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Censorship, Deception, Boycotts and The University of Texas

Home-Blog-Civil Rights Violations-Censorship, Deception, Boycotts and The University of Texas

“What a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”  While Sir Walter Scott was not discussing censorship when he penned these lines, modern censorship efforts are built on a number of deceptions that have created a tangled web of government agencies, private firms, and universities who are actively working to silence those with whom they disagree.  The first deception is that censorship is needed to stop disinformation.  In political and cultural disputes, disinformation typically exists in the eye of the beholder.  A free society addresses this problem by making more information available and encouraging robust debate.  Giving some Olympian moderators the power to say what is accurate and true is a sure way to political despotism.   

The second deception involves how those censorship efforts are funded.  The funding for many of these censorship efforts is opaque and designed to hide the government entities supporting the censorship drive.  Finally, the connections between the entities and individuals that have created what is aptly called the “Censorship Industrial Complex” is indeed a “tangled web.”  This “tangled web” of government entities, NGOs, private companies and universities is a dangerous threat to our First Amendment rights, and, thus, our democratic system.

Censorship efforts are no longer limited to state and federal legislation or the actions of easily identified federal and state officials.  In those quaint times, you could point to a specific statute or a federal official interfering with free speech rights.  The drive to censor speech today is a well-funded effort that includes many players that work together to target speech in a plethora of ways.  Some of those players are government agencies, like the FBI, that worked closely with Twitter and other social media platforms to shut down accounts that supposedly pushed disinformation.  For example, in the lead up to the 2020 election, the FBI was consolidating social media blacklists provided by a number of federal intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security.  The FBI would, for example, send these black lists to Twitter and other social media platforms and claim that the listed accounts were spreading disinformation and the social media companies should take action against those accounts.

Other players involved are private firms that have or had close ties to federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  For example, the Hamilton 68 Project was led by a former FBI counter-intelligence analyst, and it generated extensive and largely fictitious lists of Twitter accounts that they claimed were Russian bots.  The lists created by the Hamilton 68 Project were heavily relied upon by many journalists and media outlets to create the impression that Russian controlled bots were spreading propaganda and disinformation throughout social media.  Twitter executives knew that the lists created by the Hamilton 68 Project were largely fictitious and were targeting accounts held by US citizens that disagreed politically with those running the Hamilton 68 Project.

In other cases, the federal government played an indirect role by funding entities that would push censorship.  The Global Engagement Center (“GEC”) is a State Department entity that was created to address propaganda and disinformation campaigns run by foreign governments.  The GEC was not allowed to operate in the United States, and it’s doing so would raise clear First Amendment concerns.  GEC’s stated purpose was laudatory: protect the United States from foreign propaganda.  The GEC, however, supported entities that did not limit their efforts to foreign threats, but used the GEC funding to engage in partisan censorship efforts in the United States.

The GEC funneled money into a foreign entity called the Global Disinformation Index that ranked media outlets and other online accounts based on their alleged spreading of disinformation.  The Global Disinformation Index would then sell its rankings to advertisers in an effort to dissuade them from placing advertisements on the sites that the Global Disinformation Index deemed risky.  The Global Disinformation Index’s rankings included many US based media entities and social media users, and the top-rated risky companies were predominantly conservative in their outlook.  The Global Disinformation Index’s goal was apparently to create advertising boycotts that targeted conservative news organizations.  This means money from the federal government helped support an effort to starve conservative media of needed advertising revenue.  When these connections became public, the State Department claims it cut ties with the Global Disinformation Index.  Whether the State Department knew about the Global Disinformation Index’s efforts in the US before this became public is unknown at this time.

The federal government helping to fund an entity that was working to silence conservative voices by organizing an advertising boycott is, by itself, a scandal.  The story, however, does not end with the chain linking the State Department to GEC, GEC to the Global Disinformation Index, and Global Disinformation Index to advertisers.  The Global Disinformation Index worked with the University of Texas’ Global Disinformation Lab to build its risk ranking.  A state funded university should not play any role in a scheme to silence political viewpoints.  The role played by the University of Texas’ Global Disinformation Lab shows how federal agencies, private companies and academia are working together as strands in a web that creates the Censorship Industrial Complex.

One of the news organizations ranked as highly risky by the Global Disinformation Index was the Federalist, which runs a conservative leaning website.  The Federalist served a freedom of information request to the University of Texas seeking documents showing its connection to the Global Disinformation Index.  The Federalist reported that documents produced by the University of Texas show that the Global Disinformation Index contracted with the University of Texas to have its Global Disinformation Lab help build the risk ranking index.  This meant that students at the University of Texas were making the rankings using the Global Disinformation Index’s methodology.  One of the students involved in the project stated that it was “a little interesting in that [the Global Disinformation Index’s methodology] requires reviewers to give subjective scores in response to objective trends in data,” and that this “breaks down the project’s objectivity.”  Put differently, the Global Disinformation Index had the University of Texas’ Global Disinformation Lab create a subjective list of supposedly risky disinformation websites that, not surprisingly, put conservative leaning websites at the top of the list.

The Global Disinformation Index’s efforts to starve conservative news outlets of advertising revenue is an affront to freedom of speech principles, even without the involvement of federal and state governments.  The Global Disinformation Index’s product, however, was built, in part, using federal and state tax dollars.  The federal government, through GEC, funneled federal tax dollars to the Global Disinformation Index and the tax revenues from Texans were used to build and operate the University of Texas.  The efforts by the Global Disinformation Index were anything but actions by a purely private enterprise.

Whether the Global Disinformation Index can face liability for violating First Amendment rights is an important issue, but it is not the critical issue.  Federal and State governments should not engage in censorship.  They should not send blacklists to social media companies, because it is a dangerous self-delusion to think a private company will view a blacklist coming from the FBI, for example, as equivalent to a list coming from a private person.  Nor should the government use tax dollars to fund censorship efforts that it could not directly command.  Federal and state governments control vast resources, and it is foolhardy and dangerous to think that federal and state governments cannot trample free speech rights by merely funding such efforts.

The federal government would have faced significant First Amendment exposure if it had directly told advertisers to stop doing business with its political and ideological opponents.  The same holds true for a state government.  Doing this through a web of intermediaries both hides the government’s involvement and shields the relevant government officials from liability under existing civil rights laws.  This behavior puts the government into the censorship business, which is corrosive to our democratic order.  It is also naive to think that the government, over time, will limit its censorship efforts to indirect means once the precedent is set that censorship is acceptable.  Finally, it is fundamentally corrupt, because it encourages the government to use deceptive financial arrangements to push its harmful censorship campaign.

The response to these new censorship efforts must include a number of different elements.  First, Congress should pass laws making such indirect funding unlawful.  Second, Congress should use its oversight to reveal these funding arrangements and expose them to the public.  Third, courts need to revisit the caselaw that limits the exposure private companies have to First Amendment claims, when those private companies are cooperating with the federal government or state governments to limit freedom of speech.

At The Law Offices of George M. Sanders, our Chicago civil rights attorney believes in the power of free speech and its crucial role in a democratic society. Have you faced censorship, restrictions, or retaliation for expressing your opinions? We are passionate about protecting your civil rights and ensuring that your voice is heard. Contact us today.

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