Back in July, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
A federal court had recently granted a temporary injunction, in Missouri v. Biden, finding that the Biden administration had violated the First Amendment by coercing social media companies to remove content, related both to elections and the COVID-19 vaccine, that it deemed false and harmful.
The ruling is being appealed to the Supreme Court, which last month temporarily blocked the order. But one committee member wanted to press the advantage.
“What is disinformation?” asked Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.
“Disinformation is inaccurate information…” Mayorkas began.
“Who determines what’s inaccurate?” Johnson interjected almost immediately. “Who determines what’s false? You understand the problem here?”
Moments later, Mayorkas testified that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a unit of DHS whose activities were part of the case, focuses on fighting disinformation from foreign adversaries — speech that would likely enjoy fewer First Amendment protections than speech by Americans.
But Johnson was ready.
“No, sir,” Johnson said. “The court determined you and all of your cohorts made no distinction between domestic speech and foreign speech. So don’t stand there under oath and tell me that you only focused on … foreign actors. That’s not true.”
“I so, so, regret that I’m out of time,” Johnson concluded.
Johnson’s forceful performance lit up right-wing media, burnishing his credentials as a conservative stalwart and a fiercely effective Republican partisan.
This was hardly the first time that Johnson had put the Biden administration on the defensive over its efforts to fight online disinformation — false or misleading information that is deliberately spread to advance a political or ideological goal. In fact, in recent years, there appear to have been few national issues on which Johnson, who in October was elected by the GOP as speaker of the House, has played a more prominent role.
Johnson’s efforts have largely succeeded. Since 2020, the federal government and social media companies have scaled back their work to counter online disinformation — thanks in part, experts say, to the furious pushback from Johnson and other leading Republicans.
Disinformation specialists increasingly worry that voters in next year’s election may have to contend with a barrage of lies flowing freely online.
“It’s going to be a wild ride,” said Sam Wineburg, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who studies how people respond to disinformation. “We are going to see a deluge of misinformation and … a great deal of confusion online.”
A spokesman for the speaker’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the growing concerns about election-related disinformation.
Pulling back on countering disinformation
In 2020, amid a flurry of online lies about both the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, social media companies stepped up their efforts to curb disinformation, including labeling some of President Donald Trump’s tweets as…