REPORT

Department Of Homeland Censorship’: How DHS Seized Power Over Online Speech

Mike Benz
Summary
  • A little-known DHS agency assigned to protect cybersecurity has covertly switched its mission to cybercensorship.
  • DHS pulled off a 'foreign-to-domestic switcheroo' by working with tech companies first to censor 'foreign, inauthentic, coordinated' social media activity (i.e., 'Russian interference') and then switching in summer 2020 to censoring 'domestic, authentic, organic social media activity (i.e., all American citizens accused of spreading 'misinformation').
  • DHS invokes a 'whole of society' approach to censorship, meaning every institution in society is pressured to censor the same topics.

Over the next several months, FFO will be releasing a series of revelations about domestic censorship operations being run out of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We have spent the past 16 weeks mapping virtually every element of DHS partnerships and operations connected to Internet censorship, and our findings tally to a government scandal so bizarre, and so disturbing, that its full story can only be told through an ongoing series.

As a preview, in the clip below ( source), you can watch a taxpayer-funded DHS video, instructing children to report their own family members to Facebook for “disinformation” if they challenge US government narratives on Covid-19:

Below, you can sit stage-side at a taxpayer-funded DHS “disinformation” event, featuring a DHS keynote speaker in charge of a formal DHS “disinformation” partnership. The speaker will explain how, for months ahead of the 2020 US Presidential election, her academia-NGO group worked closely with DHS to squash social media narratives that were in the process of “going viral” to stop them from influencing “mainstream” opinions about the election.

As this speaker describes, her group reported 639 social media posts directly to DHS’s “cyber mission control”, giving them privileged access to social media censorship teams via a special relationship with senior DHS officials. 72% of those 639 posts were reported to DHS, and then on to Big Tech censors, because targeted citizens were “ casting doubt on the integrity of the election outcome”, via criticism of things like the viability of drop boxes and mail-in ballots.

DHS coordinated censorship at both ends, connecting the social media monitors who reported posts to the social media platforms who banned those posts. The US government, in effect, censored the ability to “cast doubt” on the US government. It simply did so using a cut-out –– whose partners, incidentally, all received millions of dollars in funding from the US government

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As you watch the clip below (from the same DHS “disinformation” partner, whose full presentation has a laudatory introductory by DHS’s own 2020 election cyber director), remember this group was outsourced as an official partner of the US government for the 2020 election to censor US citizens who simply voiced opinions online:

The DHS “disinformation” partner from the videos above is coming back (“with improvements”) for the 2022 and 2024 elections. But it is far from alone. Indeed, since 2019, DHS (and certain aligned federal agencies) have been quietly backing a veritable army of private censorship specialists to hunt down the words of political opponents in order to neutralize digital speech before it can make political impact.

And DHS will have no reason to discontinue its newfound censorship powers until regulators and policymakers take notice:

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In all of the videos above, you may have noticed DHS had a very strange basis for being involved in the first place: it claimed to be protecting “cybersecurity”.

You may be wondering what on earth “cybersecurity” has to do with US citizens’ social media posts about face masks, vaccine efficacy, Covid-19 origins and statistics, or the use of early voting dropboxes and mail-in ballots.

You may be wondering how some little-known DHS agency called CISA (“Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency”), citing “cybersecurity”, got a permanent US government perch to pressure tech companies, and recruit universities, NGOs and media outlets, to remove social media opinions about masks, vaccines, Covid-19, dropboxes or mail-in ballots.

CISA is mostly run by ex-CIA, ex-NSA, ex-FBI, ex-military, and ex-private sector hacker professionals. What on earth are military and intelligence heavyweights doing in charge of social media censorship of “narratives” for purely US domestic political and cultural affairs?

We’ll get to that.

But for purpose of this primer, we begin as background by highlighting that DHS’s “cybersecurity” mandate turned into a “cybercensorship” mandate, with virtually no one in the public being made aware.

How did that happen? At one level, it happened through sheer definitional sleight of hand: in 2017, “cybersecurity” was redefined, effectively, to mean “cyber defense of democracy”; in 2018, “disinformation” was defined, effectively, as a “threat to democracy”; and so by 2019, DHS could cite “cybersecurity” as encompassing “cyber defense against digital disinformation”, requiring varying techniques of digital censorship to stop the digital disinformation.

That’s basically how DHS acquired long-arm jurisdiction over anything alleged to be false on the Internet.

How has DHS gotten away with it? How did people let this happen?

The short answer is that in late 2019, DHS pulled off what we one may call its “foreign-to-domestic ‘disinformation’ switcheroo”

In the video below, you will see key figures in DHS’s thought leadership, first declaring their dominion to be only “foreign disinformation” in 2016-2017, then a massive power grab to all of “domestic disinformation” in 2019-2020:

This supercut above is troubling enough on moral and ethical grounds. But it is even more disturbing on legislative and regulatory grounds.

The original legal predicate for a social media censorship operation to be run out of DHS grew out of the 2017 RussiaGate probe alleging “foreign interference” in US democratic processes. The censorship weapon against “disinformation” was supposed to be pointed outward, not inward.

But then, after Robert Mueller’s disastrous performance at the July 2019 Congressional hearing ended the Special Prosecutor’s Russia probe, DHS quietly – but in lockstep unison – switched to a justification that “domestic disinformation” was now a greater “threat to democracy” than falsehoods flowing from foreign interference.

And DHS’s new position, via CISA, went completely unnoticed, and therefore entirely unchallenged, by the Trump Administration. A tiny glimpse of the iceberg’s tip happened to be noticed at the last minute during the Trump-Biden transition period. But it wouldn’t matter. In January 2021, mere days into the start of the Biden Administration, the “foreign-to-domestic” switcheroo was made permanent and official: DHS’s “Countering Foreign Influence Task Force” was quietly renamed to the generic, all-encompassing “ Mis-, Dis- and Malinformation” team.

So poof – just like that – since 2019, uninterrupted, DHS has been quietly running a US domestic “Ministry Of Truth” from within the US federal government.

Why haven’t you heard any of this before?

In part, because DHS’s internal “disinformation” activities are so often obscured by a thick web of jargon and misnomers. For example, we noted DHS’s misuse of the term “cybersecurity”, but other circumlocutions include “building resilience”, “cognitive security”, “content moderation”, and “media literacy”.

All of these mean the same thing: social media censorship. And when the government is behind it, it is government censorship.

But perhaps the main reason DHS’s Ministry Of Truth has evaded public attention for so long is that it acts like a coordinator of a censorship network, rather an implementer of specific censorship acts. By this method, the role of highly visible private sector actors flagging posts on one side and carrying censoring flagged posts on the other — all seemingly on their own — is salient, while the coordinating role of the US government is obscured.

This is similar to the CIA and Pentagon technique of using private military contractors like Blackwater to “outsource” wars overseas ( the dirty work, in particular). But DHS is using this method, in broad daylight, to “outsource” social media censorship at home. And somehow, all of this has evaded Congressional inquiry.

The broad network of society-wide institutions that DHS coordinates for collective action on Internet censorship comprises four categories. Collectively, they are referred to as representing a “whole-of-society” mobilization:

Government partners;

Private sector companies (tech platforms and social media companies);

Civil society groups (academia, NGOs and think tanks); and

Media (news organizations, and influential media voices and journalists).

DHS censorship specialists have a common dogma that they dutifully repeat at DHS cyber events: “disinformation is a whole-of-society problem, and it requires a whole-of-society response.”

Understand the trick being pulled here: By mandating “disinformation” a “whole-of-society” problem, the US government makes Internet censorship, effectively, the mandatory “whole-of-society” response.

For example, to create a “whole-of-society” consensus on the censorship of political opinions online that were “casting doubt” ahead of the 2020 election, DHS organized “disinformation” conferences to bring together tech companies, civil society groups, and news media to all build consensus – with DHS prodding (which is meaningful: many partners receive government funds through grants or contracts, or fear government regulatory or retaliatory threats) – on expanding social media censorship policies.

What “whole-of-society” means is the US government pressuring the whole of your society — your tech platforms, your employers, your schools and universities, your charities, your newspapers, your search engines, your phone apps, and we will see, even your video games — to all get on board the same desired “whole-of-society” censorship response.

That means every institution marching in lockstep supporting the same Internet censorship actions, the same “disinformation” best practices, and staying current on the latest “whole-of-society” consensus around banned words, phrases, narratives, theories, insults, jokes, hashtags and memes.

Non-conformists to the latest censorship mobilization risk falling out of the federal government’s favor, with all the concomitant consequences.

We will see, for example, how DHS and influential members of the Senate Intelligence Committee put pressure on Mark Zuckerberg to vastly expand Facebook’s censorship of populist groups and political narratives ahead of the 2020 US Presidential election, to match “whole of society” best practices — or else face whole-of-society consequences.

A Note On The Disinformation Governance Board

So the DHS Ministry Of Truth was technically birthed on January 6, 2017 (the “other” January 6, so to speak); it became institutionalized within the federal government in November 2018; and then was truly sicced on US citizens beginning in 2019. It did not start in April 2022, when the world suddenly got a fleeting glimpse of DHS speech-policing schemes when the now-defunct Disinformation Governance Board was announced.

As this series will show, the Disinformation Governance Board was not the DHS’s “Ministry Of Truth”. The problem at DHS is much, much worse. The Disinformation Governance Board was just a coordinating body for the still-present and still-growing “Ministry Of Truth” run out of DHS and its flotilla of federal censorship partners, private sector censorship partners, civil society censorship partners, and media partners.

To simplify:

Since 2019, DHS’s “disinformation” network has bloated into by so many Ministry Of Truth functionaries, it has expanded into so many Ministry Of Truth topic areas, it has so many stacks of overlapping and conflicting Ministry Of Truth guidances, and so many outsourced mercenary groups needing attention, that by 2022, it needed a new dull, mundane, bureaucratic layer to keep all of its Official Truths straight, keep its Official Punishments for Speaking Non-Truths current, and to streamline truth-policing with a single point of office contact for its private sector and civil society partners.

Again, the demise of the Disinformation Governance Board did not – repeat, did not – defeat the DHS Ministry Of Truth. We have only made it angry, surprised, and mildly inconvenienced at being forced to keep its clunky inefficiencies.

Nothing about the Disinformation Governance Board termination has changed DHS’s ongoing domestic censorship operations, or future far-past-Orwellian ambitions, which we will elucidate over the course of this series.

This series will also highlight the network map of influential figures and institutions who pushed for DHS to take on a domestic social media censorship role in the first place.

For example, the network who first began lobbying for a DHS Ministry Of Truth role first had wanted to install the domestic social media censorship bureau at the State Department, but decided they couldn’t overcome the legal prohibition on domestic operations. They considered installing the domestic social media censorship bureau directly inside an intelligence agency, but decided the public would be too outraged, and it would be too challenging to cover so many large and discrete domestic institutions under a common cloak of clandestine secrecy. They considered installing a domestic social media censorship bureau inside the FBI, but were frustrated that FBI operations require a law enforcement basis, and technically it’s not illegal in the US to post generic opinions or spread narratives online.

DHS – freed from all the above constraints — was thus fit for purpose. This series will provide videos of those early-day deliberations and panel discussions, as well as white papers during the time when censorship advocates were building institutional consensus for the system we now have:‘image'

In parallel with our DHS timeline, this series will also unfold the little-known inside story of how mass social media censorship was conceived of and then incrementally rolled out to the US Internet in the first place.

We believe it is important to cover this much larger story in due course because the same cast of characters who cameo in our DHS timeline played starring roles in the origin story of American Internet censorship more broadly—- when plans first began to get drawn up in 2017 at the institutional level in the US and at the transatlantic regulatory level in Europe.

This series is intended to educate citizens and policymakers about digital free speech issues and the proper role of government – not to be ideologically partisan on any substantive issue. To some extent, in the words of Melville, “ the Universal Thump is passed ‘round.” DHS goes after the digital speech of a wide array of targets.

As one example, DHS’s “Disinformation Kill Chain” guidance menaces about “threat actors” who seek to “change a population’s opinion” about “war in Syria” and “Hong Kong protesters” — this is a swipe at left-wing anti-war activists, who have long voiced opposition to DC’s traditional foreign policy consensus on these sensitive topics:

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Nevertheless, DHS’s most gratuitously abused target for political and cultural censorship over the past four years have been narratives, members and movements associated with the post-2016 populist “right” – both in the US and internationally — so such examples inevitably feature most prominently in this series.

For example, even in the DHS’s “Disinformation Kill Chain” analysis, DHS identifies “right wing” “threat actors” as part of its Disinformation Kill Chain because right-wing Twitter users sought to “advance a narrative” to commercially boycott Nike, including through the use of satirical Colin Kaepernick memes:

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But we will cover far more disturbing revelations over the course of this series. We will try to include the comedy as well, with the hope that a mobilized public can unite in a common agreement that a Ministry Of Truth has no place in an American government.

It is FFO’s expectation that, by series end, we will have provided the basis for a full-scale bipartisan Congressional committee armed with subpoena power to secure public accountability and a permanent end to the stunning and expansive role that this DHS network has played in coordinating mass censorship of the Internet.

If the First Amendment is to survive in America, the first place its protectors would be wise to mount its defense is in dismantling the domestic censorship industry being financed and directed by the US government. This series will take you on a journey to explain why.

Click here for Part 2.

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Michael Benz is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Freedom Online. Previously, Mr. Benz served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Communications and Information Technology at the U.S. Department of State. Follow him on Twitter @FFO_Freedom.