Last Updated on November 1, 2022
Executives from Twitter and Facebook, including the recently fired former head of Twitter’s trust & safety Vijaya Gadde, held regular meetings with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to discuss censorship and content moderation. Among the topics DHS wanted to suppress included the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, COVID-19/vaccination, questioning the 2020 election and “racial justice,” according to leaked documents.
Big tech’s relationship with the federal government became widely apparent when Biden’s DHS announced the formation of its “disinformation governance board” earlier this year.
While the plan was “paused” after massive backlash, though prior to 2020, it was reported that DHS met with executives from Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, and other platforms in order to coordinate “content moderation” operations. Big tech frequently coordinated with the federal government in order to determine how to combat “misinformation” on major platforms.
The latest bombshell report concerns documents revealed through Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmidt’s lawsuit against the Biden Administration that alleges collusion between big tech and the federal government. The documents, which were obtained through appended meeting minutes, were then leaked to The Intercept.
“Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, a former DHS official, wrote in a text message to a current DHS director, Jen Easterly, this past February.
In a March meeting of the DHS Cybersecurity Advisory Committee — that includes executives from JP Morgan Chase and Twitter — Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, warned big tech of “subversive” information that could undermine support for the U.S. government. Dehmlow first brought executives up to speed on the scope of the bureau’s counter-foreign influence (FTIF) operation, which was expanded to an 80-person unit within the FBI’s counter-intelligence division in 2016. The program was expanded in order to investigate thoroughly debunked and fabricated collusion between then-candidate Trump and the Russian government.
Dehmlow told tech executives that, “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable; we need to early educate the populace; and that today, critical thinking seems to be a problem currently.”
In June, the same DHS subcommittee drafted a report to the CISA director calling for an expansive role for the agency in shaping the “information ecosystem.”
The report called on the agency to closely monitor “social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio and other online resources,” the Intercept reported. They argued that the agency needed to take steps to halt the “spread of false and misleading information,” with a focus on information that undermines “key democratic institutions, such as the courts, or by other sectors such as the financial system, or public health measures.”
The report also revealed that government officials have access to a “formalized process” to directly flag content on Facebook and Twitter. Officials are able to throttle or suppress content through a Facebook portal that requires a government or law enforcement email to access.
“At the time of writing, the ‘content request system’ at facebook.com/xtakedowns/login is still live,” reported The Intercept. Both Meta, the parent company of Facebook, and DHS declined to comment, as did the FBI.
According to a draft copy of the DHS’s 2022 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review obtained by The Intercept, the department increasingly views tracking and censoring “misinformation” as one of its top priorities. While “counterterrorism remains the first and most important mission of the Department,” it notes, the agency’s “work on these missions is evolving and dynamic” and must now adapt to terror threats “exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation spread online” including by “domestic violent extremists.”
In order to meet their objectives, the draft review calls 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 and other parts of civil society to build resilience to the impacts of false information.”
The broad definitions of “threat actors,” which often include American citizens under the government’s definition, and “critical infrastructure,” which can be classified as distrust in the government, has raised alarm bells among those who value civil liberties. According to the report, DHS considers criticism of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, lack of faith in the election process and COVID vaccine skepticism as topics “threat actors” can use to “undermine critical infrastructure.”