“All governments lie,” the leftist journalist IF Stone once said. Stone wasn’t trying to be provocative, merely pointing out that there’s a pretty basic reason we have a free press in the United States: typically, the government is not a reliable narrator. Governments aren’t inherently liars; they just don’t always have a good reason to tell the public the truth. Sometimes they feel the need to deceive and cover up.
That’s what makes a new report from The Intercept, “Truth Cops,” so distressing. The outlet reveals a concerted effort on the part of the federal government to increasingly collaborate with private tech platforms and other major corporations to police the kinds of content and information that Americans consume. In particular, the Department of Homeland Security has increasingly pivoted from its “War on Terror” mission to an internally focused agenda that sees online speech as a target to be monitored, assessed and, in some cases, combated and quashed. Working together with other elements of the US intelligence community, DHS has spawned a variety of programs involving “burgeoning social media monitoring authorities” on a constant mission to “expand the scope of the agency’s tools to foil disinformation,” according to The Intercept.
How did we get here?
In April, the Biden administration announced the launch of a Disinformation Governance Boarda new unit within DHS meant to “standardize the [government’s] treatment of disinformation” across various agencies. But the project was fumbled from the start: the unit initially failed to release a charter, leaving Americans to wonder just what exactly this shadowy new group with a creepy name was going to be doing. It didn’t take long for critics—on both the political side left and right—to start referring to it as a “Ministry of Truth,” (the notorious propaganda bureau from George Orwell’s 1984). Although officials tried to salvage the effort. DHS shuttered the board in May after it had been operational for less than a month.
But according to The Intercept, the government has quietly continued to expand similar initiatives after the board’s demise. In particular, the DHS sub-agency CISA, or the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has been most active in efforts to combat “mis-, dis-, and mal-information,” or what it abbreviates as “MDM.” The report makes use of recently leaked or unsealed internal documents, giving a view into the kinds of conversations corporate executives and government officials have had about how to handle potentially harmful online narratives and sensitive topics. Minutes from a March meeting between FBI and CISA officials and execs from JPMorgan Chase and Twitter show feds and corporate leaders discussing how to approach state-sponsored disinformation campaigns on major platforms. However, it’s not just foreign influence that’s an area of concern. Another recent DHS document, a Quadrennial Homeland Security Review report outlining the agency’s strategy for the coming years, points to a diversity of subjects that fall within the government’s moderation purview, including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID- 19 vaccines, racial justice, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of US support to Ukraine.”
Still another document recently made public shows the broad swath of media and information that CISA officials see as their domain to monitor; the document discusses mitigating MDM across the entire “information ecosystem”—referring not just to big companies like Facebook and Twitter but also “social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio, and other online sources .” The report also exposes the existence of a little-known Facebook portal that allows users with government emails to flag content to be taken down. This ‘content request system’ at facebook.com/xtakedowns/login offers a “formalized process for government officials” to throttle particular kinds of content “on Facebook or Instagram” that may be considered objectionable, The Intercept writes.
Your mileage may vary on how disturbing all of this is. On the one hand, you can see why some people would find the idea of ”truth cops” appealing in a time when it feels like objective truth is disappearing. The threat of disinformation to society is very real. It’s no secret that social media platforms are unregulated hellscapes that spew an incessant stream of propaganda and bullshit. Gullible people eat up a gross diet of disinfo and loosely-factually-vetted, ideology-soaked infotainment, then run off to cause chaos in the real world. Who knows how bad things could get now with Elon on the loose.
That said, giving the government the power to fix this problem is like trying to put out a forest fire with a blowtorch. As the subjects of controversy and conjecture, governments are not neutral actors—and, therefore, handing them the reins to arbitrate truth creates a clear conflict of interest. The Intercept highlights the tension in its report, noting:
…the laudable goal of protecting Americans from danger has often been used to conceal political maneuvering. In 2004, for instance, DHS officials faced pressure from the George W. Bush administration to heighten the national threat level for terrorism, in a bid to influence voters prior to the election, accordingly to former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. US officials have routinely lied about an array of issues, from the causes of its wars in Vietnam and Iraq to their more recent obfuscation around the role of the National Institutes of Health in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s coronavirus research.
What is being said here shouldn’t come as a surprise: governments, including our own, routinely mislead and deceive the public. The US has done a lot of crazy stuff over the years, stuff that—upon first glance—might sound like looney conspiracy theories. Now we’re going to hand that same bureaucracy the power to tell us what is and isn’t true?
DHS claims it doesn’t want to be hands-on when it comes to moderating content on private platforms, but a vague purview for its mission and similarly oblique relationships between platforms and the government make for a bad situation vulnerable to mission creep.
Whether a government is a democracy or a dictatorship, it will always be driven by some incentive structures that don’t necessarily align with the public interest or the truth. The desire to clean up the internet is a noble one, but I just don’t think we should trust federal cops to do the sweeping.