartisan.
And while I was there, I advised, you know, Republicans and Democrats in Congress about disinformation. She talked about my paper Malign Creativity, which looks at how gendered abuse is used against women, both in the domestic situation and foreign politics.
Well, you know, I also did author a paper on free expression at the Wilson Center. It's called Freedom and Fakes, and she can find it on the Wilson Center website. So either her producers did a bad job or more likely, you know, I think these folks are clearly leaving out facts that go against their narrative in order to, again, paint this picture of me as the villain of this fake story about censorship in the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: ... Once the social media response followed the Fox News onslaught, how is that different from previous times you've been attacked?
JANKOWICZ: Well, it's endured. Just this morning, right before we came on air, I was reporting another attempt to dox me and my family online. This is almost a year after I resigned, and that is in large part due to Fox's long term vitriolic coverage of me.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about how disinformation changes an individual's life and how it can have a profound, in fact, impact on policy and government itself.
Now, Nina, you mentioned just before the break about how you were very pregnant at the time, expecting a child and this stuff is coming at you, I imagine 24/7, both on Fox all day long, all night long on social media. Was there anywhere you could go online or in real life to escape the attacks?
JANKOWICZ: Well, I guess I'll just start by saying that without the support of my family, in particular my husband and my friends, throughout this ordeal, it would have been much, much more difficult. And I'm lucky to be surrounded by people who understand online abuse, perhaps because it's been something that I've studied for a number of years. But, you know, the online attacks are pretty incessant. And even as I mentioned before, continue to this day. And I used the Internet very, very freely, very effusively, very authentically before all of this happened.
And until recently, I didn't really fully grasp how much my online behavior has changed because of all of this. I recently started using Bluesky, which is a new Twitter alternative, and it's a very kind of fun vibe on there. But I find myself not replying to tweets or as they call them on there, skeets. Not sharing other people's content. Because I've become really wary of spreading the abuse that I'm subject to. So on Twitter, for instance, basically since last year, if I share another woman's research or an article from someone that I find interesting, they are almost certainly subject to abuse.
If I reply to somebody is thread talking about a new baby they had, people have gone after them. I mean, it's not even just about colleagues. Anything that I share is almost certainly going to be attacked. And so no, online, I don't really have a place anymore where I can feel freely express myself. And I think that's what's really important to understand about online abuse. You know, a lot of people who believe that online abuse doesn't have a real impact on people's lives. It changes how we express ourselves. And everybody has that same right to free expression.
And so when I see free speech, absolutist policies on social media platforms, it really worries me. And I've said this for years because when we allow abuse, ultimately someone is being silenced and I refuse to let that happen. But still, you know, it changes how I express myself. And that's really unfortunate for women, for marginalized communities.
And beyond that, you know, it has an offline effect as well. As you mentioned, my family was subject to hundreds of threats just this morning, as I said before, another doxxing that came in. It changes how you walk around in the world.
You know, in the weeks that this was the hardest before I resigned from DHS, I was, as you said, very pregnant. I had to walk around with a hat, sunglasses and a mask on because I was on Fox News every hour on the hour and just basically a sitting duck. And I was afraid of, you know, going to my prenatal appointments that were weekly at that point, that somebody would recognize me and berate me or worse.
CHAKRABARTI: Were you afraid for your life?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. I mean, I had asked DHS for protection because I was going back and forth to the office. I had hired a private security consultant who advised me to not go to coffee shops, not get gas alone, and even advised my husband and I to leave our house just weeks before I was due to give birth because our address had been released online and there were credible threats of people, you know, putting my face on improvised munitions handbooks and saying like, this is our hill to die on. This is our 1776 moment.
I mean, how can you not be afraid in the climate that our country is in right now, where we've seen armed protesters become violent at, you know, the insurrection on January 6th and many other examples? It's hard not to be scared, especially when you're carrying a life and about to bring a new baby into the world.
CHAKRABARTI: Why are you still courageous enough to speak out now? Because you're not describing the risks as having completely abated.
JANKOWICZ: Yeah, they haven't. When I have done all of this work, even before DHS, when I've been researching online abuse, when I've spoken to young women in focus groups, I've done for my research about the ways that they self-censor and their worries about having an online existence and what it means for their future.
I just think about, you know, if I were to stay silent right now, if I were to stop talking about what has happened to me, and stop talking about the very legitimate work that I've done for years, before any of this happened to me, it would be letting the bad guys win.
If I were to stop talking about what has happened to me ... it would be letting the bad guys win.
It would be saying, okay, you win, this sort of abuse campaign works and I'm just going to stay at home and be quiet and I'm not going to put my work out there. I'm not going to put myself out there. And that breaks my heart. I don't want to send a message to young women and frankly, all women around the world and in the United States to say that this sort of thing is effective. It's not effective.
It has made me very tired. But, you know, unfortunately for the folks who have attacked me, they've picked a very resilient person. And I'm going to continue to stand up for the truth and to stand up against this sort of behavior, which I don't think belongs anywhere, but especially in the United States of America.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's talk a little bit about some of the specific claims that Fox News — and again, I want to emphasize that it began on Fox and then moved to social media. The disinformation campaign and then some of the assertions were picked up by members of Congress. We're going to talk about that in a minute here. But let's listen to a little bit about how Fox described the DHS Disinformation Governance Board. This is Charlie Kirk, conservative activist and founder of Turning Point USA, the advocate for conservative causes on college campuses. And here's what he said about the board and about you on Fox News.
CHARLIE KIRK [Tape]: All Republicans on Capitol Hill and, quite frankly, Democrats, too, you know, old style liberals, the liberals that used to populate the Democrat Party should also be outraged about this and trying to get to the bottom of it. You know, I think it's kind of interesting.
There's sort of this internal debate in Washington right now about whether or not this thing is the scariest thing that we've ever seen or it's something totally ridiculous headed by a lunatic that somehow the Biden administration plucked out of somewhere that is just sort of absurd.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Nina, specifically and briefly, if you could, what was the disinformation board tasked to do?
JANKOWICZ: Right. The Disinformation Governance Board, although it had a scary sounding name that I did not choose, was tasked with coordinating preexisting DHS efforts to counter disinformation. It had no operational authority. It had no budget. It had no full time staff other than myself. It was basically just bringing together the various DHS agencies to respond to disinformation, dealing with things like natural disasters, border security and cybersecurity relating to election integrity.
CHAKRABARTI: But the responses would be ostensibly what?
JANKOWICZ: Basically just putting good information out there. So if somebody was trying to defraud Americans who are getting benefits after a natural disaster, we would attempt to communicate in a way that reached those Americans and responded to the bad information, the false information. I think everybody should want more information out there. It had nothing to do with censorship. It had nothing to do with arbitrating the truth.
And certainly I wasn't going to be involved in any effort like that. That is something that I have stood up against, throughout my career in places like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It's not something that I support, and I never would have taken a job that had anything to do with censorship.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, we have an example of analyzing the government's response right here with this case itself. Because the Biden administration pushed back against Fox News's messaging. So, you know, the question is, did the Biden administration do a good job in responding to the disinformation coming from Fox?
So one thing that the administration did is they said, well, the Disinformation Governance board only had an advisory role, and that also brought an onslaught from Fox.
Here's Shannon Bream, host of Fox's Outnumbered, asking, well, if the board has no enforcement power, why does it even exist?
SHANNON BREAM [Tape]: What was the purpose of it? What functions was it going to perform? Because now we're told it was completely harmless and toothless. There was nothing to it. It was never going to do anything bad to anybody or make calls about what is true or false. So what was the point?
CHAKRABARTI: So, Nina, honestly analyze the Biden administration's response here. Was their counter messaging effective?
JANKOWICZ: No, in short, it wasn't. Not only was the counter messaging not effective, but the way that the board was rolled out initially in kind of a short announcement in Politico Playbook, which is a Washington email newsletter that was, you know, this paragraph was bereft of a lot of context. It absolutely should and could have been communicated more transparently and effectively. And the guidance that I had given internally was unfortunately not heeded. Both with the announcement, and then after the announcement.
It was clear, you know, the day that the board was announced that things were trending in a damaging direction for both the board and for me. And I said, you know, let's get out in front of this. Let's make sure that we are talking to the media, that we are briefing members of Congress and their staff that, you know, we are getting messaging out on social media. And unfortunately, you know, the way that government works, things work very slowly, especially in an agency like DHS, where there are a lot of other competing priorities.
And the government wasn't able to do that. They weren't able to get out in front of it quickly. It took them days to issue any sort of statement or get any sort of, you know, talking head out there. And I was effectively embargoed from sticking up for myself and from pushing back against the attacks on me, my family, and my scholarship prior to joining the administration. And I think that was a critical error and shows exactly what you insinuated, Meghna. That ... the government does need better coordination and better expertise when it comes to countering disinformation in the Internet era.
I was effectively embargoed from sticking up for myself and from pushing back against the attacks on me, my family and my scholarship.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, there's obviously just even the basic problem of it's not built to manage information with the speed that the modern world works at. I mean, if it takes days to even just get people together to start making decisions, it's already too late to counter disinformation that's spread around the world multiple times by then.
Now, I want to move to something else here again, because there's this nexus we're dealing with. There's the disinformation, because you as an expert on disinformation, who was supposed to help the Department of Homeland Security figure out how to manage that. Then there's the disinformation coming from Fox News that gets spread first to social media, but then also to members of Congress.
And at that point, it becomes, I think, something different. It's scary enough, what you had to deal with given the online threats. But now there's also the power of, you know, the legislative branch of the federal government of the United States, you know, focusing on you and particularly, you know, Jim Jordan, Josh Hawley, they zeroed in on some documents, for example, that they got from DHS.
They were talking points from a memo for a meeting that was with Twitter executives. Or the meeting was supposed to happen with Twitter executives. And it proposed that Twitter become involved in analytic exchanges with DHS. So we'll talk about that in a second. But here is how Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri talked about it. He was on Tucker Carlson's show, and he accused the Biden administration of pushing tech companies to suppress free speech.
SEN. JOSH HAWLEY [Tape]: They've been pressuring private companies and really colluding with them to censor domestic speech, to censor American citizens, political speech on everything from COVID to mask mandates to CRT to the war in Ukraine, all of it Biden has been trying to control through the government.
TUCKER CARLSON: It just tells you the next time there's some national panic and you're required to believe something, it's almost certainly a lie.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina, talk about this.
JANKOWICZ: Whoo! There's a lot to unpack in that one. So, I mean, okay, so the memo that is being referenced was for a meeting that never happened. It was for a meeting that was never even scheduled. It was, you know, a memo in case there was ever to be this meeting. And again, it never happened, so it's moot.
But the idea, you know, that the board would be censoring individual Americans is just completely ridiculous. As we've seen from hearings recently, not only does the Biden administration communicate with social media companies, the Trump administration communicated with social media companies about content that they saw online. And this isn't threatening social media companies and saying, you must take this down. It's saying, hey, we saw this piece of content that might violate your terms of service. Right. And saying you should perhaps be aware of this.
The idea that the board would be censoring individual Americans is just completely ridiculous.
But in our case, all we would be doing, or were planning to do — and again, none of this ever happened. Eas to say, here are some trends that we're seeing online. You know, here are the ways that human smugglers are lying to individuals who are attempting to illegally immigrate to the United States.
Here's the information about that that you should be aware of. And also, you know, we know from 2016 that Twitter, that Facebook, had information about election interference before the government did.
This is just facilitating a flow of that information. It's not about censorship at all. And, frankly, you know, all the things that Senator Hawley was pointing to in those remarks aren't things that DHS would have had purview over anyway. So a lot of a tempest in a teapot there.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I will note that it is Congress's job to keep the executive in check. It's one of the constitutional checks and balances. But also, let me ask you, you're saying, there's no credence at all to their assertion that there was a potential threat to speech here.
But part of what makes disinformation so difficult to stop is that these campaigns can gain velocity because people start sharing and retweeting. Because at least a kernel of the original piece of disinformation reflects their actual beliefs. And of course, it's not illegal to believe things, or even to write and share most things that you believe. So, isn't in order to fight that, isn't there at least some risk to speech?
JANKOWICZ: You know, I have always maintained that removing speech is not the answer to countering disinformation. All of my work has focused on the importance of equipping people with the tools they need to navigate today's information environment so that they can assess information on their own. It has also focused on government coordination and transparent communication in the face of disinformation threats.
I have always maintained that removing speech is not the answer to countering disinformation.
So you will not find in my work anywhere where I advocate for removing the speech of individual citizens. It's just not something I'm in favor of. In fact, I deride it. I call it playing whack a troll. It's not something that I think that we should do. So I don't think that the government should be involved in that.
And to the extent that the government does, again, flag content for individual social media platforms to take a look at, again, the ones that are making those choices are the social media platforms based on their terms of service that we all sign up to when we sign up to share baby pictures and cat pictures and look at funny memes.
There are rules governing those platforms, and if individual people don't like it, they can move to platforms that have fewer rules on what you can share and what you cannot.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina, let me ask you, you were also subpoenaed, I believe, by Representative Jim Jordan's weaponization of government committee, subpoenaed to testify, I believe, what was it, a closed hearing? First of all, what was that like? And can you tell us anything about it?
JANKOWICZ: Well, I am restricted from talking about the specifics of what we discussed. But I will say, you know, the basis on which I was subpoenaed, that is the allegation that the government was weaponized somehow in creating the disinformation governance board, and hiring me is completely false, as we've laid out already.
And I have basically just repeated that to the members of Congress, both in that hearing and then externally, publicly over the past year. The conversation was cordial. It lasted 5 hours. And I informed the members of all that I did during my whopping ten weeks in government and spoke with them about what I've endured over the past year. And I hope that after that conversation, they no longer buy into the lies that they were spreading about me, you know, since April and May of last year.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, I want to note that we did contact Fox News for comment. We called them, emailed them and sent text messages as well, multiple times over the course of many days in order to see if Fox had any comment. They never responded. But we did make a concerted attempts to reach out to Fox.
Now, Nina, I want to just use your expertise a little bit to dissect the kind of messaging that came out of Fox when they began this onslaught against you and what aspects of it really looked to you like a familiar disinformation campaign. First of all, they seemed rather consistent in their messaging.
I mean, to the point of using very similar language, no matter which Fox News host was talking. I mean, they'd use language like insane, lunatic, absurd, buffoonery. All these really belittling comments that sought to undermine, I suppose, your intelligence and reliability. I mean, for example, here's Fox host and commentator Dagen McDowell.
McDOWELL [Tape]: This chick is so absurd that it almost seems like this is some sort of a ruse or a red herring to prevent us from talking about everything else that's horrible going on in this country.
CHAKRABARTI: So that use of the word absurd, I mean, is that a familiar aspect of a disinformation campaign and why?
JANKOWICZ: What we've seen across disinformation campaigns, not only domestically, but certainly used by our foreign adversaries, is an attempt to, again, characterize serious efforts, ones that protect national security as something that people should fear. And what should you fear? You should certainly fear insane people. I would also say, you know, we heard in that clip there is a gendered aspect to all of this.
They called me a chick. I think at least one host called me a bimbo. They sexualized me. You know, the fact that I was a young woman just seemed to be particularly ripe for their ridicule. And again, this is something that I've studied myself, Russia, Iran, China, all use this sort of misogyny in order to undermine women who are speaking out, who take a role in public life and who stand up for democracy. We can't have a democracy if we don't have, you know, equal representation.
And so this sort of undermining of a woman like me who was active in national security and active in public life, who spoke her mind, is actually very deliberate, as well. And then one final thing, I'll say, Meghna, that I found very interesting as somebody who studies Russia, is that when Russia picked up this story, because of course they did it, it played on everything they love.
This sort of undermining of a woman like me who was active in national security and active in public life, who spoke her mind, is actually very deliberate.
... They basically lifted Fox News as coverage entirely. They showed entire clips from Fox News programs on Russian state propaganda. They basically didn't even have to write a story. They just lifted the exact same talking points, the exact same voiceovers, and translated them into Russian and showed clips from Tucker Carlson, from Laura Ingraham on Russian state propaganda. So, you know, in some ways it really felt like Fox was doing Russia's dirty work for it in this campaign. And that's how much this this campaign against me and the board came, you know, from Russia's disinformation playbook.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, by the way, for folks listening, I want you to know that we actually made sure to ask Nina in advance if it was okay to play these clips. Because it can't be easy to hear. And you said it was okay, Nina, right?
JANKOWICZ: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, at this point, I'm inured to it. It's been a year.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, but I mean, and the reason why we felt it's necessary is because we just wanted people to know exactly what the language, the tenor, the thrust of these attacks were. And it's hard to paraphrase them, unfortunately. But, you know, you talked about Tucker Carlson. And again, sort of how there was both gendered and then specific attacks on your expertise. And here's this another moment of that.
TUCKER CARLSON [Tape]: She's a 33 year old, highly self-confident young woman called Nina Jankowicz. Jankowicz comes from a place called the Wilson Center that's a nonprofit named for America's other mentally incapacitated warmonger bigot precedent. Ironically, because everything is irony, the Wilson Center is itself a major producer of, yes, disinformation.
But of the neocon variety, and for that reason is heavily funded by the Biden administration. Jankowicz is also, because everything is connected, a former adviser to the neo-liberal government of Ukraine, the government we're shipping tens of billions of tax dollars to, as our own economy swirls down the drain. So you really can't make any of this up. It's too grotesque. Would you believe a novel with this plot? No, you wouldn't. But it's happening, and that's the bad news. The good news is everyone involved in Joe Biden's new Ministry of Information is a buffoon. Nina Jankowicz is the most ridiculous of all.
CHAKRABARTI: Sorry, Nina. I'm just pausing there because it's beyond insulting. I mean, apparently it's a crime for you to be a self-confident young woman. But the thing is that it's bad enough that you had to endure all this. But then the ultimate outcome of this disinformation campaign is that the Biden administration disbanded the Disinformation Governance board from DHS. And within weeks, by the way. In choosing to do so, didn't the Biden administration just provide the perfect example that these campaigns work?
JANKOWICZ: Absolutely. It was extremely disappointing to me that the administration could not mount a fulsome response to these absolutely baseless lies about the board and about the person they hired to run the board. And what this has amounted to is that every time anybody in the conservative media, media ecosystem has something to say about allegedly alleged conservative censorship on social media, they're able to point to the board and say, look, we won with this, and if we won with this, it must have been true.
It was extremely disappointing to me that the administration could not mount a fulsome response to these absolutely baseless lies.
Therefore, let's push against these other research institutions, etc., that are working on disinformation and maybe we can get them, you know, disbanded or defunded as well. We've seen a concerted effort against researchers, against nonprofits, anybody working to research disinformation and how to best counter it. They have been under attack as well, in personal attack. And I'll just add that this isn't, again, it's not just about mean words online.
One thing that Tucker said that I think inspired a lot of the threats that I got is that I had quote-unquote, men with guns who were going to come after people whose opinions I disagreed with. Again, completely baseless. But this is what inspired people to send the violent threats. Things like Nina Jankowicz is perpetuating lies and treason, and she will pay the price. Hey, slut, quit your job before we destroy your life. Everything you've ... ever cared about will be taken from you. I had a man over the summer say that I should be tried for treason and hung until I'm dead.
I mean, this sort of thing, this narrative that I had committed treason against the American people. That was one of the damaging narratives that Fox perpetuated even after I resigned. And again, they mentioned me in most weeks in 2022. And that's ultimately why I decided to sue Fox. It's not just, you know, that they were saying mean things about me. They were outright lying about me, my role and things I had said and things that they alleged I was going to do. And all of this was provably false.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, I should say that I believe in a robust defense of speech. And that's a challenging path to navigate in in the 21st century. So I want to acknowledge the nuances and subtleties around that. But ultimately, we've also talked about, I mean, you have come on the show several times in the past, as I noted earlier, to talk about how disinformation does constitute a major threat to democracy and sort of even to the governance of a nation in the 21st century. So, I mean, did the Biden administration, what did they tell you about their justification for disbanding the board?
JANKOWICZ: They gave me very little justification. You know, the board was put under review by the Homeland Security Advisory Commission, and I was notified that this review would be taking place over the summer last year. And that's when I was going to be on maternity leave. I was given the option to stay in government as a policy adviser in DHS.
And I looked at the way the Biden administration had responded or frankly, the lack of response. And I just felt that I could do better and more impactful work outside of government. And so I took the decision to leave, hoping that the attacks on me and my family would stop.
And when they didn't stop, after months, and months, and months and months, again, eventually this is the decision that I came to, that the best way for me in my personal capacity to defend American democracy was to attempt to help us get back to the truth, in making Fox face justice for their attacks on individuals. You know, in the Dominion case, what we saw was a company with venture capital funding behind it, going up against one of these enormous media corporations like Fox.
Fox and other media entities defame individuals like me on a daily basis. I am far from the only person this has happened to. ... And it is very, very difficult for an individual like me to bring a case like this. I did not take this decision lightly for exactly the reasons you said, not because of how highly I esteem free expression. But I also believe that campaigns like this do not have a place in American democracy, and you should not be able to lie about an individual ad nauseum. Just because it is difficult to bring a case like this. So that's the decision that I made.
And again, if it had just been coverage of me, if it had just been coverage of the board, if it had even just been insults or them playing my TikTok over and over, whatever, you know, I've got a thick skin, as I think I hope is coming across in this interview. But when it comes to maliciously, repeatedly lying about things that are provably false, again. That here were Associated Press fact checks on, and documents, source documents that proved the opposite. Fox News also said, as you've played in the clips that I was fired, I was not fired. And they can check that with the Department of Homeland Security.
These are the sorts of things that are extremely damaging to someone's reputation. They are damaging to the career that they they have built for themselves. And as I've read out, you know, they have resulted in real threats to me and my family that persist today. And that has a much greater effect on democracy than a defamation suit against a media company does.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I have two last questions for you before we wrap up. And we've just got a couple of minutes to go. Nina, I did want to give you a chance to respond to briefly to some of the things that Fox said regarding tweets that you had put out in the past, because they said when you tweeted about the Steele dossier or the alleged connections between Trump and Alfa Bank, or even you tweeted that the Hunter Biden laptops were fake. Fox News pointed to those things and said these are reasons not to believe Nina Jankowicz, because what she's tweeting are lies.
JANKOWICZ: All of those statements were removed from their original context. So I never said the laptop was fake. I never pushed the Steele dossier. I think if people return to the actual tweets, they will find that I never, never actually said those things, that they were removed from their context.
And again, I was not an arbiter of truth. I was not going to be making any decisions about what was true or false online. If that were the case, perhaps my personal political opinions would have mattered. But again, they wouldn't. They wouldn't have in that situation, because I was under the Hatch Act, which, you know, means that appointees in the Biden administration and any other administration in the U.S. government aren't supposed to bring their personal political beliefs to work. And I took that very seriously.
So, again, return to the original statements. I think you'll find that they hold no water. And also, you know, they represent a very, very small percentage of my extremely measured nonpartizan work on disinformation over the course of the better part of a decade.
CHAKRABARTI: Nina, what did you learn from your experience of all this, about a nation's capacity to withstand or be resilient against a disinformation campaign like this, that might begin in broadcast but then even ends up with congressional hearings?
JANKOWICZ: You know, I'm pretty pessimistic, Meghna, about where we are as a nation in countering disinformation. And I'll just end by saying that disinformation is a democratic threat, not a partisan one. Just because it comes from one party today doesn't mean that it's not going to come from the other tomorrow. And so, we all need to stand up against these sorts of lies, no matter what your political party is, no matter what political inclination you have, this is a threat to democracy. And I hope we can get past this partisanship in the future. But right now, it doesn't look so good.
Disinformation is a democratic threat, not a partisan one.
This program aired on May 15, 2023.