State Department's fight against disinformation comes under attack


A Republican-led campaign against researchers who study online disinformation has targeted the most prominent U.S. government agency dedicated to countering propaganda and other information operations by terrorists and hostile nations.

The agency, the State Department's Global Engagement Center, faces a torrent of accusations in court and in Congress that it has helped social media giants (including Facebook, YouTube and X) censor Americans on violation of the First Amendment.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and two conservative digital news outlets last week became the latest plaintiffs to sue the department and its top officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The lawsuit said the center's work was “one of the most egregious government operations to censor the American press in the nation's history.”

The center faces a more existential threat in Congress. House Republicans this month blocked a proposal to reauthorize the center, which began in 2011 to counter propaganda from terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The center, a small agency with a regular staff of 125 people, many of them contractors, and a budget of $61 million, coordinates government-wide efforts to track and expose propaganda and disinformation from Russia, China and other adversaries. With its term set to expire at the end of next year, the center now operates under a pall of uncertainty, even though its supporters say there is no evidence to support the charges against it.

If Republicans hold firm, as a core bloc in the House seems determined to do, the center would dissolve. in the midst of two major regional wars and a wave of elections in 2024, including the US presidential campaign.

James P. Rubin, the center's coordinator since earlier this year, disputed accusations that his organization censored Americans' comments online. The center's legal mandate, he said, was to “focus on how foreign adversaries, primarily China and Russia, use information operations and malign interference to manipulate world opinion.”

“What we don't do is examine or analyze the information space in the United States,” he said.

The fate of the center has been entangled in a much broader political and legal campaign on free speech and misinformation that has gained enough traction to reach the Supreme Court.

A lawsuit filed last year by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana accused numerous government agencies of cajoling or coercing social media platforms to remove content that spread what officials called false or misleading information about the Covid pandemic. 19, the 2020 presidential elections and other issues.

a federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in July, temporarily prohibiting government officials from communicating with company officials except on matters of law enforcement or national security. A court of appeals largely confirmed the ruling in September, but limited its scope, excluding several agencies from the lower court's injunction against contacts, including the Global Engagement Center.

“There is no indication that State Department officials flagged specific content for censorship, suggested policy changes on the platforms, or engaged in similar actions that would reasonably place their conduct within the scope of First Amendment prohibitions,” a panel wrote. of three judges for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

The Supreme Court is expected to weigh in next spring on the Missouri case, a decision that could have big ramifications for government and free speech in the Internet age. The campaign against researchers who study the spread of disinformation has already had a paralyzing effect on universities, think tanks and private companieswho have been suffocated by subpoenas and legal fees.

The efforts have been boosted by the disclosure of communications between government officials and social media companies. Elon Musk, who posted a selection of messages after purchasing Twitter, since renamed X, called the Global Engagement Center “the worst offender in the US government's media censorship and manipulation.”

“They are a threat to democracy” wrote Musk, who has reinstated numerous accounts that Twitter had suspended for violating the platform's guidelines on misinformation, hate speech and other content. (Over the weekend, he allowed the return of alex jonesa far-right conspiracy theorist who spent years falsely claiming that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax).

The Global Engagement Center has faced criticism before, not for censorship, but for having little effect at a time when global propaganda and misinformation have become more pernicious than ever with the rise of social media.

TO report Last year, the State Department's inspector general said the center suffered from a sclerotic bureaucracy that limited its ability to manage contractors and failed to create a strategic planning process that could measure its effectiveness. The department accepted the findings and promised to address them, according to the report.

Rubin, who was appointed late last year, has sought to reinforce the center's core mission: challenging disinformation from foreign adversaries seeking to undermine American democracy and influence around the world.

In September, the center published a comprehensive report which accused the Chinese Communist Party of using “deceptive and coercive methods” to try to control the global information environment. A month later he published two reports on Russia's covert influence efforts in South America, including one intended to preempt an operation before it took off.

The center has had regular interactions with social media companies, but, the appeals court ruled, there is no evidence that its officials coerced or otherwise influenced the platforms. Federal regulations prohibit any agency from conducting propaganda in your country.

“We are not in the business of deciding what is true or not,” Rubin said, adding that the center's role was to identify “the hidden hand” of foreign propaganda.

However, since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, the Global Engagement Center has faced numerous subpoenas from a subcommittee investigating the “militarization of government,” as well as depositions in lawsuits and records requests under the Act. of Freedom of Information. .

In public hearings, House Republicans have repeatedly threatened not to renew the center's expiring mandate and have grilled department officials about Americans whose accounts have been suspended. “Your responsibility is to change my mind,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., told Daniel Kimmage, the center's senior deputy coordinator, at a hearing in October.

Democrats in both houses of Congress and Republicans in the Senate reached a deal to extend the center's mandate as part of the defense authorization bill. one of the few laws that could be approved this year – but House Republicans managed to remove the provision from the broader legislation.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week in Texas argued that the department had in fact circumvented its legal limitations by awarding grants to organizations that routinely identify sources of misinformation in public reports and private interactions with social media platforms. The organizations include the Global Misinformation Index, a London-based nonprofit; and NewsGuard, a New York company.

The two news organizations that joined Texas in filing the lawsuit, The Federalist and The Daily Wire, were listed on the Global Misinformation Index in a December 2022 report. report as high risk of publishing disinformation. (The New York Times was among those classified as minimal risk. The Times website, according to the report, “was not always free of bias, but generally avoided attacking conflicting language and narratives.”)

The center's grant to the group ($100,000 in total) went toward a project focused on misinformation in Southeast Asia. But the lawsuit claimed that their support harmed the media “by depriving them of advertising revenue and reducing the circulation of their reports and speeches, all as a direct result of the defendants' illegal censorship scheme.”

Josh Herr, general counsel for The Daily Wire, said the outlet may never know “the full extent of the lost business.”

“But this lawsuit is not about quantifying those losses,” he said. “We are not seeking damages. “What we seek is to protect our rights and the rights of all publishers under the First Amendment.”

Nina Jankowicz, a researcher who briefly served as head of a disinformation advisory board at the Department of Homeland Security last year. The controversy sank his appointment and the board itself.He said the argument that the State Department was responsible for the impact of research it did not fund was absurd.

Ms Jankowicz said the campaign to present efforts to combat disinformation as a form of censorship had proven politically effective even when evidence did not support the claims.

“I think any American, when they hear, 'Oh, the administration, the White House, is preparing something to censor Americans, even if that doesn't have the slightest bit of evidence behind it, their ears are going to perk up,” he said. . “And it's really hard to refute all that.”

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