House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and four witnesses warned at a virtual hearing on Oct. 15 that domestic internet “disinformation campaigns are dismantling democracy.”
Schiff opened the hearing by claiming that “over the past several years, a disturbing picture has emerged. While the threat from without in the form of state-backed media, online operatives, and trolls is real and substantial, we cannot ignore the threat from within, which grows more pernicious every day.”
“The online ecosystem and unwitting audiences that the Kremlin so ably exploited remain vulnerable to unscrupulous homegrown actors who seed and spread falsehoods of their own. If left unchecked, there could be irreversible damage, not only to our nation’s discourse but to how we as a society discern fact from fiction.”
For Schiff and the Democratic majority’s witnesses, the “threat from within” is epitomized by the internet group QAnon, various white supremacist organizations, and political leaders such as President Donald Trump, who, he claims, magnify “misinformation and conspiracy theories” using social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
There were no Republican-approved witnesses as the GOP minority refused to participate in the hearing “because we don’t believe [the panel] should conduct its business in an unsecured manner over the internet,” a spokesman told The Epoch Times on Oct. 15.
All four of the hearing’s approved witnesses endorsed the practice of “demonetizing,” the process used most prominently by social media platforms Facebook and YouTube to deprive offending groups of advertising revenues, as well as outright censorship of content judged by the platforms to be false or misleading.
Joan Donovan, research director for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told the panel that damage caused by “unmoderated, unregulated, and unmanageable misinformation and conspiracies” on social media is analogous to the serious health problems caused by tobacco consumption in the years before advertising of such products was banned.
Donovan said social media must be “uninvented” to promote “safety, equity, and democracy.”
Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at Princeton University’s Wilson Center, decried “exploitation by malign actors” of social media, claiming “domestic disinformation now runs rampant” as a result.
“It is amplified in the media, online, in the halls of Congress, and from the White House itself. It does our adversaries’ work for them,” Jankowicz said.
Jankowicz cited as an especially egregious example what she called malign “information laundering” by Russia and other “foreign actors” in “the nexus of conspiracy theories related to Ukraine and Vice President Joe Biden.
“These unsubstantiated and misleading narratives promoted by self-interested and corrupt individuals seeking power and personal gain were endorsed by the President’s advisers, treated as facts by portions of the media, and legitimized in the halls of Congress.”
She was referring to Biden’s son, Hunter, who was paid as much as $83,000 a month by a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, even without any experience in the industry.
The former vice president has publicly boasted that he threatened Ukrainian officials with the loss of $1 billion in U.S. aid if a prosecutor who was investigating the company wasn’t fired. The prosecutor was fired shortly after Biden’s threat.
Republicans, led by Trump, have repeatedly demanded that information be made public about the Bidens’ actions regarding Ukraine, as well as Hunter Biden’s dealings with China. The Asian giant made a massive investment in a financial firm to which he was linked shortly after he and his father made an official visit there.
But neither Jankowicz nor Donovan nor any of the hearing’s other participants directly addressed the censorship by Facebook and Twitter of a bombshell news report Oct. 14 by the New York Post.
The Post cited handwritten notes it obtained about Biden’s son arranging a meeting of a Burisma executive with the then-vice president, who was President Barack Obama’s “point man” on Ukrainian issues. Biden had denied knowing anything about his son’s work for Burisma.
The social media platforms barred users from circulating the link to the Post story, and Twitter shut down President Donald Trump’s Twitter account and that of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Not all of the Democrats on the panel were convinced by the witnesses’ calls for greater regulation and censorship of offending social media content.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said he was “horrified” by Jankowicz’s suggestion that “disinformation is dismantling democracy” and her comments that he took as “approving government censorship.”
“Maybe it was growing up in Latin America in the 1970s, but I had a pretty up-close and personal experience with governments that fought misinformation,” Himes said. He was born in Peru and lived there and in Columbia as his father worked for an international agency.
Himes said he’s “violently allergic to the inclusion of information in the same sentence with government, whether it’s analyzing, evaluating, determining misinformation. We start going down that path, then we are not just breaking democracy, we are breaking classical, enlightened liberalism.”
Republicans are also up in arms over the censorship of the New York Post.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of that panel, plan to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to a hearing next week on it.
And on the House side, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) announced on Oct. 15 that he’s introducing in the lower chamber a version of the Senate Republican proposal to revise Section 230 of the Federal Communications Act, which allows internet firms to evade antitrust liability and accountability for content they publish or refuse to publish.
“Recent acts of political censorship by Twitter and Facebook are a disgrace,” Budd said in a statement on Oct. 15. “Big Tech bias has gone too far in suffocating the voices of conservatives across our country. If these companies want to continue to receive legal protection, they should be forced to play by a fair set of rules in good faith.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, told The Epoch Times on Oct. 15 that “with their censorship of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden stories, social media companies are once again demonstrating that they are publishers with a strong editorial point of view, not neutral platforms, and are therefore ineligible for Section 230 protections.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Acting Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai in a letter on Oct. 15, “The New York Post censorship saga is only the latest example of this consistent effort by Silicon Valley giants. Twenty days before the presidential election, it is also one of the most egregious.”
Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc