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The problematic nature of how one US agency is covertly “fighting disinformation”: Report

US DHS is silently expanding its efforts to curb speech that it considers to be misinformation or disinformation

What’s happening: In an investigative report published on October 31, The Intercept dives into how the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is silently expanding its efforts to curb online content that it considers misinformation or disinformation.

Why does this matter: The report reveals initiatives and measures that the DHS has taken that have previously been undisclosed. More importantly, some of the types of content that have been deemed misinformation appear to be subjective and politically motivated.

What efforts has DHS taken so far: 

  • 2018: Then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen created the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to respond to election disinformation. The task force “generated ‘threat intelligence’ about the election and notified social media platforms and law enforcement. At the same time, DHS began notifying social media companies about voting-related disinformation appearing on social platforms,” the report revealed.
  • 2019: “DHS created a separate entity called the Foreign Influence and Interference Branch to generate more detailed intelligence about disinformation,” the report stated.
  • 2020: Prior to the election, tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, Wikipedia, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Verizon Media met on a monthly basis with the FBI, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and other government representatives, the report claimed. “According to NBC News, the meetings were part of an initiative, still ongoing, between the private sector and government to discuss how firms would handle misinformation during the election,” the report stated.
  • 2021: CISA replaced the Countering Foreign Influence Taskforce with the Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation team. “By now, the scope of the effort had expanded beyond disinformation produced by foreign governments to include domestic versions. The MDM team, according to one CISA official quoted in the IG report, ‘counters all types of disinformation, to be responsive to current events,’” the report stated.

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Closed-door meetings: The report claims that the DHS has held multiple closed-door meetings to discuss issues from “the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.”

Process for takedown requests: According to meeting notes obtained by The Intercept, tech platforms “would be called upon to ‘process reports and provide timely responses, to include the removal of reported misinformation from the platform where possible.’ In practice, this often meant state election officials sent examples of potential forms of disinformation to CISA, which would then forward them on to social media companies for a response.”

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CISA, however, defended its work stating that “the social media platform could independently decide whether to remove or modify the post,” the report added.

Worrisome despite disclaimers: While the agency’s takedown requests carried a disclaimer that the agency “neither has nor seeks the ability to remove or edit what information is made available on social media platforms,” free speech advocates are still worried about the pressure this puts on social media firms. “If a foreign authoritarian government sent these messages, there is no doubt we would call it censorship,” Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept.

False alarms: “In many cases, the Facebook and Twitter accounts flagged by DHS or its partners as dangerous forms of disinformation or potential foreign influence were clearly parody accounts or accounts with virtually no followers or influence,” the report claimed.

Topics targetted by DHS: “The department plans to target ‘inaccurate information’ on a wide 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 report claimed.

Why is it problematic: The Intercept points out that it has not been articulated how disinformation is defined by the government, “and the inherently subjective nature of what constitutes disinformation provides a broad opening for DHS officials to make politically motivated determinations about what constitutes dangerous speech.” The report gives the inclusion of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a focus topic as an example to illustrate its point.

What is the impact on social media users: The impact that DHS’s activities have on the social feeds of American users is unclear, the report stated, but gave the following statistics: “During the 2020 election, the government flagged numerous posts as suspicious, many of which were then taken down, documents cited in the Missouri attorney general’s lawsuit disclosed. And a 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership at Stanford University found that of nearly 4,800 flagged items, technology platforms took action on 35 percent — either removing, labeling, or soft-blocking speech, meaning the users were only able to view content after bypassing a warning screen.”

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What have platforms said: 

  • Twitter: “We do not coordinate with other entities when making content moderation decisions, and we independently evaluate content in line with the Twitter Rules,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Intercept.
  • Meta: Meta did not respond to a request for comment, but Facebook and Instagram have a formal process for government officials to directly flag content, the report said.

What caused DHS to start fighting misinformation: DHS’s efforts began during the 2020 presidential election after the 2016 election was plagued with concerns around Russian influence, the report stated, adding that the issue of tackling disinformation and misinformation is a growing part of DHS’s core duties.

The disbanded Disinformation Governance Board: While most of the work DHS does on the disinformation front isn’t public, some of the efforts became visible when earlier this year, DHS announced a Disinformation Governance Board, which the report describes as “a panel designed to police misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent) that allegedly threatens U.S. interests.” The board, however, was shut down within a few months due to widespread criticism and ridicule, the report said.

Intelligence information sharing with platforms: DHS officials under the Trump administration proposed expanding unclassified information sharing with the tech sector to tackle campaigns used by domestic terrorism actors, the report stated. Similar efforts have been prioritised by the Biden administration as well, the report noted.

Is it lawful? The Privacy Act of 1974 “restricts government data collection of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights, a safeguard that civil liberty groups have argued limits the ability of DHS and the FBI to engage in surveillance of American political speech expressed on social media. The statute, however, maintains exemptions for information collected for the purposes of a criminal or law enforcement investigation,” the report stated.

The lawsuit by Missouri Attorney General: Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in May filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s pressure on social media companies to moderate certain forms of content, alleging “governmentwide efforts to censor certain stories, especially ones related to the pandemic. It also names multiple agencies across the government that have participated in efforts to monitor speech and ‘open collusion’ between the administration and social media companies,” the report stated.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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