The Department of Defense is grooming for-profit, media-rating grifters to develop AI censorship technology for the U.S. government, an investigation by The Federalist reveals. Open-source research reveals this troubling development is driving the warp-speed growth of the Censorship-Industrial Complex—and several other concerning details.
Following last week’s congressional hearings on the Censorship-Industrial Complex, attention focused on the media-ratings giant NewsGuard and its relationship with the DOD after the company’s CEO declared it is not “government-funded.” But, as The Federalist reported, in 2020 NewsGuard received a $25,000 award from the federal government to conduct a pilot study, after winning the COVID-19 Disinformation Challenge. The prize package included the opportunity to learn the ropes of profiteering by participating in a “Government Contracting 101 session” and a “Small Business Innovation Research (SBIRC) crash course.”
The following year, NewsGuard scored a nearly $750,000 award from the federal Small Business Innovation Research Center (SBIRC), to allow NewsGuard to further develop its “Misinformation Fingerprints” program in conjunction with the DOD. That program relies on NewsGuard’s questionable “reliability” ratings of news websites and its database of so-called “hoaxes, falsehoods and misinformation narratives.” From there, the project uses “AI and social listening tools to identify the initial source of the hoax,” and to find instances of the hoax being “repeated or amplified” online.
Not Just NewsGuard
NewsGuard is not the only for-profit business the U.S. government is leveraging for its technology and databases about supposed misinformation and disinformation. California-based PeakMetrics joined NewsGuard as one of the three winners of the 2020 Pentagon-State Department misinformation and disinformation contest, winning its own $25,000 pilot study to develop its “social listening” technology with DOD aid.
Like NewsGuard, the following year PeakMetrics scored funding from SBIRC to further develop its technology, totaling $1.5 million. PeakMetrics’ entry into the Censorship-Industrial Complex is even more revealing of the government’s grooming of for-profit businesses than NewsGuard’s.
Before competing in the Pentagon-State Department misinformation and disinformation contest, in early 2020, PeakMetrics participated in the “Air Force Accelerator.” Prior to that, PeakMetrics appeared focused on developing software for “communications professionals and marketers” to allow businesses (and politicians) to “monitor” the media landscape.
In announcing its selection for the Air Force Accelerator program, PeakMetrics stressed it will continue its original mission while working with the government to develop its “unique monitoring and measuring tool to detect misinformation campaigns.” This program was branded an “Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars.”
The managing director of the “accelerator program” declared, “In this new age of cyberwarfare and social manipulation, media monitoring, detection, and mitigation of misinformation operations is becoming more important than bombs and bullets,” stressing “PeakMetrics provides a unique monitoring and measuring tool to detect misinformation campaigns before they cause harm.”
U.S. Military Funding Companies to Monitor Americans
Details on this program give insights into the Censorship-Industrial Complex growth industry. The “accelerator” represents a partnership between the Air Force and the private venture-capital Techstars program. Techstars provides start-up funding, legal and accounting support, networking, and mentorship to its companies, which include PeakMetrics. The accelerator program targets “small businesses” in early-stage development “that offer products that can benefit troops as well as a broad swath of the commercial market.”
From this backdrop we see our government enticing private businesses seeking start-up cash to adapt their technology and mission to monitor supposed misinformation and disinformation for the Defense Department. Not only do the for-profit tech firms benefit financially by joining the Censorship-Industrial Complex, so does the venture capital firm Techstars that moved them in.
The government is not only funding the development of technology for defense use, which it will purchase from the for-profit businesses. Also, and significantly, because the DOD targets products that can benefit “a broad swath of the commercial market,” our tax dollars are funding the development of a media-monitoring product that can then be deployed to censor ordinary Americans via Big Tech.
Case Study: PeakMetrics
PeakMetrics provides a perfect case study in this potential scenario.
Shortly after its selection to participate in the Air Force accelerator, it received a nearly $50,000 award from the SBIRC for a Phase I project to “leverage” its “proprietary data pipeline” and “machine learning algorithms” that “ingest millions of data points per day from news articles, social media Posts and TV + Radio broadcasts.” So the government paid PeakMetrics tax dollars to further develop its technology products that can be used to locate phrases and words online.
The objective of the Phase I project was “to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential” of PeakMetrics’ proposed R&D efforts. The research and development program, according to the award, related to the DOD’s efforts to “counteract information warfare through deep fake detection, sentiment analysis and measurement of message effectiveness.”
Federal funding for PeakMetrics then increased, multiple times. In August 2020 PeakMetrics competed in the jointly sponsored Pentagon-State Department COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation contest. It won a $25,000 award, along with NewsGuard, to pilot its technology with the government. Two additional Small Business Innovation Research Center awards followed in March 2021, to finance two Phase II studies by PeakMetrics.
First, one $750,000 award entitled, “Rapid Analysis of Disinformation Campaigns for Operators,” funded PeakMetrics’ creation of “technology for rapid assessment and quantification of disinformation for DoD operators, with emphasis on crosschannel media analysis leveraging actual language processing.” The second 2021 award, also for $750,000, financed PeakMetrics Phase II research related to China, and its development of a “Foreign-Language Event Detection” program.
3 Troubling Tidbits
Set aside, momentarily, the question of whether providing a government proven abusive of free speech the tools to monitor and censor the populace represents a social good. Even so, a review of open-source material reveals three independently troubling tidbits.
First, PeakMetrics has boasted it “worked with mission-critical clients including the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense through the 2020 and 2022 U.S. elections and is now expanding its offerings to commercial partners.”
What precisely did PeakMetrics do during the 2020 and 2022 elections to assist the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense? Did it use its proprietary software to assist the government’s efforts to bury the Hunter Biden laptop story? If not, what? PeakMetrics did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A related concern flows from PeakMetrics using its relationship and funding from the government to offer commercial products that push for censoring private speech. Here, again, because PeakMetrics did not respond to inquiries from The Federalist, it is unclear whether the R&D funded by taxpayer dollars served the dual purpose of expanding PeakMetrics’ censorship products for corporate America.
Especially disconcerting here is the partnership between PeakMetrics and NewsGuard, announced in January 2022, which relies on NewsGuard’s untrustworthy “trust ratings” for media outlets. Under the agreement between the two for-profit businesses—both of which received seed funding from the government to develop products—corporate clients can use PeakMetrics’ media monitoring programs to “filter, sort, and discover mentions of a brand or topic based on NewsGuard’s credibility ratings.”
It also says clients can then assess whether their brand appears on supposed “credible news sources” or on “misinformation websites.” This partnership agreement also gave PeakMetrics’ “business-tier customers” access to NewsGuard’s “trust ratings and detailed Nutrition Labels.”
January 2022 is not the first time PeakMetrics and NewsGuard partnered. One year earlier, the two for-profit businesses peddled a dubious analysis of Parler posts that exemplifies many of the problems with the entire disinformation cottage industry.
“Special Report: 87% of news shared on Parler before Jan. 6th came from misinformation sites,” NewsGuard’s headline screamed. The “Special Report” explained that for the jointly undertaken analysis, PeakMetrics collected data and extracted links from Parler for the week before Jan. 6, 2021, with NewsGuard analyzing the data against its database of “credibility ratings” for thousands of news sources.
That analysis, the two companies reported, showed “that news links shared on the social media app Parler in the period surrounding the Jan. 6th Capitol insurrection came overwhelmingly from misinformation websites . . . ” Of the more than 17,000 public Parler posts, the PeakMetrics-NewsGuard analysis revealed “87 percent of the news links shared during that time period came from websites with red ‘unreliable’ ratings from NewsGuard…”
It is difficult to conceive of a more classic example of “disinformation,” or the use of information to intentionally mislead. PeakMetrics and NewsGuard used a faulty analysis—one that assumed any story published by “red”-rated media outlets the week before the Jan. 6. riots, reported false claims about the November 2020 election—to imply both the “red-rated” news outlets and Parler helped cause an “insurrection.”
Accusing Their Opponents of Their Own Actions
For all NewsGuard’s grand talk about transparency and journalistic ethics, this faulty analysis gives away its game: Its ratings are not about “informing” the public but about silencing disfavored news outlets by framing them as threats to democracy—all while making money.
Now we see NewsGuard and PeakMetrics using the same datapoints and programs to assist the government in supposedly combatting “state-sponsored disinformation.” But we know from the Twitter Files that the government equates ordinary Americans staking out a position that our adversaries also hold, albeit for different reasons, as “state-sponsored disinformation.”
Oppose no-strings funding in Ukraine, you are pushing Russian disinformation. Retweet a RT article, you are a Russian bot.
While we don’t know fully what the DOD intends to do with the NewsGuard and PeakMetrics technology, we do know the government has a history of silencing inconvenient speech by branding it “disinformation”—even when it is true and even if it is Americans expressing their views.