A series of web leaks have exposed the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) plans to expand its commitments to censor “dangerous” speech online. According to an October 31 report from the Intercept, DHS has announced a new “Disinformation Governance Board.” According to the article, the panel’s goals are 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 was initially created to regulate information surrounding the war on terror but has since been shut down and modified to monitor activities online.
Records seized in a lawsuit filed by Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s Attorney General, show how the US government is using its power and influence to shape narratives online. The leaked records from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency’s (CISA) Cybersecurity Advisory Committee show various discussions involving the range and limits of US influence in online discourse, as well as conversations surrounding strategies to successfully remove requests for false or intentionally misleading information.
The same leaks show texts between former DHS official and current Microsoft executive Matt Masterson and DHS director Jen Easterly. “Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” said Masterson.
The Intercept cites another CISA document, in which FBI official Laura Dehmlow claims that “the threat of subversive information on social media could undermine support for the U.S. government.” The meeting where Dehmlow discussed this matter was attended by multiple Twitter executives, as well as senior executives from JPMorgan Chase. The executives’ notes showed an interest in Dehmlow’s proposals, writing that “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.”
When the Intercept asked about Twitter’s participation, a company spokesperson wrote, “we do not coordinate with other entities when making content moderation decisions, and we independently evaluate content in line with the Twitter Rules.”
Facebook and Instagram, however, have different policies and regulations for government officials. These sites have “portals” which allow government officials to directly flag and suppress any information they deem unfit under their policy regulations. Additionally, this portal can only be accessed by those with government- or law enforcement-issued emails. Both DHS and Meta (Facebook’s parent company) did not respond to requests for comment. Additionally, the FBI declined to comment entirely.
Their efforts to combat misinformation online continued to increase following a series of high-profile hacking incidents of US firms in 2018. In response, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act was signed and enacted. This law created a new section of the DHS committed to protecting “critical national infrastructure” by policing disinformation. According to the Intercept’s article, DHS’s strategy calls upon tech platforms to “[remove] reported misinformation from the platform where possible.” Additionally, it is a common protocol under this policy for state officials to send examples of disinformation to CISA, which is then forwarded to the tech companies for their response.
According to the Intercept, DHS has plans to expand its policing efforts to target “inaccurate information on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”
DHS’s commitments to policing information are concerning because the process of identifying disinformation is not an objective one. The inherent subjectivity of information makes space for DHS officials, and their government counterparts to make politically motivated decisions about what is considered misinformation, and what is not.Adam Candeub, a professor of law at Michigan State University speaks to this concern:“When the government suggests things, it’s not too hard to pull off the velvet glove, and you get the mail fist. And I would consider such actions, especially when it’s bureaucratized, as essentially state action and government collusion with the platforms.”
As of November 15, 2022, the Intercept’s reporting has been referenced by the Washington Post in its coverage of the DHS leaks. However, the Post did not mention DHS’s plans to target misinformation around Covid-19 vaccines, racial injustice, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, or the consequences of the United States’ support of Ukraine. The Washington Post also left out Facebook’s portal that allows DHS and government partners to report disinformation directly. No other establishment news outlets have reported on the DHS’s plans to police disinformation.
Source: Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang, “Truth Cops: Leaked Documents Outline DHS’s Plans to Police Disinformation,” The Intercept, October 31, 2022.
Student Researcher: Reagan Haynie (Loyola Marymount University)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)