The recent revelation that Twitter was regularly meeting with several U.S. law enforcement agencies (among them the FBI, DHS, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – ODNI), and that these agencies were giving Twitter executives lists of accounts of people to delete seems likely to be memory-holed in a welter of partisan politics and self-interested media. It really should not be.
"These regularly scheduled meetings and constant government demands for action by Twitter were not related, as far as we can tell, to actual criminal acts. This was not about ISIS videos or child pornography. Rather they seemed to involve subjective topics such as "election denial" and rumored foreign interference, among others. Twitter and other companies, on their own or egged on by the Feds, one way or another (we just do not know what went on in these repeated meetings), buried news about Hunter Biden's laptop before a general election, and banned or downgraded accounts related to COVID-19 or politics or gender issues. Of course, Twitter (and Facebook) also banned a sitting US President after the events of January 6, 2021 as the companies reinterpreted their terms of service in order to do so. As private companies, they had the legal right to take such actions (even though some of these actions were ill-considered) but having the government in the next room or on call when they were made makes it all so much worse.
This latest disclosure of the government-big tech connection brought back memories from when I worked on countering Jihadist propaganda in the State Department ten years ago. During a speech at the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Gala Dinner in May 2012, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had lauded the work that our small operation had done in trying to counter Al-Qaeda propaganda in Yemen. What we were essentially doing was trolling Al-Qaeda accounts on social media, crude counter-messaging in that digitally primitive age. Some of the press misunderstood what we were doing as if it was some type of sophisticated or covert cyber operations (it was neither) and, at the request of the Secretary's staff, I had to go and explain to some journalists, step by step, what we actually did. The onus on me was to clarify that we were not doing some kind of censoring (of terrorist or extremist social media accounts!) or removal, something that neither the press nor the administration wanted to conceive as possible in those naïve and innocent days.
There was, at that time, one person in State's Public Affairs Bureau that was the interface with social media companies. Other government agencies had their contacts, but the level of interaction was relatively modest. Our own overt work, falling under the guise of what is called Public Diplomacy, was by statute, geared to foreign countries. As a Public Diplomacy Officer, first with the US Information Agency (USIA) and then with State, it had been drummed into me that we "only" tried to propagandize foreign audiences, not Americans. The law which created this firewall, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was watered down in 2012 precisely because of counter-terrorism concerns. In any case, the law was about restricting the State Department from propagandizing, not the U.S. government as a whole.
Within a few years much of that government reticence would change. In 2013, Al-Qaeda propaganda would improve significantly as its then Iraqi branch (soon to be independent and a bitter rival to its parent organization), the Islamic State in Iraq, moved into Syria in a big way. In 2014, Russia would move into Crimea and the State Department would set up and then disband an anti-Russia propaganda shop (you may remember photos at the time of then State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki holding up a #UnitedforUkraine sign). Later that same year, social media companies would begin to dismantle the massive Jihadist presence on American social media companies (a presence which by late 2014 included videos showing the beheading of Americans), a process that would take years. Although no doubt encouraged by U.S. government agencies, this was action that these companies were shamed into taking as much by public outrage as by government.
Increasingly, a field that had been seen as relatively unimportant (so much so that USIA was folded into State in 1999) was now seen as a field where everyone should play. The intelligence community and the Department of Defense would have their roles in the propaganda aspects of Countering Violent Extremism.
Those 2016 allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential elections would be only the latest events feeding into official Washington's propaganda and influence operations obsessions (the allegations of Russian interference were real but, in retrospect, highly exaggerated in scope and would be melded into the broader "Russiagate" debacle which aimed to topple then President Trump). Now even more government agencies, with a domestic focus, entered the information fray.
A decade later, what once seemed a clear dividing line between foreign and domestic audiences has blurred and government has become accustomed to a cozy symbiotic relationship with Big Tech, involving money, constant contact, and a hiring revolving door. The issues of concern supposedly needing to be addressed seem to be constantly expanding. And more parts of government want to get into the countering disinformation/misinformation game.
Something has gone very wrong here. Saying you were robbed at the ballot box, an old American political tradition whether it is Stacey Abrams or Kari Lake, is not a crime and is an issue that social media companies may want to address. The same is true when it comes to the debate on private social media company platforms on COVID or issues involving gender or whatever is the next hot topic lovingly favored by our intellectual elites. My own view is very much in favor of greater freedom by social media companies allowing broad untrammeled discourse on all these issues. The bigger problem is the appearance and reality of government collusion with social media companies on all these debates.
We are concerned about foreign interference in American elections or about social and health issues, fair enough, but the damage done to domestic tranquility and belief in our institutions by revelations of behind-the-scenes government collusion seems infinitely far worse than the problems we are trying to address. What a perfect way to promote conspiracy theories and increase distrust of the government! The cure is worse that the disease. In trying to prevent important things being discredited we are risking them being discredited by our own heavy handedness and lust for power.
Oligarchic big tech alone is a risk to so many things in our society, from the social poison of TikTok to decreasing attention spans to the exposure of sensitive individual information. Congressional oversight, and open scrutiny in the light of day may well be warranted. But the combination of the U.S. government secretly working hand in glove with social media companies, often under the supposedly altruistic guise of safetyism, is another matter.
I do not know how a firewall or a sunshine act on relations between government and big tech could work. There are plenty of reasons for legitimate contact (such as terrorism or law enforcement). But the Feds need to be far less comfortable and frequent in their interactions and there need to be administrative, if not legal, disincentives against collusion. Power and connections acquired to fight foreign terrorism seem to all too easily find a way to be repurposed for other causes. It should not be a partisan argument. While recent examples of this type of collusion seem to favor Democrats and the political left, that may not always be the case.
What is urgently needed is something that governments, including that of the United States, really seem to hate: limits.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.