The Department of Homeland Security is quietly broadening its efforts
to curb speech it considers dangerous,
Those put into a position where they get to decide what is "right" have enormous power, and some may not utilize that power in a good way.
Leaked Documents Outline DHS's Plans to Police Disinformation
Ken Klippenstein, Lee Fang
October 31 2022, 2:00 a.m.
The Department of Homeland Security is quietly broadening its efforts
to curb speech it considers dangerous, an investigation by The
Intercept has found. Years of internal DHS memos, emails, and documents--obtained via leaks and an ongoing lawsuit, as well as
public documents--illustrate an expansive effort by the agency to
influence tech platforms.
The work, much of which remains unknown to the American public, came
into clearer view earlier this year when DHS announced a new
"Disinformation Governance Board": a panel designed to police
misinformation (false information spread unintentionally),
disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and
malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context,
with harmful intent) that allegedly threatens U.S. interests. While
the board was widely ridiculed, immediately scaled back, and then
shut down within a few months, other initiatives are underway as DHS
pivots to monitoring social media now that its original mandate--the
war on terror--has been wound down.
Behind closed doors, and through pressure on private platforms, the
U.S. government has used its power to try to shape online discourse.
According to meeting minutes and other records appended to a lawsuit
filed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican who is
also running for Senate, discussions have ranged from the scale and
scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics
of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally
* Though DHS shuttered its controversial Disinformation Governance
Board, a strategic document reveals the underlying work is ongoing.
* DHS plans to target inaccurate information on "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."
* Facebook created a special portal for DHS and government partners
to report disinformation directly.
"Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov't. It's really
interesting how hesitant they remain," Microsoft executive Matt
Masterson, a former DHS official, texted Jen Easterly, a DHS
director, in February.
In a March meeting, Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, warned that the
threat of subversive information on social media could undermine
support for the U.S. government. Dehmlow, according to notes of the discussion attended by senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan
Chase, stressed that "we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable."
"We do not coordinate with other entities when making content
moderation decisions, and we independently evaluate content in line
with the Twitter Rules," a spokesperson for Twitter wrote in a
statement to The Intercept.
There is also 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 writing, the "content request system" at
facebook.com/xtakedowns/login is still live. DHS and Meta, the
parent company of Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment.
The FBI declined to comment.
DHS's mission to fight disinformation, stemming from concerns around
Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, began taking
shape during the 2020 election and over efforts to shape discussions
around vaccine policy during the coronavirus pandemic. Documents
collected by The Intercept from a variety of sources, including
current officials and publicly available reports, reveal the
evolution of more active measures by DHS.
According to a draft copy of DHS's Quadrennial Homeland Security
Review, DHS's capstone report outlining the department's strategy and priorities in the coming years, the department plans to target
"inaccurate information" on a wide range 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."
"The challenge is particularly acute in marginalized communities,"
the report states, "which are often the targets of false or
misleading information, such as false information on voting
procedures targeting people of color."
The inclusion of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is
particularly noteworthy, given that House Republicans, should they
take the majority in the midterms, have vowed to investigate. "This
makes Benghazi look like a much smaller issue," said Rep. Mike
Johnson, R-La., a member of the Armed Services Committee, adding that
finding answers "will be a top priority."
How disinformation is defined by the government has not been clearly articulated, and the inherently subjective nature of what constitutes disinformation provides a broad opening for DHS officials to make
politically motivated determinations about what constitutes dangerous
The inherently subjective nature of what constitutes
disinformation provides a broad opening for DHS officials to make
politically motivated determinations about what constitutes dangerous
DHS justifies these goals--which have expanded far beyond its
original purview on foreign threats to encompass disinformation
originating domestically--by claiming that terrorist threats can be "exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation spread online." But
the laudable goal of protecting Americans from danger has often been
used to conceal political maneuvering. In 2004, for instance, DHS
officials faced pressure from the George W. Bush administration to
heighten the national threat level for terrorism, in a bid to
influence voters prior to the election, according to former DHS
Secretary Tom Ridge. U.S. officials have routinely lied about an
array of issues, from the causes of its wars in Vietnam and Iraq to
their more recent obfuscation around the role of the National
Institutes of Health in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology's
That track record has not prevented the U.S. government from seeking
to become arbiters of what constitutes false or dangerous information
on inherently political topics. Earlier this year, Republican Gov.
Ron DeSantis signed a law known by supporters as the "Stop WOKE Act,"
which bans private employers from workplace trainings asserting an individual's moral character is privileged or oppressed based on his
or her race, color, sex, or national origin. The law, critics
charged, amounted to a broad suppression of speech deemed offensive.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, has
since filed a lawsuit against DeSantis, alleging "unconstitutional censorship." A federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the Stop
WOKE Act, ruling that the law had violated workers' First Amendment
"Florida's legislators may well find plaintiffs' speech 'repugnant.'
But under our constitutional scheme, the 'remedy' for repugnant
speech is more speech, not enforced silence," wrote Judge Mark
Walker, in a colorful opinion castigating the law.
The extent to which the DHS initiatives affect Americans' daily
social feeds is unclear. During the 2020 election, the government
flagged numerous posts as suspicious, many of which were then taken
down, documents cited in the Missouri attorney general's lawsuit
disclosed. And a 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership
at Stanford University found that of nearly 4,800 flagged items,
technology platforms took action on 35 percent--either removing,
labeling, or soft-blocking speech, meaning the users were only able
to view content after bypassing a warning screen. The research was
done "in consultation with CISA," the Cybersecurity and
Infrastructure Security Agency.
Prior to the 2020 election, tech companies including Twitter,
Facebook, Reddit, Discord, Wikipedia, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and
Verizon Media met on a monthly basis with the FBI, CISA, and other
government representatives. According to NBC News, the meetings were
part of an initiative, still ongoing, between the private sector and government to discuss how firms would handle misinformation during
The stepped up counter-disinformation effort began in 2018 following high-profile hacking incidents of U.S. firms, when Congress passed
and President Donald Trump signed the Cybersecurity and
Infrastructure Security Agency Act, forming a new wing of DHS devoted
to protecting critical national infrastructure. An August 2022
report by the DHS Office of Inspector General sketches the rapidly accelerating move toward policing disinformation.
From the outset, CISA boasted of an "evolved mission" to monitor
social media discussions while "routing disinformation concerns" to
private sector platforms.
In 2018, then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen created the Countering
Foreign Influence Task Force to respond to election disinformation.
The task force, which included members of CISA as well as its Office
of Intelligence and Analysis, generated "threat intelligence" about
the election and notified social media platforms and law enforcement.
At the same time, DHS began notifying social media companies about voting-related disinformation appearing on social platforms.
Key Takeaways, Cont'd.
* The work is primarily done by CISA, a DHS sub-agency tasked with
protecting critical national infrastructure.
* DHS, the FBI, and several media entities are having biweekly
meetings as recently as August.
* DHS considered countering disinformation relating to content that
undermines trust in financial systems and courts.
* The FBI agent who primed social media platforms to take down the
Hunter Biden laptop story continued to have a role in DHS policy
In 2019, DHS created a separate entity called the Foreign Influence
and Interference Branch to generate more detailed intelligence about disinformation, the inspector general report shows. That year, its
staff grew to include 15 full- and part-time staff dedicated to disinformation analysis. In 2020, the disinformation focus expanded
to include Covid-19, according to a Homeland Threat Assessment issued
by Acting Secretary Chad Wolf.
This apparatus had a dry run during the 2020 election, when CISA
began working with other members of the U.S. intelligence community.
Office of Intelligence and Analysis personnel attended "weekly teleconferences to coordinate Intelligence Community activities to
counter election-related disinformation." According to the IG
report, meetings have continued to take place every two weeks since
Emails between DHS officials, Twitter, and the Center for Internet
Security outline the process for such takedown requests during the
period leading up to November 2020. Meeting notes show that the tech platforms would be called upon to "process reports and provide timely responses, to include the removal of reported misinformation from the platform where possible." In practice, this often meant state
election officials sent examples of potential forms of disinformation
to CISA, which would then forward them on to social media companies
for a response.
Under President Joe Biden, the shifting focus on disinformation has continued. In January 2021, CISA replaced the Countering Foreign
Influence Task force with the "Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation" team, which was created "to promote more flexibility
to focus on general MDM." By now, the scope of the effort had
expanded beyond disinformation produced by foreign governments to
include domestic versions. The MDM team, according to one CISA
official quoted in the IG report, "counters all types of
disinformation, to be responsive to current events."
Jen Easterly, Biden's appointed director of CISA, swiftly made it
clear that she would continue to shift resources in the agency to
combat the spread of dangerous forms of information on social media.
"One could argue we're in the business of critical infrastructure,
and the most critical infrastructure is our cognitive infrastructure,
so building that resilience to misinformation and disinformation, I
think, is incredibly important," said Easterly, speaking at a
conference in November 2021.
CISA's domain has gradually expanded to encompass more subjects it
believes amount to critical infrastructure. Last year, The Intercept reported on the existence of a series of DHS field intelligence
reports warning of attacks on cell towers, which it has tied to
conspiracy theorists who believe 5G towers spread Covid-19. One
intelligence report pointed out that these conspiracy theories "are
inciting attacks against the communications infrastructure."
CISA has defended its burgeoning social media monitoring authorities,
stating that "once CISA notified a social media platform of
disinformation, the social media platform could independently decide
whether to remove or modify the post." But, as documents revealed by
the Missouri lawsuit show, CISA's goal is to make platforms more
responsive to their suggestions.
In late February, Easterly texted with Matthew Masterson, a
representative at Microsoft who formerly worked at CISA, that she is
"trying to get us in a place where Fed can work with platforms to
better understand mis/dis trends so relevant agencies can try to prebunk/debunk as useful."
Meeting records of the CISA Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, the
main subcommittee that handles disinformation policy at CISA, show a
constant effort to expand the scope of the agency's tools to foil disinformation.
In June, the same DHS advisory committee of CISA--which includes
Twitter head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde and
University of Washington professor Kate Starbird--drafted a report to
the CISA director calling for an expansive role for the agency in
shaping the "information ecosystem." The report called on the agency
to closely monitor "social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream
media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio and other online resources." They argued that the agency needed to take steps to halt
the "spread of false and misleading information," with a focus on
information that undermines "key democratic institutions, such as the
courts, or by other sectors such as the financial system, or public
To accomplish these broad goals, the report said, CISA should invest
in external research to evaluate the "efficacy of interventions," specifically with research looking at how alleged disinformation can
be countered and how quickly messages spread. Geoff Hale, the
director of the Election Security Initiative at CISA, recommended the
use of third-party information-sharing nonprofits as a "clearing
house for information to avoid the appearance of government
Last Thursday, immediately following billionaire Elon Musk's
completed acquisition of Twitter, Gadde was terminated from the
The Biden administration, however, did take a stab at making part of
this infrastructure public in April 2022, with the announcement of
the Disinformation Governance Board. The exact functions of the
board, and how it would accomplish its goal of defining and combating
MDM, were never made clear.
The board faced immediate backlash across the political spectrum.
"Who among us thinks the government should add to its work list the
job of determining what is true and what is disinformation? And who
thinks the government is capable of telling the truth?" wrote
Politico media critic Jack Shafer. "Our government produces lies and disinformation at industrial scale and always has. It overclassifies
vital information to block its own citizens from becoming any the
wiser. It pays thousands of press aides to play hide the salami with
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas alluded to broad scope of the
agency's disinformation effort when he told the Senate Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the role of the
board--which by that point had been downgraded to a "working
group"--is to "actually develop guidelines, standards, guardrails to
ensure that the work that has been ongoing for nearly 10 years does
not infringe on people's free speech rights, rights of privacy, civil
rights, and civil liberties."
"It was quite disconcerting, frankly," he added, "that the
disinformation work that was well underway for many years across
different independent administrations was not guided by guardrails."
DHS eventually scrapped the Disinformation Governance Board in
August. While free speech advocates cheered the dissolution of the
board, other government efforts to root out disinformation have not
only continued but expanded to encompass additional DHS sub-agencies
like Customs and Border Protection, which "determines whether
information about the component spread through social media platforms
like Facebook and Twitter is accurate." Other agencies such as
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Science and Technology
Directorate (whose responsibilities include "determining whether
social media accounts were bots or humans and how the mayhem caused
by bots affects behavior"), and the Secret Service have also expanded
their purview to include disinformation, according to the inspector
The draft copy of DHS's 2022 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review
reviewed by The Intercept also confirms that DHS views the issue of
tackling disinformation and misinformation as a growing portion of
its core duties. While "counterterrorism remains the first and most important mission of the Department," it notes, the agency's "work on
these missions is evolving and dynamic" and must now adapt to terror
threats "exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation spread
online" including by "domestic violent extremists."
To accomplish this, the draft quadrennial review calls for DHS to
"leverage advanced data analytics technology and hire and train
skilled specialists to better understand how threat actors use online platforms to introduce and spread toxic narratives intended to
inspire or incite violence, as well as work with NGOs and other parts
of civil society to build resilience to the impacts of false
The broad definition of "threat actors" posing risks to vaguely
defined critical infrastructure--an area as broad as trust in
government, public health, elections, and financial markets--has
concerned civil libertarians. "No matter your political allegiances,
all of us have good reason to be concerned about government efforts
to pressure private social media platforms into reaching the
government's preferred decisions about what content we can see
online," said Adam Goldstein, the vice president of research at
"Any governmental requests to social media platforms to review or
remove certain content," he added, "should be made with extreme transparency."
DHS's expansion into misinformation, disinformation, and
malinformation represents an important strategic retooling for the
agency, which was founded in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks as
a bulwark to coordinate intelligence and security operations across
the government. At the same time, the FBI deployed thousands of
agents to focus on counterterrorism efforts, through building
informant networks and intelligence operations designed to prevent
But traditional forms of terrorism, posed by groups like Al Qaeda,
evolved with the rise of social media, with groups like the Islamic
State using platforms such as Facebook to recruit and radicalize new
members. After initial reluctance, social media giants worked
closely with the FBI and DHS to help monitor and remove
FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that
law enforcement agencies needed to rapidly "adapt and confront the challenges" posed by terror networks that had proven adept at tapping
into social media. Intelligence agencies backed new startups
designed to monitor the vast flow of information across social
networks to better understand emerging narratives and risks.
"The Department has not been fully reauthorized since its inception
over fifteen years ago," the Senate Homeland Security Committee
warned in 2018. "As the threat landscape continues to evolve, the
Department adjusted its organization and activities to address
emerging threats and protect the U.S. homeland. This evolution of
the Department's duties and organization, including the structure and operations of the DHS Headquarters, has never been codified in
The subsequent military defeat of ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq,
along with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, left the homeland
security apparatus without a target. Meanwhile, a new threat entered
the discourse. The allegation that Russian agents had seeded
disinformation on Facebook that tipped the 2016 election toward
Donald Trump resulted in the FBI forming the Foreign Influence Task
Force, a team devoted to preventing foreign meddling in American
According to DHS meeting minutes from March, the FBI's Foreign
Influence Task Force this year includes 80 individuals focused on
curbing "subversive data utilized to drive a wedge between the
populace and the government."
"The Department will spearhead initiatives to raise awareness of disinformation campaigns targeting communities in the United States, providing citizens the tools necessary to identify and halt the
spread of information operations intended to promote radicalization
to violent extremism or mobilization to violence," DHS Acting
Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a September 2019 strategic
DHS also began to broaden its watch to include a wide array of
domestic actors viewed as potential sources of radicalization and
upheaval. An FBI official interviewed by The Intercept described
how, in the summer of 2020, amid the George Floyd protests, he was
reassigned from his normal job of countering foreign intelligence
services to monitoring American social media accounts. (The
official, not authorized to speak publicly, described the
reassignment on condition of anonymity.)
And a June 2020 memo bearing the subject line "Actions to Address the
Threat Posed by Domestic Terrorists and Other Domestic Extremists"
prepared by DHS headquarters for Wolf, Trump's acting DHS secretary, delineates plans to "expand information sharing with the tech sector"
in order to "identify disinformation campaigns used by DT [domestic terrorism] actors to incite violence against infrastructure, ethnic,
racial or religious groups, or individuals." The memo outlines plans
to work with private tech sector partners to share unclassified DHS intelligence on "DT actors and their tactics" so that platforms can
"move effectively use their own tools to enforce user
agreements/terms of service and remove DT content."
Biden also prioritized such efforts. Last year, the Biden
administration released the first National Strategy for Countering
Domestic Terrorism. The strategy identified a "broader priority:
enhancing faith in government and addressing the extreme
polarization, fueled by a crisis of disinformation and misinformation
often channeled through social media platforms, which can tear
Americans apart and lead some to violence."
"We are working with like-minded governments, civil society, and the technology sector to address terrorist and violent extremist content
online, including through innovative research collaborations," the
strategy document continued, adding that the administration was
"addressing the crisis of disinformation and misinformation, often
channeled through social and other media platforms, that can fuel
extreme polarization and lead some individuals to violence."
Last year, a top FBI counterterrorism official came under fire when
she falsely denied to Congress that the FBI monitors Americans'
social media and had therefore missed threats leading up to the
attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. In fact, the FBI has
spent millions of dollars on social media tracking software like
Babel X and Dataminr. According to the bureau's official guidelines, authorized activities include "proactively surfing the Internet to
find publicly accessible websites and services through which
recruitment by terrorist organizations and promotion of terrorist
crimes is openly taking place."
Another FBI official, a joint terrorism task force officer, described
to The Intercept being reassigned this year from the bureau's
international terrorism division, where they had primarily worked on
cases involving Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, to the domestic terrorism division to investigate Americans, including
anti-government individuals such as racially motivated violent
extremists, sovereign citizens, militias, and anarchists. They work
on an undercover basis online to penetrate social networking chat
rooms, online forums, and blogs to detect, enter, dismantle, and
disrupt existing and emerging terrorist organizations via online
forums, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, websites, and social
networking, said the FBI official, who did not have permission to
speak on the record.
The Privacy Act of 1974, enacted following the Watergate scandal,
restricts government data collection of Americans exercising their
First Amendment rights, a safeguard that civil liberty groups have
argued limits the ability of DHS and the FBI to engage in
surveillance of American political speech expressed on social media.
The statute, however, maintains exemptions for information collected
for the purposes of a criminal or law enforcement investigation.
"There are no specific legal constraints on t FBI's use of social
media," Faiza Patel, senior director of the Brennan Center for
Justice's liberty and national security program told The Intercept.
"The attorney general guidelines permit agents to look at social
media before there is any investigation at all. So it's kind of a
Wild West out there."
The first FBI official, whom The Intercept interviewed in 2020 amid
the George Floyd riots, lamented the drift toward warrantless
monitoring of Americans saying, "Man, I don't even know what's legal anymore."
In retrospect, the New York Post reporting on the contents of Hunter
Biden's laptop ahead of the 2020 election provides an elucidating
case study of how this works in an increasingly partisan environment.
Much of the public ignored the reporting or assumed it was false, as
over 50 former intelligence officials charged that the laptop story
was a creation of a "Russian disinformation" campaign. The
mainstream media was primed by allegations of election interference
in 2016--and, to be sure, Trump did attempt to use the laptop to
disrupt the Biden campaign. Twitter ended up banning links to the
New York Post's report on the contents of the laptop during the
crucial weeks leading up to the election. Facebook also throttled
users' ability to view the story.
In recent months, a clearer picture of the government's influence has emerged.
In an appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast in August, Meta CEO Mark
Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook had limited sharing of the New York
Post's reporting after a conversation with the FBI. "The background
here is that the FBI came to us--some folks on our team--and was
like, 'Hey, just so you know, you should be on high alert that there
was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election,'" Zuckerberg
told Rogan. The FBI told them, Zuckerberg said, that "'We have it on
notice that basically there's about to be some kind of dump.'" When
the Post's story came out in October 2020, Facebook thought it "fit
that pattern" the FBI had told them to look out for.
Zuckerberg said he regretted the decision, as did Jack Dorsey, the
CEO of Twitter at the time. Despite claims that the laptop's
contents were forged, the Washington Post confirmed that at least
some of the emails on the laptop were authentic. The New York Times authenticated emails from the laptop--many of which were cited in the original New York Post reporting from October 2020--that prosecutors
have examined as part of the Justice Department's probe into whether
the president's son violated the law on a range of issues, including
money laundering, tax-related offenses, and foreign lobbying
Documents filed in federal court as part of a lawsuit by the
attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana add a layer of new detail
to Zuckerberg's anecdote, revealing that officials leading the push
to expand the government's reach into disinformation also played a
quiet role in shaping the decisions of social media giants around the
New York Post story.
According to records filed in federal court, two previously unnamed
FBI agents--Elvis Chan, an FBI special agent in the San Francisco
field office, and Dehmlow, the section chief of the FBI's Foreign
Influence Task Force--were involved in high-level communications that allegedly "led to Facebook's suppression" of the Post's reporting.
The Hunter Biden laptop story was only the most high-profile example
of law enforcement agencies pressuring technology firms. In many
cases, the Facebook and Twitter accounts flagged by DHS or its
partners as dangerous forms of disinformation or potential foreign
influence were clearly parody accounts or accounts with virtually no followers or influence.
In May, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt took the lead in
filing a lawsuit to combat what he views as sweeping efforts by the
Biden administration to pressure social media companies to moderate
certain forms of content appearing on their platforms.
The suit alleges governmentwide efforts to censor certain stories,
especially ones related to the pandemic. It also names multiple
agencies across the government that have participated in efforts to
monitor speech and "open collusion" between the administration and
social media companies. It identifies, for example, emails between
officials from the National Institutes of Health, including Dr.
Anthony Fauci, and Zuckerberg at the beginning of the pandemic, and
reveals ongoing discussions between senior Biden administration
officials with Meta executives on developing content moderation
policies on a range of issues, including issues related to elections
Attorneys for the Biden administration have responded in court by
claiming that the plaintiffs lack standing and that social media
firms pursued content moderation policies on their own volition,
without any "coercive" influence from the government. On October 21,
the judge presiding over the case granted the attorneys general
permission to depose Fauci, CISA officials, and communication
specialists from the White House.
While the lawsuit has a definite partisan slant, pointing the finger
at the Biden administration for allegedly seeking to control private
speech, many of the subpoenas request information that spans into the
Trump era and provides a window into the absurdity of the ongoing
"There is growing evidence that the legislative and executive branch officials are using social media companies to engage in censorship by surrogate," said Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George
Washington University, who has written about the lawsuit. "It is
axiomatic that the government cannot do indirectly what it is
prohibited from doing directly. If government officials are
directing or facilitating such censorship, it raises serious First
During the 2020 election, the Department of Homeland Security, in an
email to an official at Twitter, forwarded information about a
potential threat to critical U.S. infrastructure, citing FBI
warnings, in this case about an account that could imperil election
The Twitter user in question had 56 followers, along with a bio that
read "dm us your weed store locations (hoes be mad, but this is a
parody account)," under a banner image of Blucifer, the 32-foot-tall
demonic horse sculpture featured at the entrance of the Denver
"We are not sure if there's any action that can be taken, but we
wanted to flag them for consideration," wrote a state official on the
email thread, forwarding on other examples of accounts that could be
confused with official government entities. The Twitter
representative responded: "We will escalate. Thank you."
Each email in the chain carried a disclaimer that the agency "neither
has nor seeks the ability to remove or edit what information is made available on social media platforms."
That tagline, however, concerns free speech advocates, who note that
the agency is attempting to make an end run around the First
Amendment by exerting continual pressure on private sector social
media firms. "When the government suggests things, it's not too hard
to pull off the velvet glove, and you get the mail fist," said Adam
Candeub, a professor of law at Michigan State University. "And I
would consider such actions, especially when it's bureaucratized, as essentially state action and government collusion with the platforms."
"If a foreign authoritarian government sent these messages," noted
Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties
Union, "there is no doubt we would call it censorship."
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