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DHS's New Plan to Crack Down on 'Disinformation'

Nina Jankowicz may be gone, but the Department of Homeland Security’s fight against “disinformation” lives on.

U.S. And Mexico Hold High-Level Security Dialogue Press Conference In Washington, DC
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Nina Jankowicz may be gone, but the Department of Homeland Security's fight against "disinformation" lives on.

The Intercept's Lee Fang and Ken Klippenstein reviewed years of internal DHS communications and found the department working hand in glove with social media companies to police "misinformation," "disinformation," and "malinformation." A draft of DHS's Quadrennial Homeland Security Review revealed that DHS intended to use departmental resources to push back on “inaccurate information” on “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine."

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Reading Fang and Klippenstein's report you almost forget the United States has a First Amendment.

To meet its goals, DHS and other government actors are reportedly meeting regularly with tech executives to influence their content moderation decisions. Internal memos note that Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Wikipedia, and other tech companies met monthly with the FBI and government representatives in the run-up to the 2020 election, and that those meetings have reportedly continued in the months and years since.

The department counters that content decisions are left to the respective sites and their moderators, but the federal government has the power to tax and regulate these companies, making their "advice" difficult to ignore. Companies have kept an open line of communication with government officials as a result, with Facebook and its parent company Meta reportedly giving government officials access to a private portal to directly report posts to Facebook administrators.

Other tech personnel have traded text messages with DHS personnel, illustrating the increasingly cozy relationship between these companies and the national security state. Microsoft Director of Information Integrity Matt Masterson, for example, reportedly sent a text to DHS director Jen Easterly insisting that "Platforms have got [sic] to get comfortable with gov’t"; later, Easterly told Masterson of her desire “to get us in a place where Fed can work with platforms to better understand mis/dis trends so relevant agencies can try to prebunk/debunk as useful.”

("Prebunking," for the uninitiated, is the Orwellian practice of amplifying government-approved messages to inoculate users against unapproved "conspiracy theories"—see, for example, Twitter's link prompting users to "learn how voting by mail is safe and secure," pointing to the testimony of anonymous "experts.")

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The Intercept highlighted how DHS has turned its attention to the home front and the supposed rise of "domestic terrorism," using a broad interpretation of its counterterrorism mandate to thwart even constitutional speech. The quadrennial review proposed that DHS “hire and train skilled specialists to better understand how threat actors," including those in the United States, "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.”

If NGOs are involved, you can imagine what types of "toxic narratives" DHS has in mind.

Notably, DHS isn't limiting its efforts to "false" information. Several documents obtained by the Intercept highlighted the department's efforts to police "malinformation," which the department defines as information "based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate."

The broader "misinformation" panic stems from Hillary Clinton's claim that "fake news" pushed by Russian oligarchs and Macedonian content farmers cost her the 2016 election. Since her refusal to accept responsibility for losing that election, the national security state and its allies in the media have breathlessly warned about the specter of false and misleading information. Their premise is that people only disagree with the Democratic Party and its agenda because they lack adequate information. If "false narratives" and "conspiracy theories," such as the suggestion that the novel coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory or the idea that Bruce Jenner is a man, are countered with "experts" and "data" cooked up by activist social scientists, the public will shed its backward views and stop voting Republican.

Because that's not true, the latest DHS effort is unlikely even to succeed on its own terms.

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