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Dept. of Homeland Security Ramps Up Efforts to Police Online Speech on Ukraine, COVID & Afghanistan

StoryNovember 04, 2022
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Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal the Department of Homeland Security is working with private tech companies to fight online speech that undermines support for the U.S. government. We speak to one of the co-authors of The Intercept’s report, investigative journalist Lee Fang, who says the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act signed into law in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump expanded the government’s power to reshape online discourse. “These documents raise clear civil liberty concerns, concerns around the First Amendment and if the government is trying to shape the kind of news we see,” says Fang.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

The Intercept has revealed the Department of Homeland Security is expanding efforts to work with private tech companies to police online speech and shape online discourse. The Intercept’s reporting is based on years of internal DHS memos, emails and documents. According to one internal document, the agency is focusing on a number of topics, including, quote, “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,” unquote. The FBI has also played a key role in the effort.

We’re joined now by Lee Fang, who co-wrote The Intercept's investigation headlined “Truth Cops: Leaked Documents Outline DHS's Plans to Police Disinformation.”

Lee, why don’t you lay out exactly what you found and how you got these documents?

LEE FANG: Amy, thank you so much for having me. Good morning.

Earlier this week, we reported this story that shows the evolving mission of the Department of Homeland Security, that they’re moving to police online discourse under the mantle of fighting alleged disinformation and misinformation. This effort began in earnest in 2017 after Russian interference in the 2016 election. There was kind of a dry run of efforts to censor and influence social media around the pandemic, around the 2020 election. But, as you mention, documents we obtained from litigation, from public resources and from whistleblowers shows a really massive expansion of this mission, that DHS plans to weigh in on inherently political topics — again, as you mentioned, the war in Ukraine, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of COVID.

These are policy topics. These are areas of contentious debate. It’s not clear why the government should be weighing in and giving us the official truth and censoring dissenting opinions. These documents raise clear civil liberty concerns, concerns around the First Amendment and if the government is trying to shape the kind of news we see.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s take one example, withdrawal from Afghanistan. Talk exactly about what you found.

LEE FANG: Well, we obtained a draft report of the Department of Homeland Security’s Quadrennial Review. These are planning documents that shape DHS’s agenda, their focus over a four-year period. It’s basically a planning document that shapes the agency’s agenda. And the documents show that the department hopes to focus on issues such as the nature of U.S. support for the war in Ukraine. How they hope to do this is not clear. What they classify as disinformation or the truth is not clear.

We do know from recent history, from a long period of history, that the U.S. government has attempted to shape public opinion around contentious foreign policy issues that the U.S. government has lied about, our support — the nature of U.S. support for wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. Why the government sees itself as the arbiter of truth here is really not clear. And how the government attempts — will attempt to shape discourse around the war in Ukraine, again, is not clear.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk further about what exactly CISA is, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security [Agency] Act, that Donald Trump signed into law, and also the Disinformation Governance Board that DHS eventually scrapped?

LEE FANG: That’s right. CISA, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, is a subagency of DHS, where a lot of this disinformation, misinformation policing efforts are housed. This was created by an act of Congress in 2018, signed into law by President Trump.

If you look at news coverage around this subagency, it’s focused around protecting the homeland, the critical infrastructure of the U.S. around water, around utilities, pipelines, kind of traditional infrastructure. But after being signed into law, this new bureaucratic arm of DHS really got to work focusing on disinformation and alleged misinformation by claiming that disinformation or any of these kinds of false information on social media could pose a threat to the U.S., could disrupt critical infrastructure. So, these efforts technically began under President Trump. They’ve continued to expand.

The Disinformation Governance Board, which was announced by President Biden in April, it faced immediate criticism as kind of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth. After kind of facing this criticism from both left and right, Biden shuttered this board in August. But the documents that we report on show that the efforts to police social media live on under CISA, which is a multibillion-dollar agency that meets monthly with the private sector. They were meeting regularly with Vijaya Gadde.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something, because we just have 20 seconds, Lee. Do you see CISA in the United States further emboldening autocratic regimes like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey to force social media companies to repress their citizens?

LEE FANG: Look, every society faces disinformation campaigns, false information on social media. What we’re seeing in closed societies, in autocratic societies, is an effort to suppress freedom of speech, to suppress social media, to suppress the press. And in open societies, we should be countering it with more speech, with better speech. The question is: As we see across the globe this kind of crisis of disinformation, will the U.S. take a more open society approach —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there.

LEE FANG: — or adopt the strategies of closed autocratic regimes?

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll link to your piece, Lee Fang, “Truth Cops.” That does it for our show.

LEE FANG: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Check out our election night coverage. I’m Amy Goodman.

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