Posted on October 31, 2022

Leaked Documents Outline DHS’s Plans to Police Disinformation

Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang, The Intercept, October 31, 2022

THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY is quietly broadening its efforts to curb speech it considers dangerous, an investigation by The Intercept has found. Years of internal DHS memos, emails, and documents — obtained via leaks and an ongoing lawsuit, as well as public documents — illustrate an expansive effort by the agency to influence tech platforms.

The work, much of which remains unknown to the American public, came into clearer view earlier this year when DHS announced a new “Disinformation Governance Board”: a panel designed to police misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent) that allegedly threatens U.S. interests. While the board was widely ridiculed, immediately scaled back, and then shut down within a few months, other initiatives are underway as DHS pivots to monitoring social media now that its original mandate — the war on terror — has been wound down.

Behind closed doors, and through pressure on private platforms, the U.S. government has used its power to try to shape online discourse. According to meeting minutes and other records appended to a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican who is also running for Senate, discussions have ranged from the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.

“Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, a former DHS official, texted Jen Easterly, a DHS director, in February.

In a March meeting, Laura Dehmlow, an FBI official, warned that the threat of subversive information on social media could undermine support for the U.S. government. Dehmlow, according to notes of the discussion attended by senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan Chase, stressed that “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.”


There is also a formalized process for government officials to directly flag content on Facebook or Instagram and request that it be throttled or suppressed through a special Facebook portal that requires a government or law enforcement email to use. At the time of writing, the “content request system” at is still live. DHS and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI declined to comment.

DHS’s mission to fight disinformation, stemming from concerns around Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, began taking shape during the 2020 election and over efforts to shape discussions around vaccine policy during the coronavirus pandemic. Documents collected by The Intercept from a variety of sources, including current officials and publicly available reports, reveal the evolution of more active measures by DHS.

According to a draft copy of DHS’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, DHS’s capstone report outlining the department’s strategy and priorities in the coming years, the department plans to target “inaccurate information” on a wide range of topics, including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

“The challenge is particularly acute in marginalized communities,” the report states, “which are often the targets of false or misleading information, such as false information on voting procedures targeting people of color.”


The extent to which the DHS initiatives affect Americans’ daily social feeds is unclear. During the 2020 election, the government flagged numerous posts as suspicious, many of which were then taken down, documents cited in the Missouri attorney general’s lawsuit disclosed. And a 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership at Stanford University found that of nearly 4,800 flagged items, technology platforms took action on 35 percent — either removing, labeling, or soft-blocking speech, meaning the users were only able to view content after bypassing a warning screen. The research was done “in consultation with CISA,” the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.


In June, the same DHS advisory committee of CISA — which includes Twitter head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde and University of Washington professor Kate Starbird — drafted a report to the CISA director calling for an expansive role for the agency in shaping the “information ecosystem.” The report called on the agency to closely monitor “social media platforms of all sizes, mainstream media, cable news, hyper partisan media, talk radio and other online resources.” They argued that the agency needed to take steps to halt the “spread of false and misleading information,” with a focus on information that undermines “key democratic institutions, such as the courts, or by other sectors such as the financial system, or public health measures.”

To accomplish these broad goals, the report said, CISA should invest in external research to evaluate the “efficacy of interventions,” specifically with research looking at how alleged disinformation can be countered and how quickly messages spread. Geoff Hale, the director of the Election Security Initiative at CISA, recommended the use of third-party information-sharing nonprofits as a “clearing house for trust information to avoid the appearance of government propaganda.”

Last Thursday, immediately following billionaire Elon Musk’s completed acquisition of Twitter, Gadde was terminated from the company.

The Biden administration, however, did take a stab at making part of this infrastructure public in April 2022, with the announcement of the Disinformation Governance Board. The exact functions of the board, and how it would accomplish its goal of defining and combating MDM, were never made clear.The board faced immediate backlash across the political spectrum. “Who among us thinks the government should add to its work list the job of determining what is true and what is disinformation? And who thinks the government is capable of telling the truth?” wrote Politico media critic Jack Shafer. “Our government produces lies and disinformation at industrial scale and always has. It overclassifies vital information to block its own citizens from becoming any the wiser. It pays thousands of press aides to play hide the salami with facts.”

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas alluded to broad scope of the agency’s disinformation effort when he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the role of the board — which by that point had been downgraded to a “working group” — is to “actually develop guidelines, standards, guardrails to ensure that the work that has been ongoing for nearly 10 years does not infringe on people’s free speech rights, rights of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

“It was quite disconcerting, frankly,” he added, “that the disinformation work that was well underway for many years across different independent administrations was not guided by guardrails.”

DHS eventually scrapped the Disinformation Governance Board in August. While free speech advocates cheered the dissolution of the board, other government efforts to root out disinformation have not only continued but expanded to encompass additional DHS sub-agencies like Customs and Border Protection, which “determines whether information about the component spread through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is accurate.” Other agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Science and Technology Directorate (whose responsibilities include “determining whether social media accounts were bots or humans and how the mayhem caused by bots affects behavior”), and the Secret Service have also expanded their purview to include disinformation, according to the inspector general report.

The draft copy of DHS’s 2022 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review reviewed by The Intercept also confirms that DHS views the issue of tackling disinformation and misinformation as a growing portion of its core duties. While “counterterrorism remains the first and most important mission of the Department,” it notes, the agency’s “work on these missions is evolving and dynamic” and must now adapt to terror threats “exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation spread online” including by “domestic violent extremists.”

To accomplish this, the draft quadrennial review calls for DHS to “leverage advanced data analytics technology and hire and train skilled specialists to better understand how threat actors use online platforms to introduce and spread toxic narratives intended to inspire or incite violence, as well as work with NGOs and other parts of civil society to build resilience to the impacts of false information.”


DHS’s expansion into misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation represents an important strategic retooling for the agency, which was founded in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks as a bulwark to coordinate intelligence and security operations across the government. At the same time, the FBI deployed thousands of agents to focus on counterterrorism efforts, through building informant networks and intelligence operations designed to prevent similar attacks.But traditional forms of terrorism, posed by groups like Al Qaeda, evolved with the rise of social media, with groups like the Islamic State using platforms such as Facebook to recruit and radicalize new members. After initial reluctance, social media giants worked closely with the FBI and DHS to help monitor and remove ISIS-affiliated accounts.


The subsequent military defeat of ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq, along with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, left the homeland security apparatus without a target. Meanwhile, a new threat entered the discourse. The allegation that Russian agents had seeded disinformation on Facebook that tipped the 2016 election toward Donald Trump resulted in the FBI forming the Foreign Influence Task Force, a team devoted to preventing foreign meddling in American elections.

According to DHS meeting minutes from March, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force this year includes 80 individuals focused on curbing “subversive data utilized to drive a wedge between the populace and the government.”


DHS also began to broaden its watch to include a wide array of domestic actors viewed as potential sources of radicalization and upheaval. An FBI official interviewed by The Intercept described how, in the summer of 2020, amid the George Floyd protests, he was reassigned from his normal job of countering foreign intelligence services to monitoring American social media accounts. (The official, not authorized to speak publicly, described the reassignment on condition of anonymity.)

And a June 2020 memo bearing the subject line “Actions to Address the Threat Posed by Domestic Terrorists and Other Domestic Extremists” prepared by DHS headquarters for Wolf, Trump’s acting DHS secretary, delineates plans to “expand information sharing with the tech sector” in order to “identify disinformation campaigns used by DT [domestic terrorism] actors to incite violence against infrastructure, ethnic, racial or religious groups, or individuals.” The memo outlines plans to work with private tech sector partners to share unclassified DHS intelligence on “DT actors and their tactics” so that platforms can “move effectively use their own tools to enforce user agreements/terms of service and remove DT content.”

Biden also prioritized such efforts. Last year, the Biden administration released the first National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The strategy identified a “broader priority: enhancing faith in government and addressing the extreme polarization, fueled by a crisis of disinformation and misinformation often channeled through social media platforms, which can tear Americans apart and lead some to violence.”

“We are working with like-minded governments, civil society, and the technology sector to address terrorist and violent extremist content online, including through innovative research collaborations,” the strategy document continued, adding that the administration was “addressing the crisis of disinformation and misinformation, often channeled through social and other media platforms, that can fuel extreme polarization and lead some individuals to violence.”

Last year, a top FBI counterterrorism official came under fire when she falsely denied to Congress that the FBI monitors Americans’ social media and had therefore missed threats leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. In fact, the FBI has spent millions of dollars on social media tracking software like Babel X and Dataminr. According to the bureau’s official guidelines, authorized activities include “proactively surfing the Internet to find publicly accessible websites and services through which recruitment by terrorist organizations and promotion of terrorist crimes is openly taking place.”

Another FBI official, a joint terrorism task force officer, described to The Intercept being reassigned this year from the bureau’s international terrorism division, where they had primarily worked on cases involving Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, to the domestic terrorism division to investigate Americans, including anti-government individuals such as racially motivated violent extremists, sovereign citizens, militias, and anarchists. They work on an undercover basis online to penetrate social networking chat rooms, online forums, and blogs to detect, enter, dismantle, and disrupt existing and emerging terrorist organizations via online forums, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, websites, and social networking, said the FBI official, who did not have permission to speak on the record.

The Privacy Act of 1974, enacted following the Watergate scandal, restricts government data collection of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights, a safeguard that civil liberty groups have argued limits the ability of DHS and the FBI to engage in surveillance of American political speech expressed on social media. The statute, however, maintains exemptions for information collected for the purposes of a criminal or law enforcement investigation.

“There are no specific legal constraints on the FBI’s use of social media,” Faiza Patel, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program told The Intercept. {snip}


“There is growing evidence that the legislative and executive branch officials are using social media companies to engage in censorship by surrogate,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, who has written about the lawsuit. “It is axiomatic that the government cannot do indirectly what it is prohibited from doing directly. If government officials are directing or facilitating such censorship, it raises serious First Amendment questions.”