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Republican senators are demanding answers from the Department of Homeland Security after a whistleblower came forward with new details on how the administration's controversial disinformation board planned to coordinate with big tech companies to fight misinformation.
Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Chuck Grassley of Iowa wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on June 7 regarding documents that reveal DHS planned to create a Disinformation Governance Board as early as September 2021 and had considered partnering with social media companies like Meta and Twitter to monitor disinformation.
News of the department's plans for the board sparked fierce backlash from critics who accused the Biden administration of taking steps to censor speech on the internet. DHS on May 18 "paused" the plan to move forward with the board after negative public feedback and an official tapped to lead the board's efforts, Nina Jankowicz, resigned.
Previously, Mayorkas had stated that the board will not infringe on free speech and would specifically focus on "disinformation that presents a security threat to the homeland." In a May 1 interview on "Fox News Sunday," the secretary insisted the board would be concerned with disinformation from foreign actors including Russia, China, and Iran and from drug cartels south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is a working group that takes best practices to make sure that in addressing disinformation that presents a threat to the homeland, our work does not infringe on free speech, does not infringe on civil rights, civil liberties. It’s not about speech, it’s about the connectivity to violence," Mayorkas claimed at the time.
But the Republicans obtained 31 pages of DHS documents from a whistleblower that appear to show the Biden administration wanted the board to examine topics on a broader scale than what Mayorkas had stated.
"DHS documents show that the DGB was designed to be the Department’s central hub, clearinghouse and gatekeeper for Administration policy and response to whatever it happened to decide was 'disinformation,'" Hawley and Grassley wrote.
The documents show, for example, that the Biden administration considered "conspiracy theories about the validity and security of elections," "disinformation related to the origins and effects of COVID-19 vaccines or the efficacy of masks," and "falsehoods surrounding U.S. government immigration policy" to present "serious homeland security risks" that the board should combat.
A scheduling memo also shows that Mayorkas had met with Twitter executives Nick Pickles, head of policy, and Yoel Roth, head of site integrity, in April to discuss "public-private partnerships" and how Twitter could exchange analytics with the proposed disinformation board.
Hawley and Grassley raised concerns that the federal government was partnering with social media companies to censor users.
“The First Amendment of the Constitution was designed precisely so that the government could not censor opposing viewpoints – even if those viewpoints were false. DHS should not in any way seek to enlist the private sector to curb or silence opposing viewpoints. It is therefore imperative for DHS to provide additional clarity regarding its policies and procedures for identifying and addressing ‘MDM,’ as well as its efforts to ‘operationalize’ public-private partnerships and the steps it is taking to ensure that it does not infringe on the constitutional rights of American citizens,” the letter states.
The senators demand that DHS "provide additional clarity regarding its policies and procedures for identifying (mis-, dis- or mal-information), as well as its efforts to ‘operationalize’ public-private partnerships and the steps it is taking to ensure it does not infringe on the constitutional rights of American citizens."
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