Wednesday 12 July 2023

FBI and Ukraine spy agency ran 'censorship operation,' pressuring social media giants to ban users — including verified American accounts — over alleged 'Russian disinformation': House committee report

 The Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Ukraine intelligence agency ran a "censorship operation," pressuring social media platforms to ban users who were allegedly spreading "Russian disinformation," a Monday report by the House Judiciary Committee and the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government revealed.

The report found that some of the accounts targeted for removal belonged to Americans. 

The committee obtained documents from Meta, Facebook and Instagram's parent company, and Alphabet, Google and YouTube's parent company, that uncovered that the FBI, at the request of the Security Service of Ukraine, pressured Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube to "censor Americans engaging in constitutionally protected speech online."

As a result, the committee accused the FBI of violating American users' First Amendment rights.

"The Committee's investigation has revealed that the FBI, the federal law enforcement agency responsible for disrupting foreign malign influence, facilitated censorship requests to American social media companies on behalf of a Ukrainian intelligence agency infiltrated by Russian-aligned actors," the report stated. 

Some accounts the Ukrainian agency and the FBI flagged were American accounts, including a verified U.S. State Department account and several belonging to American journalists.

Considering that the lists included American accounts, the committee alleged that the FBI likely did not properly vet the lists provided to them by the Ukrainian intelligence agency. At the time that the requests were made, the Ukrainian agency had been infiltrated with Russian collaborators and double agents, according to the report. 

In March 2022 alone, the FBI reached out to the social media giants more than a dozen times, according to the committee's report.

One such correspondence was sent to Facebook on March 1. The FBI agent's email contained two spreadsheets with "15,865 individual items of content on Instagram" and "5,165 Facebook accounts."

The special agent's email stated, "I have a few more Instagram and FB accounts that according to the [SSU] spread Russian disinformation. For your review and action as deemed appropriate."

The committee found that the agent's list included a New York photographer, a South Carolina moving company manager, a Minnesota musician, a California university professor, and a Washington children's book author. The report also noted that the Americans' posts had received fewer than 130 total engagements.

The special agent contacted Meta again a few days later to follow up on the action against the accounts.

"Would you be able to tell me if these accounts were taken down, or if you need some legal process from us?" the agent asked.

On March 2, the same agent sent more removal requests regarding accounts "believed to be involved in disinformation." According to the agent, the accounts were "distribut[ing] content that promotes war, inaccurately reflects events in Ukraine, justifies Russian war crimes in Ukraine in violation of international law."

"Incredibly, on this list was the account @usaporusski, which is the official, verified, Russian-language account of the U.S. State Department. Neither the FBI nor the [SSU] provides an explanation as to how the U.S. State Department account was 'involved in disinformation,'" the committee's report explained.

In late March, the same FBI special agent sent a list of flagged accounts to Twitter that had allegedly been "used to disseminate disinformation and fake news."

At the time, Twitter's head of Trust and Safety team, Yoel Roth, informed the FBI that its list contained a "mix of individual accounts… and even a few accounts of American and Canadian journalists." Roth requested additional information from the FBI about the accounts.

The FBI agent responded, "Understood. Whatever your review determines and action Twitter deem is appropriate. Unlikely there will be any additional information or context."

The committee concluded, "Based on open-source information, it appears that the FBI's cooperation with the [SSU] remains ongoing."

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, the New York Post reported.

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