An extensive report from the efforts of Susan Schmidt, Andrew Lowenthal, Tom Wyatt, Techno Fog, and four others.
Introduction by Matt Taibbi
On January 17, 1961, outgoing President and former Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower gave one of the most consequential speeches in American history. Eisenhower for eight years had been a popular president, whose appeal drew upon a reputation as a person of great personal fortitude, who’d guided the United States to victory in an existential fight for survival in World War II. Nonetheless, as he prepared to vacate the Oval Office for handsome young John F. Kennedy, he warned the country it was now at the mercy of a power even he could not overcome.
Until World War II, America had no permanent arms manufacturing industry. Now it did, and this new sector, Eisenhower said, was building up around itself a cultural, financial, and political support system accruing enormous power. This “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” he said, adding:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes… Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
This was the direst of warnings, but the address has tended in the popular press to be ignored. After sixty-plus years, most of America – including most of the American left, which traditionally focused the most on this issue – has lost its fear that our arms industry might conquer democracy from within.
Now, however, we’ve unfortunately found cause to reconsider Eisenhower’s warning.
While the civilian population only in recent years began haggling over “de-platforming” incidents involving figures like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, government agencies had already long been advancing a new theory of international conflict, in which the informational landscape is more importantly understood as a battlefield than a forum for exchanging ideas. In this view, “spammy” ads, “junk” news, and the sharing of work from “disinformation agents” like Jones aren’t inevitable features of a free Internet, but sorties in a new form of conflict called “hybrid warfare.”
In 1996, just as the Internet was becoming part of daily life in America, the U.S. Army published “Field Manual 100-6,” which spoke of “an expanding information domain termed the Global Information Environment” that contains “information processes and systems that are beyond the direct influence of the military.” Military commanders needed to understand that “information dominance” in the “GIE” would henceforth be a crucial element for “operating effectively.”
You’ll often see it implied that “information operations” are only practiced by America’s enemies, because only America’s enemies are low enough, and deprived enough of real firepower, to require the use of such tactics, needing as they do to “overcome military limitations.” We rarely hear about America’s own lengthy history with “active measures” and “information operations,” but popular media gives us space to read about the desperate tactics of the Asiatic enemy, perennially described as something like an incurable trans-continental golf cheat.
Indeed, part of the new mania surrounding “hybrid warfare” is the idea that while the American human being is accustomed to living in clear states of “war” or “peace,” the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian citizen is born into a state of constant conflict, where war is always ongoing, whether declared or not. In the face of such adversaries, America’s “open” information landscape is little more than military weakness.
In March of 2017, in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on hybrid war, chairman Mac Thornberry opened the session with ominous remarks, suggesting that in the wider context of history, an America built on constitutional principles of decentralized power might have been badly designed:
Americans are used to thinking of a binary state of either war or peace. That is the way our organizations, doctrine, and approaches are geared. Other countries, including Russia, China, and Iran, use a wider array of centrally controlled, or at least centrally directed, instruments of national power and influence to achieve their objectives…
Whether it is contributing to foreign political parties, targeted assassinations of opponents, infiltrating non-uniformed personnel such as the little green men, traditional media and social media, influence operations, or cyber-connected activity, all of these tactics and more are used to advance their national interests and most often to damage American national interests…
The historical records suggest that hybrid warfare in one form or another may well be the norm for human conflict, rather than the exception.
Around that same time, i.e. shortly after the election of Donald Trump, it was becoming gospel among the future leaders of the “Censorship-Industrial Complex” that interference by “malign foreign threat actors” and the vicissitudes of Western domestic politics must be linked. Everything, from John Podesta’s emails to Trump’s Rust Belt primary victories to Brexit, were to be understood first and foremost as hybrid war events.
This is why the Trump-Russia scandal in the United States will likely be remembered as a crucial moment in 21st-century history, even though the investigation superficially ended a non-story, fake news in itself. What the Mueller investigation didn’t accomplish in ousting Trump from office, it did accomplish in birthing a vast new public-private bureaucracy devoted to stopping “mis-, dis-, and malinformation,” while smoothing public acquiescence to the emergence of a spate of new government agencies with “information warfare” missions.
The “Censorship-Industrial Complex” is just the Military-Industrial Complex reborn for the “hybrid warfare” age.
Much like the war industry, pleased to call itself the “defense” sector, the “anti-disinformation” complex markets itself as merely defensive, designed to fend off the hostile attacks of foreign cyber-adversaries who unlike us have “military limitations.” The CIC, however, is neither wholly about defense, nor even mostly focused on foreign “disinformation.” It’s become instead a relentless, unified messaging system aimed primarily at domestic populations, who are told that political discord at home aids the enemy’s undeclared hybrid assault on democracy.
They suggest we must rethink old conceptions about rights, and give ourselves over to new surveillance techniques like “toxicity monitoring,” replace the musty old free press with editors claiming a “nose for news” with an updated model that uses automated assignment tools like “newsworthy claim extraction,” and submit to frank thought-policing mechanisms like the “redirect method,” which sends ads at online browsers of dangerous content, pushing them toward “constructive alternative messages.”
Binding all this is a commitment to a new homogeneous politics, which the complex of public and private agencies listed below seeks to capture in something like a Unified Field Theory of neoliberal narrative, which can be perpetually tweaked and amplified online via algorithm and machine learning. This is what some of the organizations on this list mean when they talk about coming up with a “shared vocabulary” of information disorder, or “credibility,” or “media literacy.”
Anti-disinformation groups talk endlessly about building “resilience” to disinformation (which in practice means making sure the public hears approved narratives so often that anything else seems frightening or repellent), and audiences are trained to question not only the need for checks and balances, but competition. Competition is increasingly frowned upon not just in the “marketplace of ideas” (an idea itself more and more often described as outdated), but in the traditional capitalist sense. In the Twitter Files we repeatedly find documents like this unsigned “Sphere of Influence” review circulated by the Carnegie Endowment that wonders aloud if tech companies really need to be competing to “get it right”:
In place of competition, the groups we’ve been tracking favor the concept of the “shared endeavor” (one British group has even started a “Shared Endeavour” program), in which key “stakeholders” hash out their disagreements in private, but present a unified front.
Who are the leaders of these messaging campaigns? If you care to ask, the groups below are a good place to start.
“The Top 50 List” is intended as a resource for reporters and researchers beginning their journey toward learning the scale and ambition of the “Censorship-Industrial Complex.” Written like a magazine feature, it tries to answer a few basic questions about funding, organization type, history, and especially, methodology. Many anti-disinformation groups adhere to the same formulaic approach to research, often using the same “hate-mapping,” guilt-by-association-type analysis to identify wrong-thinkers and suppressive persons. There is even a tendency to use what one Twitter Files source described as the same “hairball” graphs.
Where they compete, often, is in the area of gibberish verbiage describing their respective analytical methods. My favorite came from the Public Good Projects, which in a display of predictive skills reminiscent of the “unsinkable Titanic” described itself as the “Buzzfeed of public health.”
Together, these groups are fast achieving what Eisenhower feared: the elimination of “balance” between the democratic need for liberalizing laws and institutions, and the vigilance required for military preparation. Democratic society requires the nourishment of free debate, disagreement, and intellectual tension, but the groups below seek instead that “shared vocabulary” to deploy on the hybrid battlefield. They propose to serve as the guardians of that “vocabulary,” which sounds very like the scenario Ike outlined in 1961, in which “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific and technological elite.”
Without further ado, an introduction to the main players in this “CIC”:
1. Information Futures Lab (IFL) at Brown University (formerly, First Draft):
Link: https://sites.brown.edu/informationfutures/ / https://First Draftnews.org/
Type: A university institute, housed within the School of Public Health, to combat “misinformation” and “outdated communications practices.” The successor to First Draft, one of the earliest and more prominent “anti-disinformation” outfits.
You may have read about them when: You first heard the terms Mis-, dis-, and malinformation. The term was coined by FD Director Claire Wardle. IFL/FD are also the only academic/non-profit organization involved in the Trusted News Initiative, a large-scale legacy media consortium established to control debate around the pandemic response. Wardle was Twitter executives’ first pick for a signal group of anti-misinformation advisors it put together. She also participated in the Aspen Institute’s Hunter Biden laptop tabletop in August 2020 (before the laptop story broke). IFL’s co-founder Stefanie Friedhoff serves on the White House Covid-19 Response Team. First Draft staffers were also revealed in the #TwitterFiles to be frequent and trusted partners to a leading public face of the Censorship-Industrial Complex, Renee DiResta, now of Stanford University.
What we know about funding: First Draft was funded by a huge number of entities including Craig Newmark, Rockefeller, the National Science Foundation, Facebook, the Ford Foundation, Google, the Knight Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, Open Society Foundations, and more. Funding for the IFL includes the Rockefeller Foundation for a “building vaccine demand” initiative.
What they do/What they are selling: IFL/First Draft position themselves as the vanguard of disinformation studies, acting as key advisors to media, technology, and public health consortiums, bringing together a wide range of academic skill sets.
Characteristic/worldview quotes: High use of terms like coordinated inauthentic behavior, information pollution, the future Homeland Security catchwords mis-, dis-, and malinformation, and information disorder.
Gibberish verbiage: “The most accessible inoculation technique is prebunking — the process of debunking lies, tactics or sources before they strike.”
In the #TwitterFiles: First Draft is featured extensively in the files. They were the first proposed name when Twitter decided to assemble a small group of “trusted people to come together to talk about what they’re seeing,” were part of the Aspen Institute’s Burisma tabletop, and appeared in multiple emails with Pentagon officials.
Closely connected to: Almost all the leading lights of the CIC, including the Stanford Internet Observatory, the Trusted News Initiative, Shorenstein Center, DFRLabs, the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Institute, Meedan, and Bellingcat.
In sum: With a strong ability to both know and direct emerging trends, and with a large array of elite networks in tow, the IFL will continue to serve as one of the key tastemakers in the “anti-disinformation” field.
Type: Medium-sized non-profit specializing in technology and countering “disinformation.”
You may have read about them when: Meedan ran a range of Covid-19 misinformation initiatives “to support pandemic fact-checking efforts” with funding from BigTech, the Omidyar Foundation, the National Science Foundation and more. Partners included Britain’s now-disgraced Behavioural Insights Team, or “nudge unit,” known for scaring the pants off Brits about a range of medical manias. Among Meedan’s “anti-disinformation” projects is an effort to peer into private, encrypted messages. The Meedan board includes Tim Hwang (former Substack General Counsel), free speech skeptic Zeynep Tufecki, and Maria Ressa, a Nobel Prize winner with very close ties to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the National Endowment for Democracy. Ressa believes Wikileaks “isn’t journalism.” Meedan co-founder Muna AbuSulayman was the founding Secretary General of the Saudi Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation. Alwaleed bin Talal is one of the largest shareholders in Twitter, both pre-Elon Musk and now, with Musk.
What we know about funding: Widespread public and private funding including from Omidyar, Twitter, Facebook, Google, the National Science Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and more.
What they do/What they are selling: Meedan positions itself as an NGO leader in the “anti-disinformation” field; convening networks, developing technology, and establishing new initiatives. Strong support and development are given to “fact-checking” organizations and building the technology to support them.
Characteristic/worldview quote: “Detection of controversial and hateful content.”
Gibberish verbiage: “Our work shows that there are far more matches between tipline content and public group messages on WhatsApp than between public group messages and either published fact checks or open social media content.”
In the #TwitterFiles: Minimal in the files at hand, though Meedan is noted as one of Twitter’s four main Covid “misinformation” partners.
Connected to: Twitter, Factcheck.org, AuCoDe, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, the Behavioral Insights Team, the Oxford Internet Institute, Stanford Internet Observatory, and First Draft.
In sum: Meedan exemplifies the NGO-to-Stasi stylistic shift, where spying and snitching on private messages in the name of “anti-disinformation” is now considered a public good.
3. Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy (Technology and Social Change Project)
Type: An elite academic project once regarded as one of the leading centers in the “anti-disinformation” field.
You may have read about them when: It was announced that the center would be closed in 2024 on the spurious grounds that project lead Joan Donovan lacked sufficient academic credentials to run the initiative (what was spurious is that it took that long for this realization to come about). Donovan was already widely known for partisanship and getting things wrong, in particular repeatedly claiming the Hunter Biden laptop was not genuine. The Shorenstein Center birthed two other key “anti-disinformation” initiatives, the aforementioned First Draft and the Algorithmic Transparency Initiative. Cameron Hickey, ATI’s lead, is now CEO of the much larger National Congress on Citizenship. In this video, Joan Donavan sits alongside Richard Stengel, the first head of the Global Engagement Center, an agency housed in the State Department with a remit to “counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.” The closing of the Technology and Social Change Project is a minor victory in an otherwise exploding field.
What we know about funding: Money from: the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Gates Foundation, Google, Facebook Journalism Project, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
What they do/What they are selling: Academic research into “disinformation,” a fellows program, field convening, and frequent media commentary. The Shorenstein Center also produces a leading “misinformation studies” journal.
Characteristic/worldview quote: Donovan’s infamous tweet, posed with an Atlantic staffer: “Me and @cwarzel Looking at the content on the Hunter Biden Laptop, the most popular straw man question at #Disinfo2022.”
Gibberish verbiage: “Examining accuracy-prompt efficacy in combination with using colored borders to differentiate news and social content online”
Closely connected to: First Draft, Algorithmic Transparency Initiative/NCoC, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Data and Society, and the Aspen Institute.
In sum: An “anti-disinformation” project that got it wrong so often, even the center that housed it cut ties.
4. The Public Good Projects
Type: Non-profit consultancy, specializing in health communications, marketing, technology and “disinformation.”
You may have read about them when: Whilst PGP seem to do some front-facing work, they are also guns for hire for a large range of corporate and government programs. Twitter files show PGP had contracts with biotech lobby group BIO (whose members include Pfizer and Moderna) to run the Stronger campaign, which according to Lee Fang “worked w/Twitter to set content moderation rules around covid ‘misinformation.’” Jennifer McDonald of Twitter’s Public Policy team noted in an email that PGP was also among Twitter’s four “strongest information sharing partnerships” for Covid “misinformation”. PGP partnered with UNICEF on the Vaccine Demand Observatory which aims to “decrease the impact of misinformation and increase vaccine demand around the world.” The board includes the former CEO of Pepsi and Levi’s, a Morgan Stanley Vice-President, and Merck Pharmaceuticals’ Director of Public Health Partnerships.
What we know about funding: $1.25 million from BIO as well as partnerships with Google, Rockefeller, and UNICEF.
What they do/What they are selling: A suite of communications activities including marketing, research, media production, social media monitoring, vaccine promotion, and campaigns. They also use AI and natural language processing to “identify, track, and respond to narratives, trends, and urgent issues” in order to “perform fact-checking” and “power behavior change strategies.”
Characteristic/worldview quote: “Think of us as the BuzzFeed of public health.”
In the #TwitterFiles: Noted as one of Twitter’s four go-to sources for supposed detection of Covid-19 misinformation.
Closely connected to: Twitter, UNICEF, Rockefeller, Kaiser Permanente, First Draft, Brown School of Public Health
In sum: A sophisticated communications and technology outfit with close BigTech and BigPharma partners, and a mission to stop “misinformation.”
Type: For-profit firm with defense connections specializing in “digital marketing and disinformation & analysis.”
You may have read about them when: Graphika was one of two outside groups hired in 2017 by the Senate Intelligence Committee to assess the Russian cyber menace. Graphika was also a “core four” partner to Stanford’s Election Integrity Partnership and its Virality Project, both subjects of #TwitterFiles reports. Made headlines for claiming a leak of US-UK trade discussions, publicized by Jeremy Corbyn, was part of an operation called “secondary Infektion” traceable to Russia.
Former Director of Investigations Ben Nimmo was previously a NATO press officer and DFRLabs fellow, and is now Facebook’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead. Head of Innovation Camille Francois was previously Google Jigsaw’s principal researcher.
What we know about funding: $3 million from the Department of Defense for 2020-2022, “to support and stimulate basic and applied research and technology at educational institutions”; boasts of partnerships with the Defense Advanced Partnerships Research Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force. According to USAspending.gov, defense agencies have provided almost $7 million.
What they do/What they are selling: Long-form reports and subscription services for corporate and governmental clients, often focused on identifying “leading influencers” and “misinformation and disinformation risks,” along with highly sophisticated AI for surveilling social media.
Characteristic/worldview quote: “seeding doubt and uncertainty in authoritative voices leads to a society that finds it too challenging to identify what’s true.”
Gibberish verbiage: Tendency to impressively horrific puns (“More-troll Kombat,” “Lights, Camera, Coordinated Action!” “Step into my Parler”).
In the #TwitterFiles: In 2017-2018, Twitter was unaware the Senate Intelligence Committee would be sharing their data on supposed Russia-linked accounts with commercial entities.
In sum: With deep Pentagon ties and a patina of public-facing commercial legitimacy, Graphika is set up to be the Rand Corporation of the Anti-Disinformation age.
Connected to: Stanford Internet Observatory, DFRLabs, Department of Defense, DARPA, Knight Foundation, Bellingcat
Further reading: https://www.foundationforfreedomonline.com/?page_id=2328
Type: Public-facing disinformation research arm of highly influential, extravagantly funded, NATO-aligned think tank, the Atlantic Council.
You may have read about them when: In May of 2018, Facebook announced a “New Election Partnership With the Atlantic Council,” to “prevent our service from being abused during elections.” The announcement was made by former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chief Digital Strategist Katie Harbath, weeks after a contentious hearing in the Senate in which Mark Zuckerberg answered questions about the “abuse of data” on Facebook. The Atlantic Council’s DFRLabs at the time included such figures as Eliot Higgins (from Bellingcat) and Ben Nimmo, future Director of Investigations at Graphika. This became a watershed moment, as Facebook soon after announced a series of purges of accounts accused of “coordinated inauthentic activity,” including small indie sites like Anti-Media, End The War on Drugs, ‘Murica Today, Reverb, and Anonymous News, beginning an era of mass deletions.
DFRLab was a core partner for Stanford’s “Election Integrity Partnership,” and the “Virality Project.” The Atlantic Council also organizes the elite 360/Open Summit whose 2018 disinformation edition included the private Vanguard-25 forum that brought together Madeleine Albright, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the head of the Munich Security Conference, Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, Edelman (the world’s biggest PR company), Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Bellingcat, Graphika, and more.
What we know about funding: “DFRLab has received grants from the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center that support programming with an exclusively international focus,” Graham Brookie of DFRLabs told Racket. The Atlantic Council receives funding from the U.S. Army and Navy, Blackstone, Raytheon, Lockheed, the NATO STRATCOM Center of Excellence and a long list of other financial, military, and diplomatic entities.
What they do/What they are selling: Long-form reports, list-making, conference hosting, creation of reporter-friendly widgets (e.g. “Foreign Election Interference Tracker,” “Minsk Monitor”)
Characteristic/worldview quote: On “rumors about Covid-19s origins,” particularly the “disinformation” that the virus may have originated in a laboratory: “The cumulative effect of this was to distract the U.S. public’s attention away from the federal government’s disjointed approach to mitigating the virus and point the blame at China.”
Gibberish verbiage: Awesome quantities; site seethes at public’s unwillingness to popularize nom d’équipe “Digital Sherlocks”; insists so often it is relying only on “open-source information” that one doubts it; relies heavily on schlock military (“Narrative Arms Race”) and medical (“Infodemic”) metaphors to describe disinformation threat.
In sum: DFRLabs is not only funded by the Global Engagement Center, and had initial GEC chief Richard Stengel as a fellow, but uses substantial state and corporate resources to evangelize GEC’s “ecosystem” theory of disinformation, which holds that views that overlap with foreign threat actors are themselves part of the threat.
Connected to: the Stanford Internet Observatory, University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, Graphika, Bellingcat, and the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics
This is only the top SIX! (Media Mattress, aka Media Matters for America, comes in at 34.) For the complete list, click here:
This is what we are up against.