The Censorship Industry’s 2024 Election Censorship Blueprint

Facing a loss of political support in Congress and a drop in compliance from Silicon Valley, censorship industry insiders have devised a new 108-page comprehensive blueprint to reinstate 2020-style election censorship ahead of 2024: work with the European Union to force US platforms to hire a new army of censors, and leverage state governments to put pressure on platforms directly.

The September 2023 report, titled Seismic Shifts: How Economic, Technological, and Political Trends are Challenging Independent Counter-Election-Disinformation Initiatives in the United States, was a project by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) surveying the speech control battle plans of the leading lights of censorship thought leadership to take their pulse on how assert control over social media speech for the 2024 election cycle.

Such censorship thought leaders surveyed for the report included:

The top concern of these government-linked censors, as surveyed by CDT, was that the censorship industry currently faces three major problems: lawsuits, congressional investigations, and cooling attitudes in Silicon Valley epitomized by Elon Musk.

In an online panel discussing the report, co- author Dean Jackson laid out these concerns:

Many of the researchers we spoke with with feared that between Musk’s release of the Twitter files hearings in the House of Representatives and ongoing court cases, that the atmosphere around their work might become unsustainably toxic, which would jeopardize their relationships between government, researchers and platforms even further. In July, these fears were made manifest by an injunction in the case of Missouri v Biden, which barred the government from interfacing with platforms or independent researchers around content moderation…Despite the injunctions reversal, many people fear that the rising political risk around this work will scare institutions like government agencies, foundations, and universities away from supporting the important work of protecting US elections from disinformation.

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, the 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.”

In his remarks, Jackson also identified a widely held belief, also voiced by X’s former top censor Yoel Roth, that Silicon Valley has cooled on the idea of censorship, cutting back on content moderation and “election integrity” staff, and winding down election censorship policies.

The chief cause of this, according to Jackson, is Elon Musk:

Policy changes at platforms since 2020 have also frustrated relationships between them and counter disinformation professionals. Since the midterm elections Meta, YouTube, and the platform firmly known as Twitter, have all walked back policies against denying the results of the 2020 elections. And meanwhile, those same denials are fueling a wave of voter suppression and election administration changes that are jeopardizing future contests across the country. Since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, that company’s been at the forefront of these trends. Its cuts and reversals are often later imitated by other companies. 

The report conveys the same message, highlighting the staffing cuts at X, which the report still refers to as Twitter.

But the problem is especially acute at Twitter. Just over a week after finalizing his acquisition, Musk laid off 3,700 employees—half of Twitter’s entire staff. Fifteen percent of the Trust & Safety team was cut, and other teams—including one focused on human rights and global conflict—were eliminated entirely. Coming days before the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, critics alleged the layoffs were reckless and haphazard. They had immediate consequences as staff were locked out of content moderation tools, external partners were unable to contact relevant personnel, and accounts began testing the waters of “new Twitter.”

The Censorship Industry’s Game Plan 

The panel was not all doom and gloom. Several paths forward for the censorship industry were identified by the speakers. To renew pressure on Silicon Valley to implement levels of censorship comparable to 2020, panelist Rebekah Tromble identified a major power that could be relied on to force tech platforms to act: the European Union.

Tromble did not understate the importance of the EU and its mammoth new internet regulation bill, the Digital Services Act, characterizing it as the number one hope of the censorship industry to claw back its lost influence in Silicon Valley.

If it weren’t for Europe right now, I think that I would feel pretty defeated and despondent in this moment. It has certainly become much, much more difficult for outside researchers to do the sorts of the options that you list, Samir, to actually engage directly with people at the platforms because there are simply fewer of them. We spent literally years building up relationships with good folks at all of these platforms who were trying to do the right thing and for the most part they’re gone, right? It’s really, really difficult to know who to reach out to, who work with. If it weren’t for the European Union and the Digital Services Act, I don’t know that we’d have much hope of rectifying that situation at all… I do think that we still have some options for leverage to continue the work that we’ve been doing and hopefully ultimately that leads to a sort of re-staffing of some of these positions. Increased focus again, as the DSA begins to come into force and the platforms feel the real pressure of actual enforcement action.

Similar thoughts have been expressed by Election Integrity Partnership founder Alex Stamos. In an interview shortly after Musk’s takeover of X, Stamos noted that Musk has a Tesla factory in Berlin, “the headquarters of European content moderation.” Stamos’ interviewer added that meetings between Musk and EU officials looked like a “hostage video.”

The text of the CDT report reveals that EU regulations are already being used by censorship industry allies within tech companies, as a justification to retain or increase their budgets:

Not every integrity worker is so pessimistic, though all admit that the field faces difficulty. One Meta staffer noted that their team had largely weathered staff cuts by pointing to new regulations—for example, the Digital Services Act in the European Union—and using them to justify their budgets. Integrity teams both provide transparency reports required by the Act and respond to the harms it seeks to reduce. In their words, “the threat of regulation justifies the work.”

Just as Tromble hoped, tech companies have begun to feel the pressure of European regulation. This week, the EU opened its first ever set of formal proceedings under the Digital Services Act, against Elon Musk’s X. This followed months of saber-rattling by EU officials against Musk for not sufficiently censoring is platform. FFO executive director Mike Benz calls this the “Transatlantic Flank Attack” strategy, in which US State Department partners work with European counterparts, who are unconstrained by the First Amendment, to advance censorship on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like many in the industry, Tromble’s censorship advocacy is taxpayer funded. Her disinformation lab, the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University, received a massive $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2022 to study “misinformation harassment campaigns” on social media. As FFO has documented in previous articles, the NSF is a government body that stands at the forefront of funding censorship initiatives, in particular via its “Track F” program — which is how Tromble’s institute received its funding.

Jackson highlighted another potential source of official pressure against the tech platforms: state governments.

Looking down the line, another of these areas might be advocacy to state governments. California is blazing head on tech regulation. Similar reforms could be pursued in key swing states. Just because there’s gridlock at the federal level doesn’t mean there’s no possibility for movement anywhere.

As with the EU’s actions against X, the blueprint outlined on the panel is playing out in real time. A California law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October requires all schools in the state to teach “media literacy classes,” or, as USA Today described it, classes on “recognizing fake news.” The law will likely be good news for censorship services like NewsGuard, which already advertises its blacklist of disfavored news sites as a “media literacy” tool.

The CDT report and the statements by Jackson and his co-panelists reveal important setbacks for the censorship industry, driven by lawsuits, congressional investigations, and changing attitudes in Silicon Valley. They also reveal what the censorship industry believes to be the path forward: an increased reliance on state and foreign governments, in particular the European Union, to get what they want from Big Tech.