DHS-Linked ‘Misinformation’ Researcher Says She Advised, Influenced Twitter’s Censorship Regime

By Published on April 4, 2024

University of Washington professor and researcher Kate Starbird testified in June to the House Judiciary Committee that she advised and influenced Twitter’s election-censorship policies, according to a transcript publicly released on Tuesday.

Starbird served on an advisory committee under the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, and has researched “misinformation” through the university. She testified that she advised multiple social media platforms on the effectiveness of policies, and influenced Twitter in 2020 by expressing backlash to the company’s policy enforcement, according to the transcript.

“I’ll have a conversation sometimes with the platforms or, like, a representative of the platform, and they’ll say: ‘You know, this is what we’re thinking. You know, what do you think?’ And I’ll say: ‘Oh, that might work. That’s probably going to backfire or whatever.’ I don’t draft [policies], but I’ve had conversations with representatives of several platforms, actually,” Starbird testified, according to the transcript.

“I have studied information flows on social media for more than 15 years. My research analyzes how rumors spread online and how disinformation campaigns exploit the features of social media platforms to deceive,” she told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “When a platform reaches out to me for advice on how they should address or think about a problem, I do what I can to help them. This is not coercion, nor is it a conspiracy — it is my job.”

Starbird began receiving solicitations from social media platforms about “disinformation” starting in 2017, she told the Washington Examiner.

“I did not consult with platforms around content moderation of specific pieces of content or accounts,” she told the Examiner. “Nor did I communicate with platforms as part of my role at the [Election Integrity Partnership] or as a member of the CISA advisory committee.”

She was involved with the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which formed in 2020 and worked with Twitter to censor content during that year’s election. She told the DCNF that the “team did not coordinate with social media platforms or the federal government whatsoever. Further, none of our EIP work was funded by the federal government. Our role was to analyze data and draft publicly available reports and academic papers on harmful rumors and disinformation.”

“We never had any direct feedback that says, ‘Oh, you all said this, and this is what we put in for our policy around the EIP stuff,’ that I remember. Other times, they have told me things about their policies, but I don’t remember any about election — actually, that’s not true,” Starbird said in the transcript. “There may have been one time that they said, ‘We put something in place.’ But I don’t think that’s because we told them to. I think that’s because I was yelling at them at Twitter for not doing it, like, publicly. And they said, ‘Hey, look, we’ve done this.’ If that makes sense.”

Starbird said someone from the platform reached out to her in August 2020 to inform her that a “civic media integrity” policy change took place. The platform had policies in place to label and suppress “misleading information” during the 2020 election, according to its website.

“[Someone from Twitter] contacted me to say that they had put some kind of policy in place around civic media integrity. And I replied something around the lines of, ‘Yep. Okay. That’s great, but it’s not working fast enough,’” she testified.

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“They were trying to enforce things, but they enforced it after the content was already fading anyway,” Starbird added. “So I think I made a snarky comment about the fact that it was working too slowly … But it wasn’t, like, I hadn’t told them to do that policy change. They just gave me an update. It was more like I did a public communication that their policies could be improved, if that makes sense.”

CISA’s Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation and Disinformation subcommittee, which Starbird served on, released recommendations in June 2022 regarding how to handle information threats to “critical functions” like public health, the financial system, and elections. The subcommittee recommended CISA identify “informational threats” and work with “governmental” as well as “nongovernmental” entities to debunk mis- and disinformation.

The subcommittee sought out left-wing research groups and pro-censorship organizations in its efforts to crack down on perceived misinformation, the DCNF previously reported.

“Personally, my opinion is that CISA and the U.S. government should not flag content for platforms to moderate — except in cases where the content is illegal (e.g., false information about when or where to vote that could disenfranchise voters), encourages illegal activity (e.g. voter fraud), encourages or threatens violence (e.g., against election officials) or is part of a foreign influence operation (e.g., Iranians impersonating Proud Boys in threatening letters to Democrat voters in 2020),” Starbird previously told the DCNF.

Starbird’s political donations also have a left-wing bend. The researcher gave $750 to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and $250 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee boosting the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The researcher also led a project that Biden’s National Science Foundation (NSF) granted $2.25 million in 2021.

“CISA has not and does not advise social media companies on content moderation,” a CISA spokesperson told the DCNF. “The Cybersecurity Advisory Committee (CSAC) is a federal advisory committee that provides recommendations to CISA on topics related to its cybersecurity and infrastructure security mission. Consistent with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the CSAC operates openly and transparently, with all committee recommendations are available to the public. Dr. Starbird was a member of CSAC and not a CISA employee. Like other CSAC members, she was chosen based on experience, background, and knowledge to advise the agency. Any work Dr. Starbird may have done with social media companies was not related to her role as a member of the CSAC.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include statements from Kate Starbird.


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