A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) advisory panel helping the federal government crack down on misinformation pushed to enlist left-wing entities and individuals in its efforts, according to documents obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA) Cybersecurity Advisory Committee’s (CSAC) Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation and Disinformation subcommittee was convened in December 2021 to provide CISA with recommendations for how to address misinformation, disinformation and malinformation (MDM) ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. However, internal meeting minutes, emails and notes obtained by the DCNF through a public records request reveal committee members frequently pushed to enlist outside left-wing groups and individuals linked to Democratic causes to further their efforts.
The subcommittee included DHS officials, former Twitter chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde, University of Washington professor Kate Starbird and former DHS official and Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) adviser Suzanne Spaulding.
Gadde was frequently criticized for the censoring of conservatives on Twitter during her time at the platform. Moreover, she played a key role in Twitter’s censoring of the New York Post’s true story on business dealings by President Joe Biden’s son Hunter after the newspaper obtained a copy of the younger Biden’s laptop, according to internal Twitter communications published by journalist Matt Taibbi.
Starbird, meanwhile, has vocally pursued left-wing activism, urging her followers to vote for Democrats in a Facebook post excoriating Republicans and former President Donald Trump, the latter of whom she described as speaking with “undertones” of “white supremacy and ethno-nationalism.”
These members, along with the rest of the subcommittee, were tasked with guiding CISA on how to combat mis- and disinformation perceived as threatening “critical functions” of democracy, including public health measures, the financial system, elections and the court system, according to the committee’s initial recommendations published in June 2022. These recommendations included detecting “threats,” working with “non-governmental” sources to mitigate mis- and disinformation and bankrolling research; CISA partially accepted many of the recommendations, while declined to proactively identify threats, instead choosing to rely on the intelligence community.
The subcommittee’s resources to inform their work included “misinformation” research from partisan organizations. The subcommittee also planned to recruit “progressive” researchers to “socialize” the committee’s work, and suggested enlisting a major Democratic donor to fund CISA’s efforts.
And, while the DHS does not formally censor content itself, it advises its partners, including social media companies, on how to combat information deemed threatening, and flags examples of disinformation to these platforms, according to the agency’s website and reporting from The Intercept. Tech companies also hold regular meetings with CISA and intelligence agencies on the topic of misinformation, according to The Intercept.
However, a CISA spokesman denied the agency formally requested content to be removed in a statement to the DCNF.
“CISA provides broad guidance on foreign influence and disinformation tactics, mitigates the risk of foreign influence and disinformation by sharing accurate information, and amplifies the voices of state and local election offices on issues of election security,” the spokesman said.
“Government working with behind-the-scenes actors to censor speech should alarm everyone – regardless of political affiliation,” Republican Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt, who sued the Biden administration over its alleged censorship during his time as Missouri’s attorney general, told the DCNF. “The Department of Homeland Security has no business suppressing Americans’ freedom of speech.”
Research And Resources
A list of CSAC resources, identified as “for official use only” and obtained by the DCNF, includes groups such as the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) that help censor conservatives online.
GDI, a U.K.-based company that aims to “disrupt the business model of disinformation,” works to demonetize conservative news sites, according to the Washington Examiner, through providing blacklists to ad tech companies which can then “defund and downrank” the worst offenders of disinformation.
These blacklists overwhelmingly contain conservative news organizations, the Washington Examiner reported, citing internal documents. GDI received funding from the U.S. State Department, a DCNF investigation revealed.
The CISA document referred to GDI as a “recently-funded research [project] that include[s] activities (such as detecting/analyzing disinformation campaigns) that align with CISA’s mission.”
The document also attached that label to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a State Department-funded organization that routinely advocates for censorship of right-leaning speech, a previous DCNF investigation revealed.
For instance, the group categorizes as misinformation the comparison of abortion to murder, “climate delayism,” or the idea that climate change should not be addressed as urgently as some believe, and the “misgendering” of transgender individuals, the DCNF reported. ISD’s funders include left-wing billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Group, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to its website.
“We have not directly shared our research with CISA, and have never received funding from them,” ISD spokesman Tim Squirrell told the DCNF.
The resources also included a report from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which strongly advocated for social media platforms to censor misinformation even more aggressively, such as by demonetizing content, manually reviewing posts from “influencers with repeat bad behavior,” implementing a “strikes” policy with escalating responses for each violation of platform rules and even blocking entire web domains.
The Aspen Institute’s commissioners for the report included several left-wing activists and pro-censorship advocates, a previous DCNF investigation found.
For example, the commission included Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change; Color of Change is a major donor to, and advocate for, left-wing causes, notably “reform” prosecutors, such as Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and receives funding from well-known liberal donors like Soros. The group also routinely attempts to demonetize and censor conservatives.
“Every day more and more evidence emerges appearing to demonstrate we have a growing censorship industrial complex composed of government and private actors that seem to interpret dystopian novels like ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ not as warnings but as how-to guides,” Michael Chamberlain, director of government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust, told the DCNF. “Instead of seeing the First Amendment and free speech rights as foundational to our system of government, they seem to view them as threats, and to such an extreme that even truthful information must be suppressed.”
‘Socializing’ The Committee
The subcommittee members also sought to enlist third-party groups in their efforts, according to meeting minutes first revealed in the ongoing censorship lawsuit Missouri v. Biden, as well as communications obtained by the DCNF.
In a May 24 meeting, subcommittee members discussed recruiting a “subject matter expert” from a “progressive civil rights and civil liberties angle” to provide input on the subcommittee’s recommendations. Twitter’s Gadde later brainstormed a list of progressive actors to recruit, according to action items in the meeting notes, and in a June 7 meeting suggested reaching out to a list of “civil society” groups.
Spaulding and Starbird later agreed to reach out to the groups before the June 22 recommendations were made public to “notify them of the subcommittee’s interest and intent in seeking their input in the future.”
The list of groups to whom the members were referring appears to be found in an email, obtained by the DCNF, sent from Gadde to the other members on June 7 at 8:07 a.m., and includes the aforementioned Global Disinformation Index, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, First Draft, the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab and several other organizations. Earlier in the email exchange, Starbird referred to the groups whom the committee would contact as “key stakeholders” but noted they wouldn’t be helping the subcommittee make initial recommendations.
The Shorenstein Center has flirted with Democrat-linked dark money operations to fund its MDM research, the DCNF previously reported; grants from the New Venture Fund, a liberal dark money organization managed by Democrat-linked consultancy firm Arabella Advisors, paid for two research projects at the center, with one, titled “The True Costs of Misinformation,” featuring researchers who advocated for online censorship and criticized conservative ideas.
The Omidyar Network is also a financial supporter of the center.
Meanwhile, First Draft, a “nonprofit coalition” of media-related organizations, is also backed by left-wing megadonors; Craig Newmark Philanthropies helped fund the group’s efforts against election misinformation in 2020, according to the group’s website, while Pierre Omidyar-affiliated funds and Soros’ Open Society Foundations are also listed as backers.
Additionally, a list of “potential briefer biographies” for individuals from whom the committee could solicit input included Claire Wardle, former executive director of First Draft.
First Draft participated in an exercise hosted by the Aspen Institute that occurred just weeks before the censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story, and was intended for media organizations and to coordinate a response to a “hacked” story about Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
The exercise, titled “The Burisma Leak,” involved a series of hypothetical leaks during October 2020 showing that Hunter Biden had made more money in his role at Burisma than previously disclosed and had communicated with his father about his work there, according to documents made public by Michael Shellenberger.
According to the minutes of a June 14 meeting, the subcommittee also planned to contact the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, an organization that has advocated for criminal justice reform and loosening certain election integrity laws, while Gadde recommended the group recruit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group focusing on speech and privacy online.
It’s unclear how many groups or progressive experts were contacted, and none of the aforementioned groups responded to the DCNF’s request for comment.
“My understanding is that very few of these conversations took place,” Starbird told the DCNF, stating that the purpose of the meetings was “to describe what we were working on, solicit their feedback (and good faith criticism), and get their advice for how to approach communicating about our work and mission.” She said she did not recall conversations with any of the groups listed on Gadde’s email regarding the subcommittee’s work.
A CISA spokesman did not respond to questions regarding the groups’ role in CISA’s activities.
The groups in question did not appear to have participated in any formal subcommittee meetings, according to documents obtained by the DCNF.
“Over the past year we’ve learned more and more troubling details of the shadow censorship campaign by CISA and apparently outsourced in collaboration with certain universities and special interests,” Pete McGinnis, spokesman for the Functional Government Initiative, a government watchdog group, told the DCNF. “The Constitutional right to free speech has been censored in the shadows, Americans deserve answers on how this came to be and who was involved.”
In an August 30 meeting, as the subcommittee was preparing to issue supplementary recommendations to CISA, subcommittee member Spaulding suggested Craig Newmark be a potential point of contact to help fund anti-disinformation resource centers across the country. The email also mentioned contacting the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, about the existence of the committee.
Newmark, tech mogul and founder of Craigslist, is a major donor to left-wing causes and Democratic candidates, contributing roughly $1 million each to progressive news outlets ProPublica and Mother Jones, according to InfluenceWatch.
The billionaire has also contributed significantly to Democratic candidates, donating $100,000 to the Biden Victory Fund and hundreds of thousands to a litany of other Democratic committees.
It’s not clear if any communication between the subcommittee and Newmark actually took place. Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Craig Newmark Philanthropies, told the DCNF that Newmark was “not at all” involved with the subcommittee’s efforts, and Starbird say she could not recall the committee working with him.
“Our philanthropic foundation’s work with CISA focused narrowly on cybersecurity,” Phillips said.
Yet Newmark is also a major funder of several organizations involved, or potentially involved, in the work of the subcommittee itself.
For instance, Newmark singlehandedly bankrolled the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder through a $3.25 million donation, and as mentioned previously, is also a major donor behind First Draft.
Newmark gave a $1 million grant to the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, where Starbird is a professor, and contributed somewhere between $200,000 to $499,999 to CSIS, where Spaulding is a senior adviser. Starbird thanked Newmark personally in a statement on the grant.
Moreover, Newmark funded a study that attempted to downplay online platforms’ censorship of conservatives, calling the notion “disinformation.” The study’s author defended Twitter’s censoring of the Hunter Biden story, claiming without evidence that the New York Post obtained data that was “stolen, hacked, or otherwise misappropriated” from the Biden family.
When asked, Starbird told the DCNF she opposes government-directed censorship of specific content on social media platforms, with several exceptions.
“Personally, my opinion is that CISA and the U.S. government should not flag content for platforms to moderate — except in cases where the content is illegal (e.g., false information about when or where to vote that could disenfranchise voters), encourages illegal activity (e.g. voter fraud), encourages or threatens violence (e.g., against election officials) or is part of a foreign influence operation (e.g., Iranians impersonating Proud Boys in threatening letters to Democrat voters in 2020),” she said.
Gadde and Spaulding did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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