The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) served as one cornerstone of the Censorship-Industrial Complex, colluding with nongovernmental organizations and tech giants to silence disfavored speech during the 2020 election cycle. An investigation by The Federalist now indicates GEC violated its congressional mandate by financing activities and organizations that targeted the speech of Americans.
GEC’s Creation and Mission Creep
The Global Engagement Center is a multi-agency center housed in the State Department that originated in 2011 as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which the Obama administration established by executive order to support federal agency communications in targeting “violent extremism and terrorist organizations.”
In 2016, the Obama administration issued a second executive order, morphing the CSCC into the GEC but leaving “its counterterrorism mission largely unchanged.” However, when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, statutorily establishing the GEC, the center’s purpose was expanded beyond its original mandate of countering the influence of international terrorists such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other foreign extremists.
The 2017 NDAA directed the GEC to “coordinate efforts of the Federal Government” to counter foreign state and foreign nonstate “propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” The 2019 NDAA then further expanded the GEC’s mission, authorizing it to counter foreign “propaganda and disinformation” that undermines not only the United States’ national security interests but also the “policies, security, or stability” of the U.S. and our allies. While Congress dramatically expanded the breadth of the GEC’s mission, its purpose still remained limited to combatting “foreign” disinformation.
Further, in authorizing GEC to provide grants or contracts to “society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions,” Congress required the awards be directed to combating “foreign propaganda and disinformation,” analyzing techniques of “foreign information warfare,” or countering “efforts by foreign entities.” Congress also explicitly included a limitation in the spending bills:
None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to carry out this section shall be used for purposes other than countering foreign propaganda and misinformation that threatens United States national security.
GEC Violated Mandate Big Time
Open-source material reviewed by The Federalist, however, establishes GEC exceeded its statutorily defined purpose by seeking to counter supposed domestic “misinformation” and “disinformation.” Likewise, it illegally used funds appropriated to counter “foreign propaganda and misinformation” for other purposes.
The breadth of the GEC’s unauthorized activities remains to be seen, but the evidence compiled to date establishes no fewer than four distinct ways GEC acted illegally.
First, the “Twitter Files” revealed GEC sought to censor Americans’ speech. Second, it endeavored to censor foreign speech that did not fall within the statutory categories of “propaganda” or “misinformation,” such as discussions about Covid-19 originating from a Wuhan lab leak. Third, GEC created, ran, and funded censorship initiatives that targeted both domestic and foreign speech.
As I previously detailed, nearly all of GEC’s Technology Engagement Team activities promoted the development and marketing of censorship tools, including to American social media giants, through these initiatives: 1) Tech Demo Series, 2) Tech Challenges, 3) Tech Testbed, 4) Silicon Valley Engagement, and 5) Disinfo Cloud.
The GEC-funded Disinfo Cloud tested censorship technology and created a “repository to catalogue an ever-growing list of CPD tools and technologies,” with “CPD” standing for “countering propaganda and disinformation.” The GEC’s Silicon Valley Engagement initiative then pushed social media companies to join Disinfo Cloud and helped them identify technologies for censoring speech. Disinfo Cloud also hosted GEC’s Tech Testbed, which allowed companies to pilot their censorship technology.
Significantly, GEC’s Disinfo Cloud and Tech Testbed were not limited to users or technology seeking to combat foreign disinformation or propaganda. The GEC-sponsored Tech Demo Series similarly featured censorship technology suitable for silencing domestic speech.
How much money the GEC spent on these initiatives is unknown, but it awarded Park Capital Investment Group, which developed and managed Disinfo Cloud, nearly $3 million from 2018-2020. And many of Disinfo Cloud’s activities on behalf of GEC reached both domestic and foreign audiences, in apparent violation of Congress’s statutory limitation.
The GEC’s funding of technology and organizations that censor domestic speech represents a fourth way the center exceeded its statutorily defined authority. The GEC-sponsored U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge provides a clear example of a monetary award funding an organization that targets the American marketplace of speech — including news outlets — for censorship, namely the Global Disinformation Index.
At the 2021 U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge, the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) pitched its risk-rating technology that purports to assess the “disinformation risk” of media outlets. One product of GDI’s technology was a list that declared conservative media, including The Federalist, among the “Ten Riskiest Online News Outlets.” Meanwhile, the supposedly “Ten Lowest-Risk Online News Outlets” consist of mainly left-wing legacy outlets, including those that botched the Russia-collusion hoax and the Hunter Biden laptop story.
While the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge purported to offer funding to foreign-based tech experts “to implement a tool, locally, to address misinformation and disinformation challenges in the region,” the Global Disinformation Index also targeted American outlets. And although in promoting its technology at the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge, the GDI framed itself as a U.K.-based organization, GDI operates in partnership with an American organization, the Disinformation Index, and a related American foundation, the Disinformation Index Foundation.
The leadership of all three organizations is identical, with American Danny Rogers and the British Clare Melford serving as officers. The Disinformation Index Foundation’s tax return shows the U.K.-based organization providing a main source of funding.
As part of the GDI’s U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge presentation, Rogers explained GDI’s goal was to disrupt the funding of so-called disinformation by steering away “ad dollars.” Rogers then stressed in the team’s presentation that “over a dozen ad-tech companies” covering “20 different media markets” used GDI’s technology. That technology succeeded in “cutting the number of ad options” by over half, “redirecting millions of dollars away from disinformation peddlers toward quality journalism,” Rogers boasted.
After learning GDI had been selected as one of the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge winners, Melford noted the award would, among other things, allow GDI to bolster the infrastructure “underpinning all of the GDI’s activities … so that the ad tech base can offer advertisers the chance to choose which their ads support.”
So to the tune of some $100,000 in U.S. taxpayer funds — the prize awarded the GDI — the Global Engagement Center helped “bolster” the infrastructure of GDI’s ratings system that resulted in American conservative news outlets being blacklisted, notwithstanding the congressional directive that funding be limited to combating foreign propaganda and disinformation.
In addition to the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge, the GEC sponsored the Countering COVID19 Disinformation Challenge, run by the Department of Defense’s National Security Innovation Network. Winners of that challenge received $25,000 to pilot their technology on GEC’s Testbed, hosted by Disinfo Cloud.
The irresponsible, reliability-ratings company NewsGuard received one of the $25,000 awards. NewsGuard, like GDI, champions leftist outlets that peddled the Russia-collusion hoax, while framing conservative outlets such as The Federalist as unreliable. And NewsGuard’s technology, along with the technology of the other winners, reaches both domestic and foreign outlets.
State Dept. Claims It Stayed in Its Lane
Notwithstanding GEC’s funding of initiatives, technology, and organizations that seek to silence Americans as well as foreigners, the State Department-backed organization feigns fidelity to the limitation Congress established for the center — a limitation that directed funding not be used other than to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.
The Q&A session from the U.S. Army-sponsored Mad Scientist Virtual Conference in July 2020 showed GEC giving lip service to the congressional limitation. After noting that by law the military and Department of State programs are focused on foreign information, one attendee asked how GEC bridges the gap to address supposed disinformation “that is mirrored from foreign sources into the domestic U.S. environment.”
Alexis Frisbie of GEC’s Technology Engagement Team, who had just finished presenting alongside the director of Disinfo Cloud, Christina Nemr, responded by stressing the center’s focus on “outreach.” The GEC has a Silicon Valley liaison who works closely with tech companies, Frisbie said. “We also have a really great leadership of the GEC which is regularly looking to engage with private industry and looking to have conversations to ensure that there’s discussion occurring” on the domestic level, she explained.
The GEC representative then added with a nervous laugh: “I just always like to emphasize that the GEC role is foreign focus,” and so “we make sure to stay strictly within” that limitation. Nonetheless, Frisbie continued, we “make sure we are engaging and make sure where the conversation is happening and to ensure that we’re kinda giving our two cents in terms of what is going on within the propaganda and disinformation field but certainly not looking to influence anything on the national level.”
The “Twitter Files” and many GEC-funded initiatives that target both domestic and foreign speech, however, tell a very different story.