The steady march of the post-2016 tech censorship campaign has been picking up pace lately, and we’ve just learned of another leap forward.
According to recent major reporting from the Intercept, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been involved in efforts aimed at corralling what it refers to as “MDM”: misinformation, disinformation, and “malinformation.”
Documents obtained and made publicly available by the news outlet show that the DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has been formulating a strategy to combat MDM regarding US elections and other matters. While seemingly unobjectionable on the surface ― who could be against combating false information, which is rife online? ― it raises serious questions about the extent of government involvement in the already-troubling phenomenon of tech censorship.
The conversations detailed in the documents show the federal government, and the DHS specifically, taking a more active role in tech companies’ efforts to suppress MDM. We’ve had some indications this was happening for a while, as when DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC in August that the government was “working with the tech companies” on “strengthen[ing] the legitimate use of their very powerful platforms and prevent[ing] harm from occurring,” and that it was doing so “across the federal enterprise” ― comments that were only reported in right-wing media.
The documents give us details about what that work has entailed. In these discussions, the government did not directly carry out censorship. Rather, they involved government agencies: doing “debunking” and “pre-bunking”; directing the press, local and state governments, and other stakeholders to “trusted resources”; carrying out “rumor control”; boosting “trusted authoritative sources”; giving financial support to its external partners; and improving information literacy. Much of the focus is on elections, with participants talking about using these resources to prevent people being misled about how, where, and when to vote, and stressing that CISA should strictly be a “resource” that at most uses its “convening power.”
But it’s not just election misinformation that’s the focus. Among the recommendations made by CISA is to target MDM that “undermines critical functions carried out by other key democratic institutions.” What are these institutions? It lists as examples the courts and, absurdly, the financial system which — besides not actually being one of our “democratic institutions” — is a notable broadening of what “fighting misinformation” involves. And yet a representative of JP Morgan Chase attended the discussions, and several emails suggest CISA is facilitating collaboration between Google and Facebook and the department of treasury on “social media and influence matters,” as one puts it.
So far we don’t have indications of any forthcoming plans for carrying out censorship by government agencies themselves, but in practice, what’s already been put in place ― and what’s envisioned in the documents ― is, in effect, state censorship done indirectly. The measures tech companies have put in place over the past six years to censor ideas they deem harmful, which have been particularly damaging to the Left, have been largely the result of Congressional pressure on these firms to do something about online misinformation, “fake news,” bots, and the like.
We see evidence of this in the documents. The notes from a March 2022 “Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation and Disinformation Subcommittee Meeting” have Laura Dehmlow (the section chief from the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF) ― a segment of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division first created to deal with Russian election meddling which has grown into a staff of eighty) brief members about its efforts. Dehmlow explained that the FITF does “information exchange” with both lawmakers and “appropriate partners,” and went on to state that “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.”
What exactly does this mean? As the Intercept’s Lee Fang and Ken Klippenstein found, the lawsuit from which the documents have emerged might offer a clue, with the FITF detailed as being “involved in the communications between the FBI and Meta that led to Facebook’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story,” an extraordinary act of press censorship many have still not reckoned with. In fact, now that it’s confirmed the FBI was directly involved in a pact by major tech companies to squelch an entirely legitimate story, this is a far more outrageous violation of press freedom than we first thought. Another document outlines a special government portal that officials can use to request content be suppressed on Facebook and Instagram.
The lawsuit also points to several statements made on a podcast by one FBI official boasting of being “very involved” in working with the private sector — including social media firms — on 2020 election misinformation, talking with them on a monthly and even weekly basis “if they were seeing anything unusual, if we were seeing anything unusual, sharing intelligence with technology companies, with social media companies, so they could protect their own platforms.”
Meanwhile, in the notes from the March meeting, one participant asks how “we get to push the envelope to obtain traction” on MDM, and who has “done appropriate social media monitoring for the government.” When one CISA official notes a recommendation from a Stanford study for social media companies “not to promote MDM actors,” a Twitter official replies that that’s why the company has a “three-strikes system” to “de-amplify bad actors.”
In one email, another CISA official states in a February 18 email that with Russian and Ukrainian tensions ramping up, “CISA is looking to convene our industry partners . . . to discuss potential risks, response postures, and opportunities for coordination.” We have some idea of what that might have led to. Since the Russian invasion, Facebook has relaxed its rules around calls for violence when it comes to the Ukraine war (but only the Ukraine war), and has reversed long-standing policy by permitting praise for Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion, while some reporters who questioned the NATO view of the war were cut off by PayPal.
It’s worth noting that even if we set aside the DHS’s implicit push for tech giants to censor opinions the government finds inconvenient, even CISA’s non-censorious solutions come with a raft of other potential problems. Take the idea of boosting or directing people to “authoritative” or “trusted sources.” The assumption here is that these sources ― like government officials and the “traditional ‘gatekeepers’” of information CISA laments have been disrupted by the rise of social media ― are infallible, and that whatever comes out of their mouths should be treated as gospel.
Yet when it came to public health measures during the pandemic ― one of the areas specifically mentioned in the documents ― it was the establishment press and no less than Anthony Fauci that repeatedly misinformed people about things like the efficacy of masks or the level of vaccine uptake needed for herd immunity.
Despite CISA’s focus on foreign adversaries, research has documented that surreptitious online propaganda campaigns are more often conducted on behalf of the United States and its allies than by adversaries like Iran or Russia. Recent analysis by University of Adelaide researchers of more than five million tweets on the Ukraine war in its first two weeks found that between 60 and 80 percent were tweeted by bots, with 90 percent of accounts falling in the “pro-Ukraine” category, while an earlier Stanford study analyzing hundreds of thousands of tweets over a ten-year period determined that “an interconnected web of accounts” across various social media platforms “used deceptive tactics” to push “narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran.”
This all points to the creeping convergence of tech firms and the national security sector. At MintPress News, Alan McLeod has documented a virtual hiring spree by increasingly censorious social media platforms from among former national security employees ― including from the CIA, FBI, DHS, military intelligence, NATO, and others ― sometimes for positions directly related to regulating content. That includes at TikTok, Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Incidentally, both MintPress and McLeod specifically were among those who had their accounts shuttered by PayPal, suggesting the dangers of letting the US government dictate to tech firms what counts as MDM and what doesn’t.
It’s also yet another example of the steadily expanding mission of DHS, which, besides its central role in Trump’s repression of George Floyd protesters in 2020, is operating a vast surveillance system on all Americans, collects their geolocation data without a warrant, collects and stores information from people’s electronic devices at the border, and has spied on political dissidents. Speaking of 2020, a recently released internal report by the agency has shown that during the protests, DHS serially overstepped constitutional boundaries, surveilling peaceful protesters while pushing to link every demonstrator to Antifa, in line with then president Donald Trump’s deluded public rhetoric.
This should be concerning for even the most law-abiding Americans. But more than that: since these social media platforms are used by people all over the world, and some, like Twitter, have a powerful impact on political discourse in a variety of English-speaking countries, it should be of global concern. The ability to shape what gets said on social media is an immense power for any government to have, let alone one that might end up in the hands of a Trump or a Ron DeSantis.