- The National Institute for Justice (NIJ), the Department of Justice’s research and development agency, is funding ‘mis-, dis-, and mal- information’ (MDM) studies and “research on effective technologies and tools for identification, moderation, and/or removal of extremist content.”
- A $1 million NIJ grant will be used to create a dashboard equipped with an ‘MDM tracker’ to actively monitor the spread of online speech and narratives surrounding contentious political events in real time.
- Nearly $500,000 was awarded to incorporate an existing data project that was previously used to attribute White Christian faith communities with disseminating ‘misinformation’ about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine that originated with Donald Trump.
American taxpayers are paying for the same industry that works to monitor, suppress, and silence them online through a Department of Justice funding program that purports to target domestic extremism, but in fact catches ordinary conservatives and religious groups in its net.
The funding program, which recently paid out nearly $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars for censorship related grants, is the Research on Domestic Radicalization and Violent Extremism portfolio, which is managed by the National Institutes for Justice (NIJ), the scientific research, evaluation, and development agency of the DOJ.
Started in 2012, the program originally funded research exploring domestic radicalization in the context of foreign terrorist organizations. Projects funded through the program included one aimed to better understand Al-Qaeda inspired extremism and another that researched violent radicalization amongst Somali refugees.
After the Biden administration took office, the program shifted focus to begin soliciting grant applications for research that tackled “the radicalization of Americans to white nationalist extremism.” In 2022, the NIJ squarely stated that, going forward, the focus of the program would be supporting projects “that explore the radicalization of Americans to white nationalist extremism and identify and advance evidence-based strategies for effective intervention and prevention.”
“Radicalization” and “white nationalist extremism” have been used in recent years by the government and the media to target former President Donald Trump, his supporters, and those with populist political viewpoints. For example, FFO previously revealed that the DHS Office of Terrorist and Violence Prevention was constructing a program that targeted “suburban moms” with “pro-life beliefs” and “old high school friends” who “believe in conspiracies” as “radicalization suspects.”
In his June 2021 Domestic Terrorism Policy Address, Attorney General Merrick Garland declared, “in the FBI’s view, the top domestic violent extremist threat comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the white race.” Whistleblowers have come forward since to the House Judiciary Committee, alleging that the FBI has been misleadingly categorizing incidents as Domestic Violent Extremism (DVE) in order to pad data to fit the political narratives of the Biden administration.
Amidst the federal government’s evolving approach on domestic extremism and radicalization, the latest round of the NIJ-managed program, aimed at funding research in these areas, invited grant applications for “effective technologies and tools for identification, moderation, and/or removal of extremist content.” This means that the DOJ is officially seeking projects that enhance capabilities to flag, de-amplify, and remove certain domestic speech and narratives online. In addition to soliciting grant applications based on “white nationalist extremism,” they added “anti government extremism” as a focus in 2023.
FY22 Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization and Violent Extremism:
FY23 Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization and Violent Extremism:
Another area the DOJ funds is research on “malinformation.” Malinformation, even by the NIJ’s own definition displayed in their official solicitation document, is speech that is “based in reality,” or otherwise factually accurate speech that is deemed to be misleading. This means that even if what you’re saying is true, your X post or Instagram meme could still end up on a DOJ-funded database, flagged for censorship.
From the grant solicitation document:
“NIJ seeks applications for research that aims to better understand the dynamic role of communications and media platforms in radicalization to violent extremist ideologies. NIJ recognizes that extremists’ use of online platforms can be a vital mechanism for communication and recruitment to radicalization, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, “internet-based communications platforms, including social media, online gaming platforms, file-upload sites, and end-to-end encrypted chat platforms” all serve as a breeding ground for recruitment to radical ideologies (including conspiracy theories) and mobilization to violent extremism. This problem is exacerbated by the use of information that is false (i.e., mis-information), false and deliberately created to discredit an entity (i.e., dis-information), or based on reality but is used to ignite hatred or inflict harm (i.e., mal-information) both by violent extremist groups and foreign governments/entities. Therefore, NIJ encourages applicants to propose research that identifies strategies and best practices to bolster resistance to such material in both the online and offline spaces. Further, NIJ encourages applications for research on effective technologies and tools for identification, moderation, and/or removal of extremist content. Research results from projects funded under this topic should have an end-goal of informing effective messaging and counternarrative campaigns, developing strategies to amplify credible voices, cultivating digital literacy and evidence-based digital programming, as well as bolstering efforts to limit the widespread availability of extremist content online.”
Clemson Awarded Grant to create MDM Monitoring Dashboard
One grantee receiving an NIJ censorship grant totaling nearly $1 million was Clemson University, an institution heavily involved in the censorship industry. Clemson houses a counter disinformation lab called the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub (CUMFH), which works in tandem with their Social Media Listening Center (SMLC) to monitor online speech.
The taxpayer funded project at Clemson has a start date of January 1, 2024 and is entitled “Networks and Pathways of Violent Extremism: Effectiveness of Dis/Misinformation Campaigns.” As we will see below, this is a government funded speech monitoring effort.
Throughout the project description, the term “disinformation campaigns” is used to describe the targets of their speech monitoring efforts. By using the framing that they are targeting “campaigns,” they invoke images of a highly coordinated, organized effort to undermine national security. As documented by FFO in the past, this is a sleight of hand that the censorship industry regularly uses to persuade the public that ordinary Americans sharing their opinions online are part of nefarious “campaigns.”
The Clemson project team declares that this research will be the first “the first real-time mapping of the spread of MDM campaigns around contentious public events” (i.e., any event related to sensitive political or social topics, including the upcoming presidential elections). To achieve this, they explain that they will develop algorithms that identify “MDM campaigns” and plan to use “advanced computational tools” to “monitor MDM campaigns in near–real time and to identify specific accounts/nodes.” This means U.S. taxpayers are paying for a new technology designed to monitor their speech and flag them for “mis-, dis-, and mal-information.”
From the Clemson project:
“Research Design: The above questions will be answered by conducting the first real-time mapping of the spread of MDM campaigns around contentious public events. Accordingly, the proposed team will (a) develop specialized algorithms to identify the creation of MDM campaigns and capture event-level characteristics of real life events which trigger MDM, (b) identify online MDM clusters, and dissemination pathways, and (c) use computerized linguistic tools for MDM content and sentiments analysis, and examine its association with users’ behaviors. In the first phase, the team will produce an original events-level dataset that documents real-time characteristics of MDM-triggering political events. In the second phase, advanced computational tools will be employed to monitor MDM campaigns in near–real time and to identify specific accounts/nodes linked to outsized contributions. The team will also map MDM network patterns, identifying variation across creators/adopters, and complete computer-assisted linguistic and sentiments analysis of MDM content.”
As well as efforts to identify speech, narratives, accounts, and online communities that will be targeted, the project team aims to create an “MDM tracker” and a speech monitoring dashboard capable of tracking narratives they label as MDM, specifically designed to inform policy makers and law enforcement officials.
“Impact: The outcomes of the proposed project will help shape responses to MDM, and will be useful for policy makers, law enforcement officials, as well as community stakeholders. To maximize impact, the team will develop outreach materials and an online dashboard with an MDM tracker that allows users to understand real-time campaigns and their diffusion. The dashboard will provide a multi-level framework to understand the determinants and characteristics of MDM outbreaks, and identify links between specific linguistic characteristics and their virality. Additionally, the MDM tracker will provide insights into the commonalities and differences amongst online behaviors of MDM adopters, non-adopters, and disseminators.”
Clemson is already a well-established censorship center. Clemson’s CUMFH was formed in May 2020 “in order to build upon the nationally recognized research performed by Clemson University faculty who were among the first to identify the organized campaign of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.” In a recently published article at Clemson’s student newspaper, CUMFH indicated it will be active in the 2024 election as well.
The Co-Directors of the Clemson disinfo lab, Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill, have extensive experience advising the federal government on counter-disinformation efforts. They have worked with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Law Enforcement agencies and the U.S. Army Cyber Command.
In addition to leading the disinfo lab at Clemson, Warren is a visiting scholar at the RAND corporation, an organization that relies on the national security state for a majority of its funding and strongly advocates for public-private coordination on counter-disinformation work.
Like other university censorship shops, CUMFH has received millions in funding from some of the most notorious public and private venture capitalists of the censorship industry. Warren and Linvill were involved in a project that received a joint $750,000 grant in 2021 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for phase 1 of the Convergence Accelerator Track F Program, followed by an additional $5 million in 2022 for phase 2 of the NSF funding program, which was weaponized under the Biden administration to fund scientific and technological developments that increased censorship capabilities.
The CUMFH also received $3.8 million from the Knight Foundation, an organization whose investments have kickstarted the preeminent censorship organizations including the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public and NewsGuard.
Grant to Youngstown
Another grant that is part of the NIJ’s FY23 Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization and Violent Extremism portfolio also reveals concerning details about the potentially politically charged nature of the DOJ’s recent censorship related funding efforts.
This particular project, entitled “A Frame Analysis of Violence and Accelerationism in Cognitive Radicalization,” received $449,897 in taxpayer funding for research that will incorporate an existing data project led by Youngstown State University professor Richard Lee Rogers, “Frames of Misinformation, Extremism, and Conspiracism” (FOMEC).
Rogers’s FOMEC project has collected data and categorized millions of posts on Reddit and Telegram as well as from discussion boards on online right-wing forums.
The labeling of posts as misinformation and resulting academic publications of the project have a keen focus on examining the role of religion in spreading misinformation – and it labels white Christian followers of Donald Trump as the largest purveyors of the so-called “misinformation.”
One of Rogers’s articles listed under the FOMEC project titled “COVID-19 Information Sources and Misinformation by Faith Community” accuses Donald Trump of amplifying misinformation about COVID-19 and identified faith communities, especially White evangelicals, White nonevangelical Protestants and non-Hispanic Roman Catholics for spreading misinformation that originated with Trump.
The publication concluded that “faith communities are not always receptive to public health messages that promote the public good” and suggested that “religion effects can appear early,” which they say gives an opportunity to intervene with counter messaging.
They also tout the “ongoing monitoring of social media and other public communications” as a useful tool for monitoring and responding to the “misinformation” they attribute to being adopted largely by the “Christian right” and “White evangelicals.”
Additionally, Rogers criticizes health officials for not doing enough to combat the stances of these religious groups on COVID vaccines, saying they “had several months to counteract religiously based anti-vax messages,” and disturbingly advises officials to “get control of the narrative early.”
“From this study, we learn two important lessons about the religion effect in the spread of medical misinformation. First, it may be possible to identify the religion effect early. We found misinformation simmering in discussion forums early in the pandemic, and the Christian right and White evangelicals were hardly secretive about their opinions. Public health officials had several months to counteract religiously based anti-vax messages if they had desired to do so. Since preparedness for pandemics and other public health emergencies is a prerequisite of successful emergency management, we recommend the creation of ways to monitor discourse related to public health in real time rather than relying on after-the-fact research. As this study demonstrates, the ongoing monitoring of social media and other public communications could be one useful tool in identifying negative responses to preventive measures before a public health emergency deepens or even occurs.
Second, the religion effect appears strongest when the situation is ambiguous. As our analysis of discussion forums indicates, criticism of vaccinations declined once a vaccination was available, that is, misinformation declined once vaccination shifted from a hypothetical to a reality. Consistent with the previous point, this finding underscores the importance for health officials to get control of the narrative early.”
The fact that the DOJ is funding research that has maintained a sharp focus on attributing misinformation to domestic populism and religious groups is concerning, especially considering the fact that the DOJ’s FBI was recently caught targeting Catholics.
While the existing project has already produced concerning levels of speech and narrative tracking targeting populists under religious context, the $500,000 in taxpayer funding from the DOJ will add another eyebrow-raising dimension to Youngstown’s speech-monitoring FOMEC project: using it to trace connections to historic texts.
“A project team from Youngstown State University proposes to use the existing big-data project, the Frames of Misinformation, Extremism, and Conspiracism, to measure and examine the content of violent extremist and accelerationist discourse using social-media posts from a group of platforms known to host concentrations of extremist material. The research also attempts to trace connections between this material and historic texts tied to or appropriated by extremist groups.”
This new historical focus of the misinformation research at Youngstown is being propelled with taxpayer dollars by the very same DOJ that was exposed by an FBI whistleblower in 2022 for labeling historical quotes and symbolism as “domestic terrorism symbols.” The document of intense public scrutiny, the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Symbols Guide for Militia Violent Extremism (MVE), specifically labels historic icons of patriotism including the Gadsden Flag, the Betsy Ross Flag, and any Revolutionary War Imagery as symbols of domestic terrorists.
The DOJ has been in the spotlight for its politically charged efforts targeting American citizens. However, prior to this report, there has been limited information on their funding of the censorship industry, even as the scrutiny faced by the DHS for participating in the same industry has reached all-time highs. As with the CIA’s operations shifting to the State Department’s NED in the 1980s, power has a pattern of moving to less-scrutinized hosts when exposed by its former entities. While DHS took the lead in spearheading online censorship in 2020-22, there is potential for that task to move to other agencies, including the DOJ.