‘Trusted Messengers:’ Volunteer Censors Trained to Control Your Community’s Speech


  • Heading into 2024, the censorship industry wants to recruit “trusted messengers” in key demographics to take control of narratives, and monitor their communities for “misinformation,” logging their activity on databases controlled by censors.
  • The government’s top-down coordination of online censorship has receded due to pressure from congressional scrutiny and lawsuits. 
  • Censorship organizations have lost leverage in Silicon Valley, where attitudes towards suppressing speech and government interference have hardened. 

Capacity Building

During the 2020 election and in its immediate aftermath, the growth of the censorship industry could reliably be traced back to the U.S. federal government. The DHS-born Election Integrity Partnership infamously worked to throttle and remove speech en masse in 2020

Starting in 2020, the government began pouring taxpayer money into tech tools, university “disinformation research” labs, and the media literacy field’s leading organization, NewsGuard — all of which contributed to the rapid growth of the censorship industry’s capabilities. 

This is how the government and private funders capacity-built the censorship industry– by injecting the financial resources needed to develop the structure and tools to target oppositional American political speech and narratives online. 

Missouri V. Biden and congressional probes have limited the ability of the government to directly pressure tech companies to censor Americans, or do so by proxy through coordinating with private sector organizations. 

Because of this, the organizations that push online censorship are adopting a new strategy to entrench its influence: the recruitment and training of private individuals and civil society organizations, to build a critical mass that can survive without direct government support. 

FFO recently exposed how censors are recruiting individual citizens to act as spies and censors under the brand of “Civic Listening”, a term promoted by the congressionally chartered National Conference on Citizenship’s (NCoC) censorship project, the Algorithmic Transparency Institute (ATI). Since 2020, both NCoC and the ATI have been led by Cameron Hickey, who formerly monitored “disinformation” at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Since its congressional charter in 1953, the NCoC culminates in its signature event, the Annual Conference on Citizenship. This year, in line with the organization’s new focus on online censorship under Hickey, the conference culminated with a panel on “Understanding the Conversation Around the 2024 Elections.” The panel featured a range of well-known figures from the censorship industry, including NCoC board member Katie Harbath, and ex-CIA employee Renee DiResta. 

One of the speakers featured in this panel was Josue Romualdo, who leads the Defiende La Verdad campaign for the National Association of Elected Latino Officials (NALEO). FFO has previously reported how NALEO and other Latino-facing organizations are at the forefront of ATI’s “Civic Listening” campaigns to encourage Spanish-speakers to monitor public and private online speech for disinformation. 

These citizen spies use online tiplines to log “problematic” content in Junkipedia, ATI’s speech monitoring database that “centralize[s] the collection of problematic content” from all major platforms, including encrypted messenger apps like WhatsApp. 

In the video below, Romualdo describes his job as “capacity building” by recruiting volunteers for social media monitoring and teaching the Latino community how to spy on their community’s online messages. Recruiting people — everyday citizens to volunteer and report the speech of their peers — is the goal. 

“In my role, I do capacity building in the form of presentations and trainings directly for community members. So educating them on misinformation and disinformation is in both English and Spanish. We also run our volunteer based social media monitoring program, where we identify, track, and then report on NCoC’s Algorithmic Transparency Institute tool, Junkipedia. That’s where we report and submit our incidents of misinformation and disinformation.” 


Trusted Messengers

Censorship industry leader Renee DiResta, who formerly “worked for the CIA,” described the importance of civil society organizations like NALEO. She noted that while civil society may not have direct access to content moderation levers at tech platforms, they have the ability to take control of narratives even when “the full facts aren’t even yet known” about a controversial political or social topic because they are the “trusted messenger” for their particular audience. 

“You have the counterspeech, you’re just providing more visibility into something where perhaps the full facts aren’t even yet known, but you can say in this moment, at this time, this is what we understand. And this is something that can happen from a more trusted messenger potentially. Civil society has the ability to speak to a particular audience that trusts a particular subset of the American public, not necessarily the entirety, but specific audiences.

“Civil Society” as described by DiResta and others in the censorship industry, refers to vast constellation of university centers, NGOs, activists, nonprofits, and foundations that comprise the “Civil Society” prong of the whole-of-society censorship industry.

Targeted group monitoring efforts is not a new concept for DiResta. The Election Integrity Partnership (later rebranded as the Virality Project) that she helped lead to censor the 2020 elections employed targeted group monitoring efforts to keep track of narratives at a community level, such as drawing comparisons between Biden and socialist regimes. 

Beyond Latino communities, any organization partnered with ATI receives resources to help control narratives and monitor the speech of their target audience through the ability to create tiplines:

Another important dimension to the censorship industry’s capacity-building effort is “media literacy” – training people to trust some media sources but not others. Anthony DeMattee, of the Carter Center, elaborated on this in his remarks on the NCoC panel, explaining the goal of influencing “behaviors at the individual level.” 

“I think we could go down the level of society and start talking to people, and helping them change their norms of behavior, right? We call this at the Carter Center “Media Literacy”, helping people just better understand how to navigate the information environment in which we find ourselves [through] lateral reading, understanding the political economy. This news source that we’re looking at, where do they get their money? Is this person an expert? Really kind of training people with those individual behaviors to help them navigate the information ecosystem on their own — behaviors at the individual level.

In 2021 Katie Harbath co-authored a report for the Carter Center, partnering with NewsGuard, to use their rankings to identify media outlets as “repeat offenders” of spreading false narratives around the 2020 elections

NewsGuard’s founders, both alumni of the establishment media, openly state that their goal is to create whitelists and blacklists of media companies, and “wrestle to the ground” any trending stories that don’t meet their approval. Funded by the Pentagon, their influence is spreading into U.S. classrooms through a deal with the nation’s largest teacher’s union

During the NCoC panel discussion, Katie Harbath reflected on the Missouri V. Biden case, lamenting its “chilling effect” on the censorship industry. The NALEO representative responded by calling for more volunteer censors and grassroots activities. 

“Partner or volunteer with these civic organizations that are actively working to counter MDM. Some organizations in the room have their own volunteer based social media monitoring program, we have one too. Those are probably going to be popping up more next year.

“Bring some of this knowledge to your constituents, have these trainings. We are partnering very soon, for a webinar, with the National Association of Hispanic County officials, and we will be bringing this webinar to some of their members. Because these elected leaders are seen as trusted messengers, we need to boost that morale a little bit more and boost that trust. Going back to what [Anthony DeMattee] was mentioning, the media literacy. If you are part of a civic organization, share those media literacy tools within your organizations and coalitions.” 

“These are like the tools and resources that community members need for when you are addressing or trying to digest misinformation and disinformation”

Romualdo also outlined an ambitious challenge: persuading target communities to believe the trained “trusted messengers” of the censorship industry over friends and family members, framing familial trust in the Latino community as an “obstacle” to the goals of the censorship industry. 

“I’ve asked my attendees, what comes to mind when you hear misinformation and disinformation? And oftentimes it’s just false information that my grandma shared, that she heard from her friend, from her friend, and her friend’s cat, and the uncle” – it’s just one of those, we’re playing telephone with misinformation. And I think it’s very difficult to try to tell them, those are not your trusted messengers. Look to us, civic organizations, as your trusted messengers. And there’s an obstacle because they’re familiar with that individual, that trusted messenger.” 

Aside from ATI’s Junkipedia, government-funded Meedan is looking to similarly recruit “trusted community organizations” focusing on non-English populations and immigrant communities in their effort to influence political discourse around the 2024 elections. Similarly to ATI, they operate a tip line mechanism that allows for online speech including text messages to be reported. 

From Meedan’s website (archived):

“Meedan is forming a coalition of news outlets, fact-checkers, independent media, tech platforms, and civil society groups to tackle online mis/disinformation and deceptive content in the lead up to, during and after the U.S. 2024 election.

The state of American elections is currently in turmoil, with looming concerns for the upcoming 2024 elections. Coordinated disinformation, harassment targeting minority groups and the proliferation of misinformation in languages other than English are growing concerns. Compounding these problems, major platforms have significantly reduced funding for media organizations, and the influence of large language models on public opinion and voting behavior is becoming increasingly evident. 

Through its program, the coalition aims to exchange information with the country’s most overlooked voters by connecting journalists and fact-checkers with trusted community organizations situated within news deserts, non-English populations and immigrant communities across the country. 

The coalition will focus on combating political mis/disinformation on social media platforms like Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, Messenger and Viber. Messaging apps, which serve millions of Americans, have been shown to act as major vectors for the spread of misinformation and harmful content that causes real-world impact during elections.” 

The implications are significant: a vast network of civil society organizations is being assembled for speech monitoring, hyper-targeted at specific demographics, with each organization aiming to command influence over specific communities and control narratives spreading within them. The purpose of platforms like Junkipedia and Meedan is to centralize these efforts in one coalition. This is a whole-of- society effort to control narratives that may make the EIP look small in comparison. 

This is why organizations that wish to access Junkipedia are vetted by ATI before being allowed in. It is not an open platform – the vetting procedure ensures that all organizations in the coalition are aligned to the same mission. 

This bottom-up capacity-building mission of the censorship industry may be more challenging to track in comparison to the government-led trickle-down effort we have seen before. While the curtain on sources of government funding and commandeering has largely been pulled back and exposed, civil society organizations, many of which once were dedicated to non-partisan missions like promoting American patriotism and citizenship, have been converted into speech-monitoring vectors for the censorship industry.