Who Authorized the Department of Homeland Security to Police Online Speech? Not Congress

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    by Jon Miltimore, FEE:

    Newly published documents obtained by the Intercept show the US government is actively shaping online discourse and policing speech. This invites a question: who gave them this authority?

    When George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act in 2002, the goal was to improve national security by strengthening government at various levels and helping them identify and respond to threats, particularly terrorism.

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    ”The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response,” said Bush. ”Dozens of agencies charged with homeland security will now be located within one cabinet department with the mandate and legal authority to protect our people.”

    The law contained “severe privacy and civil liberties problems,” the ACLU argued, but the legislation enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Only nine Senators voted against it (eight Democrats and one Independent).

    Bush tapped Tom Ridge as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, but public policy experts admitted it was unclear precisely what the new department would do.

    ”The first challenge is to lower expectations,” Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution told The New York Times. ”People should think they will be safer, but remember we have a long way to go.”

    One thing not mentioned in the Homeland Security Act is free speech. The word “speech” does not appear on even one of the law’s 187 pages.

    Nevertheless, newly-published documents published by The Intercept show the extent to which the DHS is now actively involved in using the power of the US government to shape online discourse and police speech by pressuring private platforms behind closed doors.

    “In a March meeting, Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, warned that the threat of subversive information on social media could undermine support for the U.S. government,” The Intercept wrote of one message. “Dehmlow, according to notes of the discussion attended by senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan Chase, stressed that ‘we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.’”

    According to a copy of the DHS’s capstone report outlining top priorities in the coming years, the department intends to hold media accountable by targeting “inaccurate information” on a range of controversial topics such as “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.”

    Though the most overt government attempts to shape and censor online discourse began under the Biden administration, the road to DHS’s “Ministry of Truth” project began under the Trump administration.

    That DHS was seeking to police speech and shape online discourse was not in itself a revelation. In April 2022, the Biden administration announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board, but the initiative was paused after just three weeks over widespread public outcry after the board was dubbed “the Ministry of Truth” by critics.

    What the Intercept’s story reveals is the overt pressure the government was exerting on private companies to censor speech. For example, the Intercept described a “formalized process” government officials used to flag content on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to throttle or remove problematic content.

    The story also shows how the revolving door between government and the corporate world created enthusiasm for DHS initiatives.

    “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 said to DHS official Jen Easterly in a February text message, according to the Intercept.

    Though the most overt government attempts to shape and censor online discourse began under the Biden administration, the road to DHS’s “Ministry of Truth” project began under the Trump administration.

    In November 2018, following a series of high-profile cyber attacks, Trump signed into law legislation known as the CISA Act, which created the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a standalone federal agency dedicated to fighting cyberterrorism.

    Like the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the word “speech” doesn’t appear anywhere in the legislation. Nor do the words “misinformation” or “disinformation.” However, one line in the sprawling law (Section 318) contains these four words: “Social media working group.” It is presumably this line that led CISA to boast of its “evolved mission” to, in the words of the Intercept, “monitor social media discussions while ‘routing disinformation concerns’ to private sector platforms.”

    In 2018, to respond to election disinformation, DHS created the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force and began flagging voting-related “disinformation” that appeared on social media platforms—even though the words “election” and “vote” appear nowhere in the CISA Act. By the following year, DHS was employing fifteen full- and part-time staff tasked with “disinformation analysis,” and in 2020 the department’s disinformation focus had expanded to include Covid-19.

    In 2021, CISA created a “Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation” team—replacing the Countering Foreign Influence Task force—and disinformation agents were now focused on domestic transgressions as well foreign.

    A law that had been passed to protect critical infrastructure in the US from cyber attacks was now being used to censor Americans on social media.

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