March 16, 2024 - 6:00pm

America First Legal (AFL), a public interest law firm, has obtained documents through a lawsuit which reveal a government agency’s recommendations for censorship.

The documents, created by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), encourage national governments and private entities to combat disinformation. Its recommendations are vaguely expressed — “regulate ad networks”, for example — but the report spells out various censorship methods in positive terms without explicitly endorsing them. These include disrupting the finances of disfavoured information sources by getting advertisers to pull funding, and shaping the way the public interprets the news through “media literacy” programmes in schools.

AFL sued for access to USAID documents after the agency failed to respond to its FOIA request, eventually gaining access to a “Disinformation Primer” — labelled for internal use only — laying out strategies for the media, non-profits, think tanks and other non-governmental groups to censor alternative and “populist” points of view. The document was first reported by the Foundation for Freedom Online.

The report addresses not only misinformation and disinformation, but also “malinformation”: true information which is used in a “harmful” manner.

“Problematic information,” the primer explains, often originates from alternative media spaces such as Reddit, Discord and 4Chan, as well as gaming websites, where “individuals contribute their own ‘research’ to the larger discussion”, creating “populist expertise” that shapes alternative narratives.

Further, the document includes a list of recommendations, attributed to the Council of Europe, through which various governments and private entities could combat disinformation in order to “enhance political communications” and “address national security and foreign interference”.

Media organisations, it says, should agree on policies on “strategic silence”, a term that is never defined or elaborated upon. They should debunk sources, not just content, and produce more content on “news literacy”. In addition, it advises outlets to tell stories about “information disorder”, defined as “a condition in which truth and facts coexist in a milieu of misinformation and disinformation”.

National governments, the USAID document urges, should regulate ad networks and commission research on “information disorder”. Tech companies should build tools for fact-checking and verification.

This is the latest in a series of revelations about US government agencies promoting censorship through private entities under the auspices of combatting misinformation. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, for example, the FBI warned social media companies of a possible Russian disinformation op remarkably similar to the Hunter Biden laptop scandal which broke soon afterwards. Social media companies censored the story as disinformation, but it was eventually verified by mainstream media outlets including the New York Times after Joe Biden won the election.

As the 2024 election draws closer, the possibility remains that such government-led censorship efforts will begin ramping back up.

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.