once-robust alliance of federal agencies, tech companies, election officials and researchers that worked together to thwart foreign propaganda and disinformation has fragmented after years of sustained Republican attacks.
The GOP offensive started during the 2020 election as public critiques and has since escalated into lawsuits, governmental inquiries and public relations campaigns that have succeeded in stopping almost all coordination between the government and social media platforms.
The most recent setback came when the FBI put an indefinite hold on most briefings to social media companies about Russian, Iranian and Chinese influence campaigns. Employees at two U.S. tech companies who used to receive regular briefings from the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force told NBC News that it has been months since the bureau reached out.
In a testimony last week to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray signaled a significant pullback in communications with tech companies and tied the move to rulings by a conservative federal judge and appeals court that said some government agencies and officials should be restricted from communicating and meeting with social media companies to moderate content. The case is now on hold pending Supreme Court review.
“We’re having some interaction with social media companies,” Wray said. “But all of those interactions have changed fundamentally in the wake of the court rulings.”
Wray didn’t elaborate, but sources familiar with the matter told NBC News that all the FBI’s interactions with tech platforms now have to be pre-approved and supervised by Justice Department lawyers. …
A common theme among those interviewed: The chilling effect that Republican attacks had on the sharing of information about possible interference, which could make it easier for foreign adversaries to manipulate U.S. public opinion and harder for 2024 voters to sort out what’s real from what’s fake.
Beyond the FBI briefings, other coordination efforts have folded after facing pressure from conservatives. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which oversees federal election cybersecurity and has become a favorite target of Republicans, has halted its outreach to Silicon Valley, and the Department of Homeland Security has shuttered a board designed to coordinate its anti-disinformation programs.
“Some of these efforts really are designed to isolate people and make them feel like they can’t communicate with CISA, like they can’t communicate with their peers in other states,” a person who works in state election administration said.
“People feel that things are really, really fraught, and common sense does not rule today,” the person added.