US government held secret meetings to censor content on social media

Although the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has given up on its globally derided Disinformation Governance Council, which would have the role of arbitrating what is true and what is false on the internet, internal documents show a growing effort by the agency to censor information on social networks. An investigation by the international The Intercept, published this week, shows that the US government promotes meetings behind closed doors with private platforms, to, through pressure, “try to shape online discourse”. The agendas of the meetings range from the scope of government intervention in what is said on the internet to ways of simplifying requests for the removal of allegedly false information.

The source of the information is minutes of meeting and other records attached to a lawsuit filed by Missouri attorney general, Republican Eric Schmitt, who is running for the Senate. Minutes from March show that during a meeting attended by senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan Chase, an FBI official named Laura Dehmlow “stated that we need a media infrastructure that is accountable; we need to educate the population early; and that critical thinking seems to be a problem these days.”

Chief of the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF), established in

, focusing on the threat of Russian influence in the presidential elections, she explained that “the office has established the label of Foreign Malignant Information, which is subversive data used to create a barrier between the population and the government.” Documents obtained by The Intercept – which include public reports and data from current officials of the agency – reveal an “evolution of more active measures by the DHS” towards “fighting disinformation” in the elections of 2020 and discussions on Covid vaccine policy-11.

Another document points to the existence of a “content request system” on Facebook, in which it is possible, through a government login and password, to request the suppression of posts on the social network. Face book, and the FBI did not take a position on the matter. Twitter, on the other hand, took a position through a spokesperson, claiming that it does not act in a coordinated manner “with other entities when making content moderation decisions and we independently evaluate the content in accordance with Twitter’s rules”.

Originally created to fight terrorism, after the attacks of 11 in September, the DHS shows that it is concentrating its efforts expansive approach to social media monitoring. According to the agency’s website, which has 250 1,000 professionals, “cybersecurity is one of the top priorities of the Biden administration and the DHS, under the leadership of the secretary Mayorkas”. The budget earmarked for this purpose grew by 2021, “resulting in at least US$ 25 million spent in cybersecurity resiliency across the country.” According to a document of 12 priorities of the Department for

, developed by Mayorkas, the advance in the mission of the body comprises “increasing the cybersecurity of our country’s networks and critical infrastructure, including electoral infrastructure.”

A draft of the Quadrennial Review of Homeland Security (which outlines the strategy and the department priorities for the coming years), obtained by the investigative portal, points out that the DHS plans to give a direction to “inaccurate information”, on topics such as the origins of the Covid pandemic-19, vaccine effectiveness, racial justice, US withdrawal from Afghanistan (a topic House Republicans promise to investigate if they win a majority in the midterm elections) and US support for Ukraine.

“The challenge is particularly acute in marginalized communities that are often targets of false or misleading information, such as false information about voting amendments targeted at people of color,” the report says. The subjectivity of the concept of disinformation (false information spread unintentionally or intentionally, and news shared out of context, with harmful intent, so as to allegedly threaten US interests) is a loophole for the Department to use the dangerous speech argument of politically motivated manner.

“Suggestion” to remove content

As the action of the DHS affects the Americans’ daily social media feeds is unclear. In the 2020 election, for example, the government flagged several posts that were taken down, according to the Missouri attorney general’s lawsuit, as “suspicious”. A Stanford University survey, “in consultation with CISA” [a Agência de Segurança Cibernética e Infraestrutura dos EUA], states that technology platforms acted in 35% of the 4, 8 thousand items flagged, removing, blocking or placing an alert screen about the content.

In August of 2020, the portal news outlet NBC News reported that technology companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Microsoft, Verizon Media, Pinterest, LinkedIn and the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, already met monthly with the FBI, CISA and other government officials, “to discuss how to address disinformation during this month’s political conventions and the election results this fall.”

“The meetings are designed to fill a gap in information sharing after Tech companies like Facebook said they were blindsided by security threats and a lack of information coming from federal authorities in 2016. Regular meetings began in 2018 and companies say they are necessary to protect the integrity of this year’s elections,” the report said.

Emails between DHS and Twitter officials show that CISA plays a kind of middle ground between state election officials – who identify possible misinformation – and social media platforms, requesting content removal. According to the Agency, “once CISA has notified a social media disinformation platform, the social media platform could independently decide whether to remove or modify the post.” The documents exposed by the Missouri lawsuit, however, show that CISA’s goal is for social media companies to become increasingly responsive to its suggestions.

FBI officials interviewed by The Intercept, on condition of anonymity, said they were transferred from their work fighting foreign intelligence services or international anti-terrorism divisions to monitor American social networks. The agents’ objective, by entering chat rooms, forums and blogs undercover, is to identify “anti-government individuals such as racially motivated violent extremists, sovereign citizens, militias and anarchists”.

Critics argue that the practice could constitute a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974, enacted after the Watergate scandal, restricting the collection of government data from citizens who exercise their First Amendment rights (a guarantee of free speech in the country).

According to The Intercept, accounts flagged as dangerous and spreading disinformation by the government are often parody or inexpressive, lacking followers and influence. During the 2020 election, for example, DHS emailed a Twitter employee “a potential threat to critical US infrastructure, citing FBI alerts.” . The account that “could jeopardize the integrity of the electoral system” had 25 followers and a bio saying “send us the location of your marijuana store ( bitches get mad but this account is satire)”.

Hunter Biden’s Laptop

Despite these cases expressionlessly, government influence was crucial for platforms like Twitter and Facebook to remove or limit access to links to the New York Post’s report on Hunter Biden’s laptop content in key weeks before the presidential election in 2020.

A large part of the public was led to ignore the report or classify it as fake news, after northern intelligence officials -Americans labeled the story a “Russian disinformation campaign”. The silencing on social media continued even after the Washington Post and New York Times confirmed the authenticity of some emails, many of them cited in the original October report 2020, with evidence of money laundering, tax-related crimes and record of foreign lobbying by Joe Biden’s son.

Participating in a podcast in August, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, said that Facebook limited sharing of the New York Post story after a conversation with the FBI. “The background here is that the FBI came to us – some of our staff – and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, you should have been on high alert that there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016’”, revealed on Joe Rogan’s show.

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