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A guide to understanding the hoax of the Century

Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation
 
by Jacob Siegel
 
Part 11 - Hunter’s Laptops: The Exception to the Rule

The laptops are real. The FBI has known this since 2019, when it first took possession of them. When the New York Post attempted to report on them, dozens of the most senior national security officials in the United States lied to the public, claiming the laptops were likely part of a Russian “disinformation” plot. Twitter, Facebook, and Google, operating as fully integrated branches of the state security infrastructure, carried out the government’s censorship orders based on that lie. The press swallowed the lie and cheered on the censorship.

The story of the laptops has been framed as many things, but the most fundamental truth about it is that it was the successful culmination of the yearslong effort to create a shadow regulatory bureaucracy built specifically to prevent a repeat of Trump’s 2016 victory.

It may be impossible to know exactly what effect the ban on reporting about Hunter Biden’s laptops had on the 2020 vote, but the story was clearly seen as threatening enough to warrant an openly authoritarian attack on the independence of the press. The damage to the country’s underlying social fabric, in which paranoia and conspiracy have been normalized, is incalculable. As recently as February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the scandal as the “half-fake laptop story” and as “an embarrassment,” months after even the Bidens had been forced to acknowledge that the story is authentic.

While the laptop is the best-known case of the ruling party’s intervention in the Trump-Biden race, its brazenness was an exception. The vast majority of the interference in the election was invisible to the public and took place through censorship mechanisms carried out under the auspices of “election integrity.” The legal framework for this had been put in place shortly after Trump took office, when the outgoing DHS chief Jeh Johnson passed an 11th-hour rule—over the vehement objections of local stakeholders—declaring election systems to be critical national infrastructure, thereby placing them under the supervision of the agency. Many observers had expected that the act would be repealed by Johnson’s successor, Trump-appointed John Kelly, but curiously it was left in place.

In 2018, Congress created a new agency inside of the DHS called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) that was tasked with defending America’s infrastructure—now including its election systems—from foreign attacks. In 2019, the DHS added another agency, the Foreign Influence and Interference Branch, which was focused on countering foreign disinformation. As if by design, the two roles merged. Russian hacking and other malign foreign-information attacks were said to threaten U.S. elections. But, of course, none of the officials in charge of these departments could say with certainty whether a particular claim was foreign disinformation, simply wrong, or merely inconvenient. Nina Jankowicz, the pick to lead the DHS’s short-lived Disinformation Governance Board, lamented the problem in her book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict. “What makes this information war so difficult to win,” she wrote, “is not just the online tools that amplify and target its messages or the adversary that is sending them; it’s the fact that those messages are often unwittingly delivered not by trolls or bots, but by authentic local voices.

The latitude inherent in the concept of disinformation enabled the claim that preventing electoral sabotage required censoring Americans’ political views, lest an idea be shared in public that was originally planted by foreign agents.

In January 2021, CISA “transitioned its Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to promote more flexibility to focus on general MDM [ed. note: an acronym for misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation],” according to an August 2022 report from the DHS’s Office of Inspector General. After the pretense of fighting a foreign threat fell away, what was left was the core mission to enforce a narrative monopoly over truth.

The new domestic-focused task force was staffed by 15 employees dedicated to finding “all types of disinformation”—but specifically that which related to “elections and critical infrastructure”—and being “responsive to current events,” a euphemism for promoting the official line of divisive issues, as was the case with the “COVID-19 Disinformation Toolkit” released to “raise awareness related to the pandemic.

Kept a secret from the public, the switch was “plotted on DHS’s own livestreams and internal documents,” according to Mike Benz. “DHS insiders’ collective justification, without uttering a peep about the switch’s revolutionary implications, was that ‘domestic disinformation’ was now a greater ‘cyber threat to elections’ than falsehoods flowing from foreign interference.

Just like that, without any public announcements or black helicopters flying in formation to herald the change, America had its own ministry of truth.

Together they operated an industrial-scale censorship machine in which the government and NGOs sent tickets to the tech companies that flagged objectionable content they wanted scrubbed. That structure allowed the DHS to outsource its work to the Election Integrity Project (EIP), a consortium of four groups: the Stanford Internet Observatory; private anti-disinformation company Graphika (which had formerly been employed by the Defense Department against groups like ISIS in the war on terror); Washington University’s Center for an Informed Public; and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab. Founded in 2020 in partnership with the DHS, the EIP served as the government’s “deputized domestic disinformation flagger,” according to congressional testimony from journalist Michael Shellenberger, who notes that the EIP claims it classified more than 20 million unique “misinformation incidents” between Aug. 15 and Dec. 12, 2020. As EIP head Alex Stamos explained, this was a work-around for the problem that the government “lacked both kinda the funding and the legal authorizations.

Looking at the censorship figures that the DHS’s own partners reported for the 2020 election cycle in their internal audits, the Foundation for Freedom Online summarized the scope of the censorship campaign in seven bullet points:

    22 million tweets labeled “misinformation” on Twitter;

    859 million tweets collected in databases for “misinformation” analysis;

    120 analysts monitoring social media “misinformation” in up to 20-hour shifts;

    15 tech platforms monitored for “misinformation,” often in real-time;

    <1 hour average response time between government partners and tech platforms;

    Dozens of “misinformation narratives” targeted for platform-wide throttling; and

    Hundreds of millions of individual Facebook posts, YouTube videos, TikToks, and tweets impacted due to “misinformation” Terms of Service policy changes, an effort DHS partners openly plotted and bragged that tech companies would never have done without DHS partner insistence and “huge regulatory pressure” from government
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