A handful of President Joe Biden’s most important federal agencies are stepping up efforts to monitor and counteract “disinformation” on social media platforms, even in the face of criticism that the administration is attempting to silence conservative or opposing viewpoints.
The actions by the federal agencies come as Missouri and Louisiana are pursuing legal action against Biden, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top administration officials. The two states say these officials “pressured and colluded” with Big Tech social media companies to censor and suppress information on the Hunter Biden laptop story, COVID-19 origins and security of voting by mail during the pandemic.
Despite the ongoing lawsuit and vocal criticism by members of Congress, Biden’s agencies remain focused on countering disinformation from foreign adversaries attempting to influence U.S. elections and on certain topics, including COVID-19 origins, the deadly Afghanistan withdrawal and more.
New documents first reported by The Intercept on Monday revealed that while the Department of Homeland Security disbanded its controversial Disinformation Governance Board in May, the agency is still working to combat disinformation on a range of topics, including COVID-19, vaccines, racial issues, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Ukraine aid.
DHS came under scrutiny for its “un-American” board, which critics on the left and right called an effort to chill the right to free speech. As a result, DHS terminated the board in late May.
Now, Republicans are sounding the alarm about how DHS may still be working with Big Tech to combat disinformation on social media.
“Reports of DHS’s involvement in efforts to be the arbiter of truth on wide-ranging topics are extremely concerning,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., who serves as the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, in a statement. “The American People do not approve of the Department engaging in unclear, unaccountable, and opaque efforts led by the Biden administration’s ever-changing definition of ‘truth,'”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, added in a tweet: “If DHS is planning to investigate disinformation regarding the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, they should begin by looking within the Biden administration.”
However, the agency maintains that “disinformation” is a national security threat that must be addressed.
“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with safeguarding the United States against threats to its security, including threats exacerbated by disinformation,” DHS said in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“When it comes to DHS’s work, the Department is focused on disinformation that threatens the security of the American people, including disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran, or other adversaries such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations. Such malicious actors often spread disinformation to exploit vulnerable individuals and the American public, including during national emergencies,” the DHS spokesperson continued.
DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which was formed under former President Trump, is also closely involved in the agency’s disinformation efforts and has ramped up efforts to provide “truthful” information about conspiracy theories and misinformation on election integrity, among other issues.
Concerns by critics stem from the fact that the Biden administration has repeatedly stated that White supremacists are the greatest threats to the nation and has enacted a new domestic terrorism strategy.
“The U.S. Government will also work to find ways to counter the polarization often fueled by disinformation, misinformation, and dangerous conspiracy theories online, supporting an information environment that fosters healthy democratic discourse,” the White House announcement from June 2021 stated.
Justice and FBI
The Justice Department, over several years and several administrations, has been steadily prosecuting disinformation campaigns backed by malign actors, particularly Russia and Iran, which use social media to spew false or dishonest narratives.
Under the Biden administration, the department charged two Iranian nationals in 2021 for a “cyber-enabled disinformation and threat campaign” aimed at targeting the 2020 election.
Testimony by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey before the House Judiciary Committee in 2019 drew attention to the department’s ongoing efforts to fight “malign foreign influence operations” aimed at spreading misinformation.
“Malign foreign influence operations aimed at the United States are not a new problem. … Although the tactics have evolved, the goals of these activities remain the same: to spread disinformation and to sow discord on a mass scale in order to weaken the U.S. democratic process, and ultimately to undermine the appeal of democracy itself,” said Hickey.
The FBI has focused on foreign influence in elections, in particular though its Foreign Influence Task Force, even though it does not have an official “disinformation” policy.
Senior FBI officials told Fox News Digital the task force is the “primary entity” inside the FBI focused on “foreign malign influence targeting elections.”
“The FBI does not investigate First Amendment protected activities,” an FBI spokesperson told Fox News Digital Wednesday.
“The FBI does not and will not police speech or ideology, and we do not investigate misinformation or disinformation unless there is an explicit violation of federal law, such as a threat of violence. The FBI is responsible for investigating foreign influence operations intended to undermine American democratic processes and institutions. We focus on activities attributed to foreign actors, not on the content or narrative,” the spokesperson continued.
However, the DOJ and FBI have come under fire for allegedly suppressing information on Hunter Biden’s laptop ahead of the 2020 election under the guise of “misinformation.”
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has pressed the agencies for an explanation about why they pursued “politically charged investigations” related to the Trump campaign while suppressing key details related to the Hunter Biden probe as “disinformation” in light of new whistleblower information.
In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and a handful of Republican senators are demanding access to all communications between DOJ and the American Medical Association, which recently asked the attorney general to investigate and prosecute alleged “disinformation campaigns” against gender-altering surgeries for minors. DOJ has not commented on the AMA’s request or the inquiry led by Republicans into the matter.
Heath and Human Services
The U.S. surgeon general released a memo in 2020 on “Confronting Health Misinformation” that was aimed at “building a healthy information environment” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” wrote Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
The memo included a section titled, “What Technology Platforms Can Do,” including making “meaningful long-term investments to address misinformation, including product changes.” It recommended changes to “avoid amplifying misinformation” and building in “frictions” like suggestions and warnings that would “reduce the sharing of misinformation, and make it easier for users to report misinformation.”
In addition, HHS is handing out $1 million in grant funding for research into how “vaccine misinformation” found on social media can affect people’s confidence in vaccines.
HHS announced the grant opportunity, “Developing a Public Health Tool to Predict the Virality of Vaccine Misinformation Narratives,” last month and will send the funds to a single applicant next year. The awardee will use the funds to develop a forecasting model that aims to identify potential misinformation on vaccines and how it will affect people as it spreads on social media.
The Pentagon enacted a new policy on Aug. 12, 2022, titled, “Official Use of Social Media for Public Affairs Purposes,” warning against adversaries who may try and distort the truth or mislead employees through “disinformation campaigns.”
“Users, malign actors, and adversaries on social media platforms may attempt to impersonate DOD employees and Service members to disrupt online activity, distract audiences from official accounts, discredit DOD information, or manipulate audiences through disinformation campaigns,” that policy said.
The August memo is the first time the Pentagon put out a department-wide policy pertaining to the use of social media for employees.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during remarks at Stanford last month, called combating disinformation “a big focus” of the agency and praised the university and other private-sector partners and social media platforms for working with him on this effort.
“And one of the things we have to do is to make sure that we’re using technology itself to deal with some of the downsides of technology when it’s misused, including when it comes to misinformation and disinformation. So, we’re trying to build out these kinds of partnerships to make sure that we’re looking at every place that is actually developing answers, including Stanford, and then integrating that into what we do,” said Blinken.
“It’s also part of a long policy conversation and policy dialogue. My colleagues in other parts of the government are working on this. And of course, there’s the responsibility of the platforms themselves to make sure that these platforms are not being used in a way that’s – that abuses the platforms, particularly when it comes to misinformation and disinformation,” Blinken continued.
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center has a central policy issue, “Disarming Disinformation: Our Shared Responsibility,” focused on countering Russia’s disinformation push.
“Disinformation is one of the Kremlin’s most important and far-reaching weapons,” the State Department website states. “Russia has operationalized the concept of perpetual adversarial competition in the information environment by encouraging the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. This ecosystem creates and spreads false narratives to strategically advance the Kremlin’s policy goals.”
“There is no subject off-limits to this firehose of falsehoods. Everything from human rights and environmental policy to assassinations and civilian-killing bombing campaigns are fair targets in Russia’s malign playbook,” it warns, adding that only “truth” can disarm “Russia’s disinformation weapons.”
Fox News’ Pete Kasperowicz, Patrick Hauf and Brianna Herlihy contributed to this report.