The late, great Angelo Codevilla maintained that America’s response to 9/11 was fundamentally flawed because it adopted a law enforcement approach to what is essentially a foreign policy problem. He argued that the law enforcement approach — the idea that we could detect and disrupt terrorist plots before they come to fruition, and arrest those responsible — required the construction of a vast state security and surveillance apparatus that would eventually, when the terrorist threat subsided, be turned on American citizens.
As in so much else, Codevilla was prophetic.
Earlier this week, a deeply reported piece by Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang of The Intercept revealed an “expansive effort” by the Department of Homeland Security to curb speech it considers dangerous by pressuring tech platforms to engage in online censorship. Although DHS’s widely ridiculed “Disinformation Governance Board” was scaled back and then shut down earlier this year amid well-deserved criticism, “other initiatives are underway as DHS pivots to monitoring social media now that its original mandate — the war on terror — has been wound down.”
The security apparatus that was erected to keep us safe from al-Qaida, it seems, is looking for something else to do now, so it has decided to become the arbiter of what constitutes false and dangerous information, and therefore what political opinions Americans are allowed to express online.
Citing a trove of documents connected to an ongoing lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Klippenstein and Fang reveal a quiet pressure campaign by DHS “to try and shape online discourse” that involves frequent meetings and coordination with top tech and finance executives, and even “a formalized process for government officials to directly flag content on Facebook or Instagram and request that it be throttled or suppressed through a special Facebook portal that requires a government or law enforcement email to use.” At the time of this writing, the portal is still live.
What might DHS consider “inaccurate information” worthy of suppression? A whole host of topics, including “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.”
Because “disinformation” isn’t clearly defined, it can be whatever DHS and the federal agencies under its purview say it is. And wouldn’t you know it, disinformation turns out to be whatever ideas and opinions contradict the official narrative of the Biden administration and Democratic Party leadership on major political issues.
No surprise, then, that Big Tech appears to be OK with this. Klippenstein and Fang quote a February text from Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, a former DHS official, to a DHS director, saying: “Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain.”
But not, perhaps, as hesitant as Masterson thinks. Emails and documents connected to the Missouri lawsuit show a close collaboration between DHS and top executives of social media firms such as Twitter. In 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill creating an office inside DHS called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. It was a response to some high-profile hacking of U.S. firms such as SolarWinds and Equifax, and the idea was for CISA to protect critical national infrastructure.
But it didn’t take long for CISA to expand its definition of critical national infrastructure to include “misinformation and disinformation,” taking its cues from an advisory committee that includes Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s erstwhile head of legal affairs and policy, whom Elon Musk fired last week. Gadde was the co-author of a report in June urging CISA to take on an expansive role in policing online speech, calling on the agency to monitor “social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio and other online resources.”
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has questioned the official government narrative on Twitter or Facebook over the last two years. Did you dare to speculate online that Covid might have come from a lab leak in China? If so, then as late as December of 2020 you were promoting what NPR (among many other outlets) called a “baseless conspiracy theory” for which there is “zero evidence.”
Problem is, things move fast in the world of real-time disinformation policing, and yesterday’s baseless conspiracy theory is today’s respectable viewpoint. A newly released Senate interim report reflects what most people’s common sense suggested to them a long time ago: that the pandemic was “more likely than not” the result of a “research-related incident.”
Same with the Hunter Biden laptop story that broke ahead of the 2020 election. The story was dismissed by dozens of former top intelligence officials who claimed it was “Russian disinformation,” but we now know what anyone who bothered to look into the story knew in October 2020 — that it was all true. The laptop was real.
We also know, by Mark Zuckerberg’s own admission to Joe Rogan in August, that the FBI reached out to Facebook ahead of the 2020 election to tell them to be on the lookout for Russian disinformation. And now we know a little bit more about the FBI’s involvement. According to Klippenstein and Fang, the FBI was involved in high-level communications that allegedly led to Facebook’s suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on the laptop.
It should all outrage Americans who think the First Amendment should actually mean something, that people should be banned from the public square for expressing opinions the ruling regime dislikes. Indeed it’s hard to think of anything more un-American, and it’s not too much to say that this censorship represents a real threat to the survival of the republic.
One need not even engage the facile libertarian line that Twitter and Facebook are private companies and can do whatever they want. It’s enough to see the many ways powerful government agencies are now working hand-in-hand with private Big Tech firms to suppress online speech and censor political ideas the regime deems to be a threat.
Codevilla was exactly right. A security and surveillance apparatus originally constructed to keep us safe from terrorists has been transformed into an instrument of domestic surveillance, and is now being used against us.