DHS Created Disinformation Unit to Censor Conservatives Online
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Stanford University recently found themselves at the center of a controversy surrounding a “disinformation” group called the Elеction Integrity Partnership (EIP). According to a House Judiciary Committee report, new emails and internal communications obtained from the EIP shed light on how the group worked in coordination with DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to flag, suppress, and remove online speech.
The Elеction Integrity Partnership (EIP) was founded by a consortium of organizations, with one of its partners being the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). Email communications obtained from the DFRLab reveal that the EIP was established at the request of DHS/CISA to combat disinformation related to the 2020 еlеction. The EIP’s primary objective was to identify and counter false information or “misinformation” circulating online, particularly on social media platforms. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potential bias in the censorship efforts, with true information posted by Republicans and conservatives being labeled as “misinformation” while false information from Democrats and liberals remained largely untouched.
The House Judiciary Committee report suggests that federal government officials, including those from DHS and universities, put pressure on social media companies to censor certain types of speech leading up to the 2020 еlеction. The report alleges that the EIP, in collaboration with CISA, engaged in a coordinated effort to flag, suppress, and remove online content deemed “misinformation” or potentially harmful to the еlеction process. This collaboration between government agencies and big tech companies raises concerns about the influence of these entities on freedom of speech and the democratic process.
Email exchanges within the EIP and between the EIP and DHS officials reveal the extent of DHS and CISA’s involvement in the alleged censorship effort. The report highlights a July 31, 2020, email from Graham Brookie, the senior director of the DFRLab, in which he describes the establishment of the еlеction integrity partnership at the request of DHS/CISA. This email suggests a central role for CISA in the censorship initiative. However, DHS acknowledged in a May 2020 email that it could not openly endorse a centralized portal to flag information. Consequently, Stanford University’s EIP took up the task, working closely with CISA to implement the censorship efforts.
The report reveals that the EIP and CISA employed a tactic known as “switchboarding” to refer removal requests from state and local officials to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. These removal requests were often based on claims of misinformation or disinformation. Emails included in the report show instances where Brian Scully, the director of CISA’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force (CFITF), informed members of the Office of the Colorado Secretary of State about flagged parody accounts and advised Facebook to take down a post deemed misinformation. However, the report also notes that CISA added a disclaimer to many of its requests, stating that they were voluntary and that the agency did not have the ability to remove information from social media platforms.
The email exchanges and internal communications obtained from the EIP and DHS raise legal and ethical concerns regarding the alleged censorship efforts. The report points out that CISA recognized the shaky legal ground of its participation in the initiative, as evidenced by the disclaimers added to its requests. While the disclaimers stated that the information may be shared with law enforcement or intelligence agencies, the report suggests that this implied the possibility of further action if the posts were not removed. Former CISA director Chris Krebs testified that the tactic of “switchboarding” was implemented even before the agency’s creation, indicating a long-standing practice. However, current Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified in a July House Judiciary Committee hearing that the agency no longer participates in such practices.
An interesting aspect of the controversy is the involvement of Stanford University students in both CISA and the EIP simultaneously. The House Judiciary Committee report reveals that at least four students were employed by CISA during the operation of the EIP and used their government email accounts to communicate with CISA officials and external stakeholders involved with the EIP. This connection between a prestigious university and a government agency raises questions about the influence of academia on the censorship efforts and the potential impact on academic freedom.
In response to the allegations, CISA Executive Director Brandon Wales stated that the agency “does not and has never censored speech or facilitated censorship” and that their mission is to protect Americans’ freedom of speech. Former CISA director Chris Krebs, who was fired by former President Donald Trump after the 2020 еlеction, testified to the House subcommittee about the practices of “switchboarding” and the involvement of federal agencies in censorship efforts. However, Alex Stamos, the director of Stanford University’s Stanford Internet Observatory, expressed concerns about the coordination between CISA and the FBI, cautioning against the risk of law enforcement agencies coercively using their power.
The controversy surrounding the DHS Stanford “disinformation” group and the alleged censorship efforts has significant implications for freedom of speech and the democratic process. Critics argue that the targeting and removal of certain types of speech, particularly those from Republicans and conservatives, while leaving false information from Democrats and liberals untouched, undermines the principles of free speech and fair political discourse. The involvement of government agencies and big tech companies in determining what speech is allowed or censored raises concerns about the concentration of power and potential biases in shaping public opinion.