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REPORT: DHS Collaborated With Social Media Companies To Influence Public Opinion

The Inherently Subjective Nature Of 'Disinformation' Provides A Broad Interpretation For DHS Officials To Determine 'Dangerous Speech'

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly colluded with tech and social media platforms to influence public opinion, according to a Monday report.

Years of internal and public documents originating from DHS and obtained by the Intercept suggest an effort by the agency to influence public opinion on tech and social media platforms.

“Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” said Microsoft executive and former DHS official Matt Masterson in a February text to DHS director Jen Easterly, the outlet reported.

Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, reportedly warned of a “threat” of subversive information on social media that could “undermine support for the [United States] government” in a March meeting.

“We do not coordinate with other entities when making content moderation decisions, and we independently evaluate content in line with the Twitter Rules,” said a Twitter spokesperson in a statement to the outlet.

Content can be flagged on Facebook and Instagram by government officials through a formalized process. An official government or law enforcement email is required for flagged content to be throttled or suppressed through the Facebook portal which is still live as of Monday afternoon.

While DHS’ combat of “misinformation” stems from Russian influence claims surrounding the 2016 Presidential election, the agency began its mission influencing public opinion following the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent presidential election along with proposed vaccine policies.

The department reportedly planned to combat “inaccurate information” regarding COVID-19 origins along with vaccine efficacy, racial justice, the 2021 withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan, and United States support for Ukraine, according to a draft copy of DHS’ capstone report Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, the Intercept reported.

“The challenge is particularly acute in marginalized communities,” the report reads, “which are often the targets of false or misleading information, such as false information on voting procedures targeting people of color.”

The outlet cites the inherently subjective nature of disinformation as providing a broad opening for DHS officials to make politically motivated determinations regarding what constitutes “dangerous speech.” The agency justifies its goal of flagging “dangerous speech” by claiming terrorist threats can be provoked by “misinformation and disinformation” spread online.

While the extent of DHS influence on social media feeds is unclear, a 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership at Stanford University found tech platforms removed, labeled, or soft-blocked 35% of 4,800 flagged items. Tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, Wikipedia, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Verizon reportedly met with the FBI, DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which was created in 2018 under the Trump administration, and other government representatives on a monthly basis as part of an initiative to discuss how firms would combat election-related “misinformation,” the outlet reported.

The Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, also formed in 2018, was created by then-DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielson in response to election disinformation, which was replaced by the Biden administration with the “Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation” team in 2021. The scope of the team was expanded to counter all types of “misinformation” including current events. In 2019 a separate entity called the Foreign Influence and Interference Branch was created to generate more detailed intelligence about disinformation, according to the inspector general report.

Tech platforms were reportedly called upon to process and provide responses to reports of “misinformation” on their platforms including the removal of the alleged content, according to CIS meeting notes.

In June 2022, the DHS advisory committee drafted a report calling for the agency to expand their role shaping the “information ecosystem.” The committee, which included former Twitter head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde claimed the agency needed to combat the “spread” of “misinformation” and “disinformation” on all social media platforms, mainstream media, cable news, “hyper partisan” media, talk radio, and other online outlets citing an undermining of “key democratic institutions.”

In April 2022, the Biden administration announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) though faced backlash and was eventually scrapped later in August. The DGB’s initial goals have since been outsourced to other DHS sub-agencies including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Science and Technology Directorate, and the Secret Service, the outlet noted.

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