Dean Jackson: Disinformation Field is ‘Industry’ of ‘Intelligence Analysts’

In a recently published report from the Center for Democracy and Technology entitled “Seismic Shifts: How Economic, Technological, and Political Trends are Challenging Independent Counter-Election-Disinformation Initiatives in the United States,” the censorship industry identified growing threats to itself, including increased public scrutiny, pressure from lawsuits, and Silicon Valley’s growing skepticism of censorship. Dean Jackson, a co-author of the report, discussed these challenges on Arbiters of Truth, a series of the Brookings Institution-affiliated Lawfare podcast.

Like many in the “disinformation” field, Jackson is no ordinary researcher, having spent nearly his entire professional life working for U.S. government cut-outs. He began his career at the Atlantic Council, before taking a job with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 2013, where he remained for over eight years.

Created by the U.S. congress in the 1980s, NED has played a leading role in toppling foreign governments; in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and in Latin America. The New York Times described NED’s role as “influencing domestic politics abroad” and “do[ing] n the open what the Central Intelligence Agency has done surreptitiously for decades.”

The Censorship Industry 

In his appearance on Arbiters of Truth, Jackson highlighted a new challenge: online censorship had been rolled back from its peak in 2020-22, which it reached after developing into an “industry” following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The Foundation for Freedom Online has long described the network of disinformation researchers, private censorship services, Big Tech “trust and safety” officials, and various government-linked entities dedicated to suppressing online speech as an “industry,” but it is comparatively rare to hear a disinformation researcher admit to the same in such blunt terms.

Yet Jackson does so:

And in the aftershock of that election in 2017, you suddenly have an entire sort of industry of open source intelligence analysts emerge. Some of them then go to work for platforms directly. Some found their own research groups, some are based in universities, some work in the private sector, some [in] the nonprofits…they’re all hunting for, you know, online disinformation campaigns, troll farms, other forms of digital propaganda. And that process leads to both a lot of policy change. You see the U.S. government take this much more seriously. It, I think, sort of jump-starts a larger conversation about social media platform accountability. And it also leads platforms to develop a great deal of their own policies around trust and safety going into 2020.

As Jackson explains, the censorship industry reached maturity during the 2020 and 2022 elections.

At the beginning, the thought was really that there had been a lot of innovative efforts in the 2020 election and then in the 2022 midterms to really respond to the issue of election information in the United States, to track it, to build relationships and partnerships between civil society, academia, government, and social media companies to improve responses to it.

As a result of the mounting pressures, Jackson said, the censorship industry is now regressing to what it looked like during its onset in 2016, when online censors were not able to prevent the domination of alternative media on social media platforms.

Foreign to Domestic Switcharoo

As well as admitting that in response to Donald Trump’s election, online censorship became an “industry” made up of intelligence professionals, Jackson also made another admission: that domestic American speech is the main target of the censorship industry, not Russians. Other top members of the censorship industry, including Election Integrity Partnership Alex Stamos, have made similar comments in the past.

Jackson went further, admitting that the “Russian disinformation” narrative was useful because foreign speech is not protected by the First Amendment, which in turn made government agencies more comfortable building a censorship apparatus to confront it.

“[t]he reason the federal government was willing and able to get involved in this space at all even before Missouri V. Biden was because it dealt with foreign actors who don’t have the First amendment free speech protections that American citizens do.”

As Jackson suggests soon after, the real target of this apparatus is domestic American speech, which was, according to him, the real problem all along:

“There’s this old saying which I think has never really been true, which is that politics stops at the water’s edge. It is too simple to say that the 2016 election and the Russian influence operations around that election were something Russia did to the United States. Most of the narratives that Russia used were pre-existing narratives in US politics. I think you could have found very similar content on any number of conservative websites, and the rise of hyper-partisan online media in that period and in the years since has done a tremendous amount of damage to US democracy, and in many ways looks like – rhymes with, perhaps – the kinds of content you are seeing out of Russian campaigns… The foreign and the domestic are two sides of the same coin. It may be an American conceit that we can separate the two as neatly as we can. Politics, it turns out, doesn’t always stop at the water’s edge.

A New Strategy

Jackson’s openness about the nature of the censorship industry and its focus on suppressing domestic, not foreign speech, may be part of a new strategy. Facing aftershocks from the Twitter Files, ongoing lawsuits, and the congressional investigations, the censorship industry no longer has luxury of hiding its organizational structure, history, or the nature of its work. as Jackson explains on the podcast, openness and transparency can be a tactic to normalize censorship – to convince the public that a counter-disinformation machine overseeing elections is a necessity for American society. 

Jackson took his transparency-minded remarks further by suggesting that a process be put in place for the public to be able to read emails between the federal government and tech platforms, and said that he does not believe doing this will help to “diffuse the political allegations platforms are facing from the right anyways.” His comments suggest a desire to reveal what platforms and government agencies are doing before they get leaked, in an effort to normalize their activities to the American public. This seems to be another growing point of consensus in the censorship industry – Yoel Roth, one of Twitter’s top censors before Musk’s takeover, has been saying the same thing.