Report Shows Federal Government Responsible for Censoring Americans
A new report is revealing that the federal government partnered with universities and think tanks to censor conservative Americans. A document published Monday by the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government details how the government circumvented constitutional protections of free speech to censor alleged misinformation online, by collaborating with third-party organizations — mostly universities — to police and censor the online speech of American citizens. The report states, “What the federal government could not do directly, it effectively outsourced to the newly emerging censorship-industrial complex.”
The nucleus of this “censorship-industrial complex” was the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a conglomeration of private and government institutions formed in the summer of 2020 with Stanford University’s Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) as its flagship. The SIO “worked closely” with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a multi-agency State Department entity called the Global Engagement Center to “monitor and censor Americans’ online speech in advance of the 2020 presidential election.” By relying on non-government entities like Stanford and other universities, the federal government could “launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny,” according to the report.
Essentially, “external shareholders” such as government agencies would submit “misinformation” reports to the technically non-government EIP, declaring certain pieces of information to be “misinformation.” The EIP would then find as many examples of this particular piece of information on social media as possible and flag it.
If, for example, the EIP found a Facebook post spreading what government agencies reported was “misinformation,” the organization would search other platforms — like Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc. — for the same or similar posts and would then submit those flagged posts to the appropriate tech companies with recommendations on how the tech companies should respond — such as suppressing posts, suspending an account’s ability to post content for a given period of time, and outright removing posts.
The congressional report notes, “Instead of targeting foreign or inauthentic accounts, the EIP targeted Americans, disproportionately candidates and commentators with conservative viewpoints. And despite its stated purpose to combat “disinformation,” the EIP worked with social media companies to censor true information, jokes and satire, and political opinions.”
According to the congressional report, Stanford University helped to found the EIP “at the request” of the DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — in other words, “at the request” of a federal government agency. Other collaborators included the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP), social media analytics group Graphika, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank specializing in “disinformation.” The report notes that the EIP was “established … for the express purpose of violating Americans’ civil liberties,” providing “an unconstitutional workaround for unconstitutional censorship.”
Prior to the creation of the EIP, the CISA used “switchboarding,” a process in which the federal government would relay directly to social media company operators concerns raised by state and local election officials over “misinformation.” Documents reveal that the CISA “knew serious legal and constitutional concerns were implicated by switchboarding,” including “a number of avenues for government retaliation if the [social media] companies did not comply.”
While DHS officials, including Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, have insisted that CISA only relayed reports and did not generate and relay its own “misinformation” reports, emails contained in the report show that CISA’s role went further, including telling social media companies whether it agreed with state and local officials’ classification of online posts as “misinformation” and permitting agencies like the FBI to penalize social media companies for not flagging or censoring posts the federal government recommended flagging or censoring. The CISA also facilitated the creation of a “misinformation reporting portal” which government officials could use to directly communicate with social media companies to flag posts for censorship.
Although the CISA was supposedly focused on countering foreign interference in American elections, the congressional report clarifies that, by early 2020, the agency “had dropped any pretense of focusing only on foreign disinformation, openly discussing how to best monitor and censor the speech of Americans.” The CISA’s self-imposed mandate to police and censor Americans’ speech was “reinforced” by the COVID-19 pandemic and the sharing of information online pertaining to the disease. Chris Krebs, then the director of the CISA, testified before the Committee that the name of CISA’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force was “a misnomer,” adding, “[I]t doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s foreign or domestic. Again, our authorities are rooted in the Homeland Security Act, which enables us to act on domestic or foreign threats.”
By early July 2020, the EIP had been established. According to emails contained in the report, “EIP personnel … made clear in their outreach to social media platforms that the EIP’s true purpose was to act as a censorship conduit for the federal government.” Furthermore, after the 2020 election, EIP leadership claimed that four CISA interns came up with the idea, but testimony and emails reveal that SIO director Alex Stamos came up with the idea in collaboration with Krebs, “at the request” of and “in consultation with” the DHS and CISA. The report notes, “After CISA helped to create the EIP, the federal agency remained thoroughly intertwined with the EIP’s operations in the months preceding the 2020 election.” By September 2020, the EIP was reporting directly “to the federal government that it had successfully induced Big Tech to censor Americans’ political speech on behalf of CISA.”
DHS and CISA weren’t the only federal agencies involved in censoring Americans online through the EIP. The FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) were also involved, and while the CISA’s legal disclaimers in submitting “misinformation” reports clarified that it would in no way retaliate against noncompliant social media companies, no such language was applied to the FBI or NSA. According to emails and documents, the FBI was kept updated on the EIP’s censorship efforts, with Stamos even telling an FBI liaison, “We don’t have any good indications of foreign interference from our work, and most of the things we have spotted can be tied to known domestic actors.” That is to say, the FBI was informed that there was little evidence of foreign election interference and that the majority of those being unconstitutionally censored were American citizens.
The EIP’s chief mode of flagging online content for censorship and removal were Jira tickets, workflow requests which allowed for detailed tracking of specific tasks and communication between different people working on the same task. The report states, “An examination of the Jira tickets themselves reveals a veritable who’s who of prominent conservative voices targeted for censorship by CISA and the EIP.”
One of the categories the EIP would use to flag content as “misinformation” was classifying it as “[c]ontent that delegitimizes election results on the basis of false or misleading claims.” The report explains, “This arbitrary and inconsistent standard was determined by political actors masquerading as ‘experts’ and academics. But even more troubling, the federal government was heavily intertwined with the universities in making these seemingly arbitrary determinations that skewed against one side of the political aisle.”
Some of those conservatives targeted for censorship were then-President Donald Trump, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former U.S. Congressman and current Family Research Council Senior Vice President Jody Hice, Academy Award-nominated actor James Woods, and countless conservative journalists like Jack Posobiec, Candace Owens, and James O’Keefe.
In the wake of the report’s release, Arielle Del Turco, director of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty, commented to The Washington Stand, “This is an absolutely shocking discovery from the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. No American — whether they are a political commentator or an everyday citizen — should ever be victims of censorship by the federal government over their peaceful speech on social media platforms.”
She continued, “For a long time, some have used the excuse that social media platforms have a supposed right to censor speech because they are private companies. But what happens when private companies indirectly partner with the federal government to censor Americans? The First Amendment forbids the government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech.’ That is a robust protection for free speech which these agencies completely trampled on. It’s shameful that DHS and the State Department obfuscated what they are doing by partnering with entities like Stanford University to work with social media platforms to silence American citizens. Everyone involved is complicit in First Amendment violations, and they need to be held accountable.”
Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for Education Studies at FRC, commented, “This is very insulting to the hardworking American taxpayers who have been so generous to educational institutions. Even the private universities that collaborated in this effort are the beneficiaries of research grants and other publicly funded programs that support their work — all funded by taxpayers.” She added, “Clearly we need more oversight of this support and perhaps a required webinar on civil liberties before we fund people willing to suspend and attack our freedoms to advance their ideals.”
FRC’s Senior Fellow for Regulatory Affairs Chris Gacek said that federal agencies and private institutions “appear to be part of a tyrannical phalanx that is becoming more and more blatant in its targeting of Christians and conservatives.” He added, “Almost more troubling is the inability of the GOP to mount a determined, annihilatory reaction against these agencies by blocking their funding and dogging their leaders, etc. It appears that the GOP mentality is not really capable of effectively wielding power in an environment like this.”
Of note, the congressional report points out that numerous social media accounts and posts that were censored were satire, including The Babylon Bee and conservative meme pages.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.