(The Defender) 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.”
Michael Rectenwald, Ph.D., author of “Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom,” told The Defender:
“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.”