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Leaked government documents reveal that U.S. government officials have access to a special portal through which they can directly flag Facebook and Instagram posts and request that the posts be “throttled or suppressed,” The Intercept reported Monday.
Internal U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memos, emails and public documents outline “an expansive effort” by DHS to influence tech platforms, despite the Biden administration’s failure earlier this year to launch a Disinformation Governance Board.
As of Oct. 31, the “content request system” at facebook.com/xtakedowns/login was still live despite the public uproar earlier this year when attorneys general in 20 states threatened legal action unless the Biden administration immediately disbanded the “Orwellian” Disinformation Governance Board.
Mark Crispin Miller, Ph.D., professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, told The Defender that collusion between the U.S. government and media companies to censor U.S. citizens is nothing new — but it’s become a “catastrophic trend.”
“The Intercept’s reporting validates what many knew was being undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security, despite the scrapping of its Disinformation Governance Board.”
Rectenwald said the coordination between government and media companies validates his claim that social media companies are not merely “private companies” but are “state and uni-party apparatuses” — what he has called “governmentalities” — that “augment the state by adding precision, scope, and penetration to state power.”
Indeed, many of the people in charge of moderating content at Facebook have been recruited from the government, including the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The unholy alliance between the state and these corporations has historically been called fascism,” Rectenwald added.
Biden ‘paused’ widely ridiculed board — publicly, at least
On May 18, the Biden administration “paused” the board, causing Nina Jankowicz, who was tapped to lead the initiative, to resign. However, the still-active portal allows officials with a .gov or law enforcement email address to request censorship in the name of fighting “disinformation.”
Neither DHS nor Meta, Facebook’s parent company, responded to The Intercept’s request for comment on its report.
According to The Intercept, the DHS Disinformation Governance Board was initially designed to police three forms of speech that allegedly threaten U.S. interests:
- “Misinformation: false information spread unintentionally.
- “Disinformation: false information spread intentionally.
- “Malinformation: factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent.”
Even though the board scaled back and then shut down after being met with wide ridicule, other DHS efforts are underway for monitoring social media behind closed doors, according to The Intercept.
An August 2022 report by the DHS Office of Inspector General tracked DHS’s efforts since 2018 to “counter disinformation” — and concluded DHS efforts did not go far enough.
“Although DHS components have worked across various social media platforms to counter disinformation, DHS does not yet have a unified department-wide strategy to effectively counter disinformation that originates from both foreign and domestic sources,” the report said.
“Without a unified strategy, DHS and its components cannot coordinate effectively, internally, or externally to counter disinformation campaigns that appear in social media,” it added.
According to a draft copy of the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, obtained by The Intercept, the department plans to target “inaccurate information” on a range of topics, including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”
The draft review also called for DHS to “leverage advanced data analytics technology and hire and train skilled specialists to better understand how threat actors use online platforms to introduce and spread toxic narratives intended to inspire or incite violence, as well as work with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and other parts of civil society to build resilience to the impacts of false information.”
The draft did not include a concise definition of “threat actors,” an omission Adam Goldstein, vice president of research at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, found concerning.
“No matter your political allegiances, all of us have good reason to be concerned about government efforts to pressure private social media platforms into reaching the government’s preferred decisions about what content we can see online,” Goldstein told The Intercept.
“Any governmental requests to social media platforms to review or remove certain content should be made with extreme transparency,” he added.
In June 2022, an advisory committee of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — which included Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, public policy and trust, and safety lead, and Kate Starbird, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington — drafted a report to the CISA director in which the committee called for an expansive role of the agency in shaping the “information ecosystem.”
The committee’s report called on CISA to closely monitor “social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio and other online resources.”
Evidence of ‘deep state’ political censorship, expert says
According to Rectenwald, the DHS has been infringing the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens — “with the explicit cooperation of social media” — while enforcing official state narratives and dictates.
“Together with social media companies, they comprise an American Pravda,” Rectenwald said. Russia’s Pravda newspaper was the official organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1991.
“DHS’s backdoor portal to Facebook and Instagram is evidence of ‘deep-state,’ political censorship,” Rectenwald said, referring to a “permanent bureaucracy that voters neither elected nor can change, but which operates independently of voters’ wills.”
According to CISA meeting minutes and other records appended to a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt alleging the U.S. government censored the opinions of the scientists who wrote the “Great Barrington Declaration,” discussions among CISA officials revealed the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse — and went so far as to cover the mechanisms of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.
For instance, a text message exchanged in February between CISA Director Jen Easterly, and another CISA employee who now works at Microsoft, read: “Platforms have got to get more comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain.”
And in a March CISA meeting, Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, said the threat of subversive information on social media might undermine support for the U.S. government.
Twitter told The Intercept in a statement, however, that they “do not coordinate with other entities when making content moderation decisions, and we independently evaluate content in line with the Twitter Rules.”
Yet other documents — in addition to the March CISA meeting notes — suggest coordination between the federal government and Twitter regarding the content it allows on its platform.
In July 2021, Twitter locked Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and the author of 13 novels, out of his account a few hours after Biden said the social media companies were “killing people” by allowing vaccine skeptics to speak.
In December 2021, Berenson sued Twitter in federal court, claiming the company had breached its contract with Berenson because it previously assured him he was doing nothing wrong according to their rules and that everything he said on their platform had been accurate.
The internal Twitter communications obtained through discovery revealed the White House had specifically targeted him in its private meeting with Twitter.
The communications showed high-ranking members of the Biden administration — including White House Senior COVID-19 Advisor Andy Slavitt — pushed Twitter to permanently suspend Berenson from the platform.
“I can now bring a claim directly against the White House,” Berenson told Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in a recent episode of “RFK Jr. The Defender Podcast,” “against people who were in the White House at that time — for trying to abridge my free speech rights.”
More evidence of the federal government’s possible collusion with Big Tech companies to censor users may be revealed as a result of an Oct. 21 federal court ruling that ordered Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top officials to testify under oath at depositions for Attorney General Schmitt’s lawsuit.
Jenin Younes, a New Civil Liberties Alliance attorney involved in the lawsuit, said she looks forward to learning just how far the accused government officials went to push their COVID-19 “perspective.”
“For the first time, Dr. Fauci and seven other federal officials responsible for running an unlawful censorship enterprise will have to answer questions under oath about the nature and extent of their communications with tech companies,” Younes said in a statement to The Epoch Times.
‘It’s kind of a wild west out there’
As The Intercept pointed out, the Privacy Act of 1974, created after the Watergate scandal, restricts the government’s ability to collect data from Americans as they exercise their First Amendment rights.
Civil liberty groups have contended the statute limits the ability of the DHS and the FBI to surveil the political speech of Americans on social media, but the statute has exemptions for information collected for the purposes of a criminal or law enforcement investigation.
Faiza Patel, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told The Intercept, “There are no specific legal constraints on the FBI’s use of social media. The attorney general guidelines permit agents to look at social media before there is any investigation at all.”
“So it’s kind of a Wild West out there,” she added.
An FBI official interviewed by The Intercept lamented the country’s move toward warrantless monitoring of its citizens and said, “Man, I don’t even know what’s legal anymore.”
CISA boasted of an evolved mission to monitor social media discussions
Following high-profile hacking incidents of U.S. firms, Congress in 2018 passed — and then-President Donald Trump signed — the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act, which formed a new wing of DHS charged with protecting critical national infrastructure.
“From its inception, CISA boasted of an ‘evolved mission’ to monitor social media discussions while ‘routing disinformation concerns’ to private sector platforms,” The Intercept report said.
Additionally, the DHS in 2018 created — under the leadership of then-DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to respond to election disinformation.
The task force included members of CISA and DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis who together generated “threat intelligence” about the election and then notified social media platforms and law enforcement agencies, according to The Intercept.
In 2019, DHS created yet another branch — the Foreign Influence and Interference Branch — to generate more detailed intelligence about disinformation. That same year, its staff grew to 15 full- and part-time employees dedicated to disinformation analysis.
In 2020, DHS’s disinformation efforts expanded to include COVID-19, according to an Oct. 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment.
In January 2021, under the Biden administration, CISA replaced the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force with the “Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation” team in order to “to promote more flexibility to focus on general MDM.”
The ever-present narrative: Censorship not just justified but morally necessary
Crispin Miller traced governmental collusion with media companies limiting free speech back to the 1960s.
“Gradually, over the last sixty years, it’s become increasingly difficult — and, lately, dangerous — to contradict the narratives pumped out by the government and media, Crispin Miller said. “Starting in the late 1960s, those who questioned the official story of JFK’s assassination and other seminal events were largely laughed off as ‘conspiracy theorists.’”
“Over the last 10 years or so, such ridicule has given way to heated condemnation, treating mere dissent from this or that official story as (somehow) an existential danger to us all,” Crispin Miller said.
Crispin Miller continued:
“Thus, for going on three years now, it’s been treated as a crime against humanity to question any of the ‘COVID measures’ forced on all humanity by governments worldwide — especially COVID ‘vaccination,’ which is itself [original emphasis] a crime against humanity, and yet it’s dangerous to say as much.
“Likewise, it’s now treated as (somehow) a crime against democracy, and a dire threat to ‘national security,’ to question the results of an election, with those who do so-called ‘election deniers,’ — as if disbelief in the official outcome of a presidential or congressional race is somehow tantamount to Holocaust [original emphasis] denial.”
Greenwald, one of the three editors who in 2014 co-founded The Intercept, wrote in an Oct. 28 Substack post:
“Look to any government or society in which censorship prevailed — either today or throughout history. This narrative about why censorship is not just justified but morally necessary is always present.
“Nobody wants to think of themselves as a censorship supporter. They need to be supplied with a story about why they are something different, or at least why the censorship they are led to support is uniquely justified.
“And it works because, in the most warped sense possible, it appeals to reason. If one really believes, as millions of American liberals do, that the U.S. faces two and only two choices — either (1) elect Democrats and ensure they rule or (2) live under a white nationalist fascist dictatorship — then of course such people will believe that media disinformation campaigns, censorship, and other forms of authoritarianism are necessary to ensure Democrats win and their opponents are vanquished.
“Once that self-glorifying rationale is embraced — our adversaries do not merely disagree with us but cause harm with the expression of their views [original emphasis] — then the more suppression, the better.”
“And that is exactly what is happening now,” Greenwald added.