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US pressured private tech platforms to ‘shape online discourse’: Report

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Nov 02, 2022 - 01:57 AM

ISTANBUL (AA) – The US government used its influence to pressure social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to “shape online discourse,” according to a fresh report.

“Behind closed doors, and through pressure on private platforms, the U.S. government has used its power to try to shape online discourse,” American news outlet The Intercept reported on Monday.

Titled “Truth Cops,” the report alleged that leaked document showed the US Department of Homeland Security’s plans for “police disinformation.” Besides the leaks, the investigation was also based on an ongoing lawsuit, as well as public documents, the report added.

Internal memos, emails, and documents from the agency showed an expansive effort to influence tech platforms, according to the report.

It said that earlier this year the department “announced a new ‘Disinformation Governance Board’: a panel designed to police misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent) that allegedly threatens U.S. interests.”

Through the board, the agency intended to target false 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,” the report added.

Noting that these efforts were being executed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) a sub-agency charged with protecting critical national infrastructure, it said that representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the FBI, and several media platforms were “having biweekly meetings as recently as August.”

The report also quoted Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, who in February allegedly texted a director at the same agency that platforms “have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain.”

At a meeting in March, FBI official Laura Dehmlow “warned that the threat of subversive information on social media could undermine support for the U.S. government.”

Dehmlow, the report said, citing notes of the discussion attended by senior executives from Twitter and lender JPMorgan Chase, stressed that “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.”

The report also underlined that ahead of the 2020 presidential election in the US, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, Wikipedia, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Verizon Media met monthly with the FBI, CISA, and other government representatives. The meetings were part of an initiative to discuss how tech platforms would handle misinformation during the polls.

According to a meeting of the Department of Homeland Security in March, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force this year includes 80 individuals focused on curbing “subversive data utilized to drive a wedge between the populace and the government.”

Referring to a draft copy of the agency’s 2022 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, the report said the Department of Homeland Security “views the issue of tackling disinformation and misinformation as a growing portion of its core duties.”

The US Privacy Act of 1974, legislated after the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, prohibits state data collection of “Americans exercising their First Amendment rights,” noted The Intercept, adding that this measure was “a safeguard that civil liberty groups have argued limits the ability of DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and the FBI to engage in surveillance of American political speech expressed on social media.”

Quoting Faiza Patel, senior director at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, the report said there were “no specific legal constraints” on the FBI’s use of social media.

“The attorney general guidelines permit agents to look at social media before there is any investigation at all. So it’s kind of a Wild West out there.”

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