Using the power of the federal government to pressure Big Tech into censoring “disinformation” is a modern Pandora’s box. Sure, the Biden administration may decrease the influence of its critics—in an astonishing violation of the First Amendment—but it also enables bad actors to weaponize this very tool against the U.S. government itself, in an utterly embarrassing cautionary tale.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released an astonishing report Monday, revealing that the FBI under President Joe Biden urged Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to remove the U.S. State Department’s official Russian-language Instagram account.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the FBI routinely forwarded lists from the Secret Service of Ukraine, or SBU, to Big Tech companies, warning that the social media accounts allegedly “spread Russian disinformation,” according to the report.
The SBU flagged the accounts for Big Tech and the FBI, and the FBI often would follow up to ensure that Big Tech took action against these social media accounts. The lists from Ukraine’s secret police often included U.S.-based accounts, and the House subcommittee faults the FBI for failing “to respect fundamental American civil liberties.”
A tremendous catch affected the scheme to combat “Russian disinformation,” however. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, had infiltrated Ukraine’s SBU. This may not come as a surprise, since both Russia and Ukraine established these agencies as replacements for the old Soviet secret police, known as the KGB.
In July 2022, Zelenskyy fired the head of the SBU on account of Russian infiltration of the security service. Earlier this year, Maj. General Viktor Yahun, the Ukrainian secret service’s deputy chairman between 2014 and 2015, said the SBU long has had an overly close relationship with the Russian security and that Ukrainian patriots in the agency “have been in the minority.”
The subcommittee’s report notes that “the SBU was compromised by a network of Russian collaborators, sympathizers, and double agents at the time of its interactions with the FBI,” yet the FBI engaged in “uncritical cooperation” with the Ukrainian agency.
Russian infiltration certainly would explain some of the incongruities of the reports that the Ukrainian secret service—and, by extension, the FBI—flagged to social media for censorship.
Aleksandr Kobzanetz, an FBI agent based in Ukraine, forwarded a list of Instagram accounts that the Ukrainian secret service “suspected” to be “involved in [the] spread of disinformation.” He forwarded the SBU’s list, specifically noting that the agency requests that the accounts “be suspended.”
That list from Ukraine’s secret service included the Instagram account “usaporusski,” the verified Russian-language account of the U.S. State Department.
So, according to the SBU, the U.S. State Department has been “used in the interests of the aggressor country to distribute content that promotes war, inaccurately reflects events in Ukraine, justifies Russian war crimes in Ukraine in violation of international law,” and more.
Ultimately, it appears the State Department survived this round of social media purging, but other accounts may not have been so lucky.
The House subcommittee report notes that the FBI, on behalf of Ukraine’s secret service, also flagged multiple pro-Ukraine Facebook and Instagram posts from Americans. Some of these posts currently are unavailable, while posts from Russian government officials—to whom the pro-Ukraine posts had been responding—remain on the platforms.
Kobzanetz, the FBI agent, sent a list of 5,165 Facebook accounts to parent company Meta on March 1, 2022. Although most of the account holders lived in Russia or Belarus, many of them lived in the U.S.
The subcommittee verified that these flagged accounts belonged to real Americans: a photographer working with a studio in New York; a manager of a moving company in South Carolina; a musician and vocalist based in Minnesota; a professor at a university in California; and a children’s book author living in Washington state.
Perhaps most chilling, an FBI agent reached out to a Meta employee after agents had flagged certain accounts for removal. The agent asked “if these accounts were taken down, or if you need some legal process from us,” ostensibly to cover for the targeting of American citizens on social media.
Last week, in a first-of-its-kind temporary injunction, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to stop strong-arming Big Tech into silencing Americans’ free speech online. Although the Biden administration asked for a “stay” of the order, the judge rejected it, noting that his order was narrowly tailored to protect First Amendment rights.
This latest report from the subcommittee shows just how important the judge’s injunction truly is.
If Russia can infiltrate Ukrainian intelligence and thereby get the FBI to urge Big Tech to censor pro-Ukraine accounts in the name of fighting Russian disinformation, perhaps it’s better for the federal government’s own interests that a judge closes this Pandora’s box. It’s certainly better for America’s global reputation if the FBI stops telling Big Tech to censor the State Department’s official accounts.
Someone has to be the adult in the room and tell the Biden administration, which seems increasingly drunk on power, “Enough!”
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