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How the Federal-Private Speech Police Operated in Election 2020: With Radar Highly Attuned to the Right

December 08, 2023

During the 2020 election, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) partnered with the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a consortium of groups led by the Stanford Internet Observatory, to track and counter what they considered mis- and dis-information.

EIP surveilled hundreds of millions of social media posts and collected from the cooperating government and non-governmental entities that it calls its “stakeholders” potential violations of social media platforms’ policies concerning election speech.

It coordinated its efforts primarily through a digital “ticketing” system. There, one of its as many as 120 analysts or an external partner could highlight a piece of offending social media content, or narrative consisting of many offending posts, by creating a “ticket,” and share it with other relevant participants by “tagging” them. Tagged participants could then communicate with each other, in something of a group chat, about the veracity of the flagged content, concerns about its spread, and what actions they might take to combat it.

For social media companies this meant removing the content outright, reducing its spread, or “informing” users about dubious posts by slapping corrective or contextualizing labels on them.

During the 2020 election cycle, EIP generated a total of 639 tickets, covering some 4,784 unique URLs – representing content shared millions of times – disproportionately related to the “delegitimization” of election results. Major platforms including Twitter, Google, and Facebook responded to tickets in which they were tagged at rates of 75% or higher. The platforms “labeled, removed, or soft blocked” 35% of the URLs shared via EIP.

RealClearInvestigations has obtained data associated with nearly 400 EIP tickets, data produced for the House Homeland Security Committee in connection with its oversight efforts. The tickets come in the form of a series of spreadsheets. Each row represents one ticket. The Stanford group provided no key for the spreadsheets. Much of the information is redacted.

Here are just a few examples of the tickets EIP produced:

Ticket EIP-482 (created October 27, 2020) was originated by the CISA’s Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing & Analysis Center (EI-ISAC). It concerns a tweet from then-President Trump indicating “most” states permit one to change one’s original vote after engaging in early voting, which EIP categorized as potential “Procedural Interference.”

The analysts point to fact-checks from, among other sources, Buzzfeed and ABC News challenging the president’s claim. Following two redacted comments on the ticket, an unnamed commenter writes, “Twitter received and is reviewing.” A subsequent comment reads: “We heard back from Twitter through CISA with this response: Our team concluded that the Tweet was not in violation of our Civic Integrity Policy.”

CISA-produced documentation shows the sub-agency’s chief counter-MDM (mis-, dis-, and malinformation) officer, Brian Scully, had also reported the tweet to Twitter, which responded to him directly about it. Therefore, EIP and its stakeholder, an executive agency, both forwarded the chief executive’s speech to a social media platform for potential censorship.

Ticket EIP-257 (Sept. 29), originated by the EI-ISAC, concerns a social media post from an unnamed user, alleging an absentee ballot had been delivered by mail to his dead father. An EIP stakeholder “flagged the post to Facebook for removal and the link is no longer active which means it has either been taken down or made private to the individual’s Facebook.” A subsequent comment notes that “We also received confirmation from Facebook (by way of CISA) that Facebook took action on this case,” again showing EIP and CISA seemingly working as force multipliers in content moderation.

Ticket EIP-301 (Oct. 2), originated by the EI-ISAC, concerns a “tweet regarding voting machines.” An elected official reported that the since-deleted and unavailable tweet “is false. Voting machines work the vast majority of the time. Old machines do have issues, but to phrase it like [this] vastly overstates the scope of the problem.” CISA inquired as to whether Twitter took the tweet down. It did.

Ticket EIP-954 (Nov. 8), the origins of which are not discernible, concerns social media posts sharing an article from The Federalist, where I am a senior contributor, titled “America Won’t Trust Elections Until The Voter Fraud Is Investigated.” According to the ticket, the article “Misconstrues Disinformation as Evidence.” One tagged post comes from Federalist Editor-in-Chief Mollie Hemingway. A stakeholder writes to Facebook and Twitter in connection with the ticket that “this seems to be the greatest hits from the past 3 days wrapped up in one article. The article links to several of the gateway pundit links which have received action since Tuesday.” Twitter indicates it was reviewing the tweet, though it appears not to have taken action on it. RCI asked Hemingway for comment on the flagging of her tweet and publication’s work. She replied:

This unconscionable censorship of The Federalist and its reporters is sadly unsurprising. The censorship-industrial complex in this country clearly views free speech as its enemy and will do anything to shut it down, including spreading lies and using intimidation to coerce private companies to censor factual, legal speech on behalf of the regime.

Hemingway concluded with a warning: “The censorship-industrial complex better buckle up, because the days of conservatives taking this lying down are over.”

This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published Nov. 6.

This article was originally published by RCI and made available via RealClearWire.
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