Disinformation expert laments loss of power over speech on social media leading up to 2024 elections

Former Twitter executive says that the pendulum is swinging against the disinformation policing industry, according to a new report from the Foundation for Freedom Online. That industry has become a multi-million dollar business and has been accused of collaborating with the Biden Administration to suppress platforms that do not follow the party line.

Published: November 12, 2023 11:05pm

A disinformation expert is lamenting that social media platforms have less control over speech as the 2024 elections approach, while conservatives notch wins against the industry and the Department of Homeland Security's calls for greater censorship.

This comes as the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released yet more evidence this week on nexus of the federal government, universities, and Big Tech that worked to censor Americans during the 2020 election. The House Judiciary Committee also held a hearing on the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to increase censorship through the Election Integrity Partnership.

The new report by the Foundation for Freedom Online (FFO) shows how former Big Tech employees and censorship experts are lamenting their shrinking influence as the presidential election approaches next year. Pressure from a Republican House and some journalists discourages the federal government from collaborating with the Big Tech companies as it did during the 2020 election. Some federal courts have weighed in, finding the collaboration unconstitutional.

“Yoel Roth has been on a public speaking tear, sounding alarms to fellow censorship industry insiders that they've lost the control over 2024 election speech they once had in 2020,” Mike Benz, executive director of FFO posted to X on Monday.

Recently, former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter, Yoel Roth has given public presentations alongside other pro-censorship experts on the state of play in the industry ahead of 2024. Roth told an audience at a UCLA presentation that “the pendulum” is swinging against censorship on social media and in the public square because advocates against “disinformation” have stopped pressuring platforms to take action.

“I would argue it’s swinging because of exactly those same dynamics of public pressure that prompted the investment in the first place… And I mentioned that because on one hand that’s great, it sounds like all of the pressure on platforms really drove a meaningful impact. But we’re now seeing it swing in the exact opposite direction,” Roth said.

“And it’s not just Elon Musk firing everyone, like sure he did that, but why did he do it? He did it because we took our foot off the gas,” Roth said of anti-disinformation advocates.

Some of the public pressure that Roth spoke about has come from the House Judiciary Committee and its Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee. The committee previously held hearings on the revelations from "The Twitter Files", a series of exposés published primarily by journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger, which showed the extent of Twitter’s cooperation with the federal government to censor individual tweets and accounts that were deemed misinformation by the “experts.”

The pressure has continued since the release of the Twitter Files. This week, the House committee released a report on what it described as “censorship laundering” by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). CISA created the Election Integrity Partnership, allegedly formed to circumvent legal issues that would prevent federal government from directly monitoring speech, according to a report from Just the News.

Roth was one of the central figures that appeared in "The Twitter Files." One of the most prominent examples, which Taibbi highlighted in the first installment of the files, was Twitter’s decision to ban the New York Post’s October 2020 piece on emails from Hunter Biden’s laptop, one of the first times that content from the first son’s abandoned computer was made public by the media.

The New York Post article in question was an embarrassing exposé on Hunter Biden’s dealings with CEFC China, which the Post described as China’s largest private energy company. The emails that the Post obtained and published for the first time came from a laptop that Hunter Biden abandoned in a a Delaware repair shop. The Biden camp went into full spin mode, and then-Biden campaign staffer, now Secretary of State Anthony Blinken helped convince former intelligence officers to sign a letter implying that the laptop -- and thus any information derived from it -- was "Russian disinformation." 

Among the signatories to that letter was Ret. General Michael Hayden, who is now an advisor for NewsGuard, a for-profit company with federal government contracts that claims to ferret out disinformation and rate news platforms for accuracy.

Biden's own disinformation campaign worked, and large news organizations refused to acknowledge even the existence of the laptop until after the election. The New York Times did not admit that the laptop was legitimate until March of 2022.

Sourced from the laptop, this story was particularly sensitive because its release was immediately before the 2020 presidential election. Hunter Biden was going to hold a 10 percent stake in a planned foreign venture for “the big guy,” which Hunter’s business partners have said is a reference to Joe Biden.

Twitter and other social media locked the New York Post's account, and blocked any news stories about or derived from the laptop. “Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be “unsafe.” They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography,” Taibbi wrote in the first installment of "The Twitter Files", in a thread posted to the platform, now called X. Among the actions that Twitter took surrounding the story, the platform locked White House spokeswoman Kaleigh McEnany out of her account.

The files obtained by Taibbi show that Twitter's staff was in disarray about the reasoning behind censoring the story. A general warning from federal law enforcement about expected foreign hacks had been passed to Twitter and others the summer before the election, but the decision to censor appeared to be internal to the company, according to Taibbi’s reporting.

“They just freelanced it,” one former employee told Taibbi. “Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that it wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it.”

Regardless of how the story came to be censored, Roth himself later admitted that blocking the story from being shared on the platform was a mistake. “We didn’t know what to believe, we didn’t know what was true, there was smoke — and ultimately for me, it didn’t reach a place where I was comfortable removing this content from Twitter,” Roth said at a conference in 2022.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of what was formerly called Twitter, which also prompted Roth’s resignation, has changed the dynamic at that company. Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and has generally implemented company policies that encourage this, including a new community notes feature.

Now, three years later, Roth told the audience in his presentation at UCLA that he is concerned about the fight against “disinformation” and laments reduced investment in the very industry that fumbled the Hunter Biden story censorship. “We took our foot off the gas,” Roth said of "social media integrity" advocates. “We’ve stopped treating election security like an existential question.”

He then described his worry about the 2024 elections, given that the major platforms have largely disbanded or reduced their disinformation policing staff. “I’m worried about the fact that in 2024 platforms will have fewer resources in place than they did in 2022 or in 2018 and what we’re going to see is platforms again asleep at the wheel,” Roth told attendees.

Roth did not respond to a request for comment from Just the News asking why disinformation policing should be expanded and what disinformation teams have learned from their fumble of the Biden laptop story.

In addition to government and journalistic pressure, Roth told Vox Media that the threat of lawsuits also hangs over the heads of tech companies. “Nobody’s talking. The strategy works even when it loses in court, and that’s really what worries me. It’s a chilling effect,” Roth said in an interview. “You don’t actually need to prohibit [the] government from talking to platforms, you just need to scare them into not doing it.”

Recent court rulings in Missouri v. Biden have restricted the federal government’s ability to communicate with tech companies about misinformation. The Supreme Court temporarily lifted that restriction late last month when it agreed to take up the Biden Administration’s appeal, but is set to rule on the constitutionality of the federal government's engagement with tech companies on misinformation.

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