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Why Renee DiResta Leads The Censorship Industry
How a former CIA fellow came to lead US government efforts to stamp out disfavored speech on the Internet
Since the 2016 elections, politicians, journalists, and many others have raised the alarm about “foreign election influence” and “disinformation,” demanding greater “content moderation” by social media platforms. It is too easy, they argued, for foreign and malign actors to quickly “go viral” at low cost, leaving the good guys unable to correct bad information. We must become more “resilient” to disinformation.
It’s now clear that all of that rhetoric was cover for a sweeping censorship effort by the federal government and government contractors.
Since December, a small but growing group of journalists, analysts, and researchers have documented the rise of a “Censorship Industrial Complex”, a network of U.S. government agencies, and government-funded think tanks. Over the last six years, these entities have coordinated their efforts to both spread disinformation and to censor journalists, politicians, and ordinary Americans. They have done so directly and indirectly, including by playing good cop/bad cop with Twitter and Facebook. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have been involved in these censorship and disinformation campaigns in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
We now know, thanks to the Twitter Files, emails released by the Attorney Generals of Missouri and Louisiana, and research by others, that the Censorship Industrial Complex is violating the First Amendment by coordinating with government agencies and receiving government funding to pressure and help social media companies to both censor information, including accurate information, while spreading disinformation, including conspiracy theories.
And such efforts are continuing if not accelerating. At Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” last week, US allies in Europe demanded that Facebook censor “false narratives” and news that would “weaken our support to Ukraine.” Facebook agreed.
One of the most intelligent, influential, and fascinating public-facing leaders of the Censorship Industrial Complex is Renee DiResta, Research Manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory. Diresta has, more than anyone else, made the public case for greater government-led and government-funded censorship, writing for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and other major publications, and through public speaking, including on podcasts with Joe Rogan and Sam Harris.
To many journalists and policymakers, DiResta is one of the good guys, advocating as a citizen and hobbyist for greater U.S. government action to fight disinformation. DiResta has argued that the U.S. has been unprepared to fight the “information war” with Russia and other nations in her bylined articles for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, and many others. And in her 2018 Senate testimony DiResta advocated “legislation that defines and criminalizes foreign propaganda” and for allowing law enforcement to “prosecute foreign propaganda.”
DiResta, as much as any other public person in the Western world, has sounded the alarm, repeatedly and loudly, for stronger governmental and non-governmental coordination to get social media platforms to censor more information. “The Russian disinformation operations that affected the 2016 United States presidential election are by no means over,” wrote DiResta in the New York Times in December 2018. “Russian interference through social media is a chronic, widespread, and identifiable condition that we must now aggressively manage.”
In 2021, DiResta advocated for creating a government censorship center, which she euphemistically referred to as a “Center of Excellence,” within the federal government. “Creation of a ‘Center of Excellence’ within the federal government,” she said, “could tie in a federal lead with platforms, academics, and nonprofits to stay ahead of these emerging narratives and trends.” DiResta argued that her censorship center could also help spread propaganda. “As narratives emerge,” she explained, “the Center of Excellence could deploy experts to relevant federal agencies to help prepare pre-bunking and messaging, to identify trusted voices in communities, and to build coalitions to respond.”
Did the Department of Homeland Security act on DiResta’s proposal to create a censorship center? It did. But DHS didn’t call it a “Center of Excellence.” Instead, it called it a “Disinformation Governance Board,” which the agency announced publicly in April 2022.
DiResta’s rise to the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community struck me back in December of last year as improbably meteoric. DiResta had repeatedly described her involvement in fighting disinformation as having started in 2013 when she became a new mom and grew concerned about spreading anti-vaccine information online. “In 2013,” she explained to Kara Swisher, “I had my first kid… You know, you have to do that preschool thing here, you’ve got to get them on a list a year early. I didn’t want to be in a preschool with a bunch of anti-vaxxers, candidly.” Two years later she was helping to fight ISIS online and by 2018 she was testifying before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
While these suspicions nagged at me, I waved them away because DiResta is brilliant, was already working in high tech, and was succeeding in the new field of fighting foreign disinformation on social media platforms. Of all the people in various government agencies and government-funded think tanks making the case for U.S. government censorship, DiResta is, by far, the most persuasive. She received a degree in computer science in 2004, worked as a trader at Jane Street until 2011, was a high-tech VC until 2014, and founded a cloud-based shipping management software company that was acquired in 2021.
And, given the historical dominance of high tech by founders in their 20s and 30s, and the challenges of older people to understand social media, I convinced myself that a person with DiResta’s limited experience battling disinformation online might leapfrog over the hundreds if not thousands of researchers, analysts, and intelligence experts who conduct research and combat foreign disinformation for the U.S. government and government-funded think tanks and academic institutions.
But then I learned that DiResta had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The journalist Matt Taibbi pointed me to the investigative research into the censorship industry by Mike Benz, a former State Department official in charge of cybersecurity. Benz had discovered a little-viewed video of her supervisor at the Stanford Internet Observatory, Alex Stamos, mentioning in an off-hand way that DiResta had previously “worked for the CIA.”
In her response to my criticism of her on Joe Rogan, DiResta acknowledged but then waved away her CIA connection. “My purported secret-agent double life was an undergraduate student fellowship at CIA, ending in 2004 — years prior to Twitter’s founding,” she wrote. “I’ve had no affiliation since.”
But DiResta’s acknowledgment of her connection to the CIA is significant, if only because she hid it for so long. DiResta’s LinkedIn includes her undergraduate education at Stony Brook University, graduating in 2004, and her job as a trader at Jane Street from October 2004 to May 2011, but does not mention her time at the CIA.
And, notably, the CIA describes its fellowships as covering precisely the issues in which DiResta is an expert. “As an Intelligence Analyst Intern for CIA, you will work on teams alongside full-time analysts, studying and evaluating information from all available sources—classified and unclassified—and then analyzing it to provide timely and objective assessments to customers such as the President, National Security Council, and other U.S. policymakers.”
Unlike DiResta, Stamos didn’t appear to believe that DiResta’s time working for the CIA was too trivial, or too far in the past, to bother mentioning. When Stamos introduced DiResta to a Stanford audience, he described her as having “worked for,” not merely “interned” with, the CIA.
Is DiResta telling the truth when she claims she’s had “no affiliation since”? Perhaps. But one of the things I have heard from multiple people, including people within the intelligence community, is, “Nobody ever retires from the intelligence community.” Such a claim is, no doubt, exaggerated. But there is truth to it. Moreover, one of the main characteristics of spycraft is the deployment of agents and assets not publicly affiliated with the CIA or other intelligence agencies.
A large amount of CIA involvement in content moderation requests was discovered through Twitter Files. “CIA officials attended at least one conference with Twitter in the summer of 2020,” writes Taibbi, “and companies like Twitter and Facebook received ‘OGA [Other Government Agencies, which is code for CIA] briefings,’ at their regular ‘industry meetings held in conjunction with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
And it is striking how many former CIA Directors are involved in the censorship industry. Seven former CIA chiefs are on the board of The Atlantic Council, the organization that partnered with DiResta’s Stanford Internet Observatory on the Election Integrity Partnership and Virality Project. The Chief Strategy Officer and the Director of Federal Programs at Graphika, another DiResta partner organization, are former CIA officials.
Whatever DiResta’s true history and continuing affiliations, she is without question one of the most, if not the most, influential leaders within the network of for-profit and nonprofit organizations and government agencies that comprise the Censorship-Industrial Complex. As research director of Stanford Internet Observatory, DiResta was the key leader and spokesperson of both the 2021 “Virality Project,” against covid vaccine “misinformation” and the 2020 “Election Integrity Project.”
The question now is why. If we hope to defund and dismantle the Censorship Industrial Complex, we must understand what makes its leaders tick, why they rose to the top, and how they can be defeated. Who is Renee DiResta, and why is she, and not somebody else, the public-facing leader of the censorship industry and a trusted advisor to Democrats in Congress? Why is she doing it? And what will it take to defund the Stanford Internet Observatory, dismantle the censorship industry, and disempower DiResta?
To answer those questions, we first need to understand how DiResta got away with and was even rewarded for participating in one of the most outrageous and likely illegal, election disinformation campaigns in recent history.
A Case Of The Bot Calling The Kettle Black
In 2017, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, donated $750,000 to American Engagement Technologies (AET), an election campaigns consultancy founded by a former Obama administration official. Of that money, $100,000 went to another political consulting firm, “New Knowledge,” to run a social media disinformation operation to help Alabama Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones defeat Republican Roy Moore in a December special election.
New Knowledge ran something called “Project Birmingham,” which created fake Russian Twitter social media accounts that followed Moore, resulting in news stories that the Kremlin was backing Moore in the race. A 12-page New Knowledge memo dated Dec. 15, 2017 described the operation. “We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the report says.
DiResta was intimately involved with both of the key organizations overseeing the Birmingham disinformation effort. She told the Washington Post that she helped AET get financial backing from Hoffman and took a seat on the board of AET. Then, in January 2018, two weeks after the New Knowledge memo, DiResta became the organization’s Research Director.
The memo claimed that the work of New Knowledge had shifted enough votes for Jones to win the election, which had been decided by fewer than 22,000 voters. How? Through the use of disinformation to “radicalize Democrats, suppress unpersuadable Republicans (‘hard Rs’) and faction moderate Republicans by advocating for write-in candidates,” said the memo.
New Knowledge also “planted the idea that a Russian botnet amplified the Moore campaign on social media. We then tied that botnet to the Moore campaign digital director, making it appear that he had purchased the accounts.” Wrote the Washington Post, “During the campaign, journalists wrote stories about Twitter accounts that appeared to be Russian followers of Moore.”
During the same period, 2017 - 2018, New Knowledge helped a former FBI agent named Clint Watts, and a U.S. government-funded think tank, Alliance for Securing Democracy, run yet another disinformation campaign, one which smeared ordinary Americans as Russian bots and then used that disinformation to generate dozens of news stories, including for CNN (“Russian bots are using #WalkAway to try to wound Dems in midterms”) and the New York Times (“After Florida School Shooting, Russia’s Bot Army Pounced”).
Hamilton 68 offended even Twitter’s chief censor, Yoel Roth. As context, it’s important to remember that Roth loathed Trump. In 2017, Roth tweeted that he believed there were “ACTUAL NAZIS IN THE WHITE HOUSE.” But when it came to evaluating Hamilton 68, Roth was shocked by the flagrant effort to smear work-a-day conservatives as Russians. “Virtually any conclusion drawn from [Hamilton 68] will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian.” Roth urged his colleagues to “call this out on the bullshit it is.”
Unfortunately, Roth’s supervisors worried about the political consequences and let New Knowledge’s Hamilton 68 disinformation continue. “We have to be careful in how much we push back on ASD publicly,” wrote Twitter executive Emily Horne in February 2018. Notes Jacob Siegel in Tablet. “Horne had previously worked at the State Department, handling the ‘digital media and think tank outreach” portfolio. According to her LinkedIn, she ‘worked closely with foreign policy reporters covering [ISIS] … and executed communications plans relating to Counter-[ISIS] Coalition activities.’ Put another way, she had a background in counterterrorism operations similar to Watts’ but with more of an emphasis on spinning the press and civil society groups.”
Siegel notes similarly suspicious timing for the arrival of Horne. “From there she became the director for strategic communications for Obama’s National Security Council, only leaving to join Twitter in June 2017,” writes Siegel. “Sharpen the focus on that timeline, and here’s what it shows: Horne joined Twitter one month before the launch of ASD, just in time to advocate for protecting a group run by the kind of power brokers who held the keys to her professional future.”
Naturally, everyone involved denied involvement. DiResta claimed “she became concerned with the opaqueness of the project and severed ties with” AET. But if DiResta genuinely felt New Knowledge’s creation of the Birmingham hoax was so terrible, why did to to work for it, and help it raise $11 million? And why did the Senate Intelligence Committee recruit DiResta and New Knowledge write a report claiming Russians had elected Trump?
New Knowledge and another group, Graphika, pointed to evidence, in their reports, that ten million people in the U.S. had seen social media ads. DiResta’s findings were widely respected and publicized. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper called the evidence that Russia had influenced the election "staggering." University of Pennsylvania communication professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson claimed it proved Trump would not have been president without the Russians.
But there is no evidence that the Russians influenced the 2016 campaign, much less that they won it for Trump. Conservative voters did not consume much social media compared to news media in 2016. While 40 percent of Trump voters said, Fox was their primary news source, only 7 percent said Facebook.
“People promoting the idea that Russia swung the election will often cite that Russian Facebook posts reached about 126 million Americans,” said a team of researchers who debunked DiResta’s disinformation. “But that refers to anyone whose news feed ever included such a piece of content, regardless of whether they saw it, or whether it may have been drowned out in their minds by hundreds of other posts.” Moreover, 56% of the Russian troll farm’s pages appeared after the election while 25% were seen by no one.
DiResta has constantly sought to emphasize, creepily, that “fighting disinformation” is not a free speech issue but rather a national security one. In her 2018 Senate Testimony, DiResta said fighting disinformation “is not about arbitrating truth, nor is it a question of free speech.” Rather, she claimed, it is “a cybersecurity issue, it is an ongoing national security issue, and it must be addressed through a collaboration between governments responsible for the safety of their citizens and private industry responsible for the integrity of their products and platforms” [my emphasis].
DiResta consistently demands censorship to prevent harm. Caring, or protecting people from harm, is a core value for liberals, according to social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt. And harm has traditionally been the main restriction to free speech. The Supreme Court has upheld strong First Amendment protections and modestly constrained them in cases causing harm, like fraud and immediate incitement of violence.
“One of the things that the platforms are looking at now is this notion of healthy discourse,” DiResta told Kara Swisher in an interview published at Vox. “What are the metrics for healthy discourse?... I know some of the [liberal philanthropic] foundations are also working on thinking about how do we quantify this…”
And nobody caused more harm than President Donald J. Trump. “I think that the particularly belligerent, constantly hostile, constantly outrageous tone that [Trump] prefers is deeply harmful,” DiResta told Swisher.
DiResta thinks this question isn’t just important for fighting “foreign disinformation.” Rather, what content “we” should “let” remain online is a question she believes the U.S. government must decide for every major social and political issue in society since her overarching framework is the legitimacy of governing institutions.
In her 2021 video for the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Diresta says, “Our team at [Stanford Internet Observatory] SIO and CISA’s team have done some pioneering work in partnership thinking.” What is “partnership thinking”? It’s the thinking done by DiResta and other self-appointed censors for how the government can censor without violating the First Amendment.
But if DiResta and her colleagues at CISA violate the First Amendment, why mention it? Why not simply avoid mention of it altogether? Part of the reason is likely to assuage concerns among government officials, including elected ones, who approved the funding for the Censorship Industrial Complex in the first place.
But another reason has to do with controlling what is acceptable to say and think. “The Overton window is the collection of societally acceptable political opinions,” noted DiResta. “So, shifting the Overton window or expanding the Overton window means increasing or changing the types of positions, political positions, that are considered mainstream or that are considered respectable, some things that we’re willing to discuss.” As such, DiResta’s labeling of Republican leader Devin Nunes as a “crackpot” for his views of vaccines and Benz as a “crank” is not accidental, but a deliberate strategy to marginalize.
But there is something else, more culturally and class-based, which is her attitude that she, and other elites, should decide what information people are exposed to. Consider how DiResta talks about whether or not the government should allow certain content online. “The way that the intelligence communities think about leaving hostile content up online, letting the ISIS accounts stay, for example, are you getting more information than you otherwise would?”
Why, in the end, is it Renee DiResta, and not somebody else, the leader of the Censorship Industrial Complex? A big part of the reason is because she is the intellectual architect, and most articulate public advocate, of government funding of, and cooperation with, non-governmental actors, such as Stanford Internet Observatory, to increase social media censorship of disfavored views and disfavored users.
But there is another, deeper reason. Like other American elites, DiResta believes that it is the role of people like her to control what information the public is allowed to consume, lest they elect a populist ogre like Donald Trump, decide not to get vaccinated, or don’t accept whatever happens to be mainstream liberal opinion on everything from climate change to transgenderism to the business dealings of the presidents family.
How The Censorship Industry Ends
Dismantling the taxpayer-funded censorship industry and disempowering self-appointed censors like DiResta won’t be easy. Much of the mainstream corporate news media is sympathetic to or affiliated with the Censorship Industrial Complex. They have showered DiResta with puff pieces. They refuse to cover the Twitter Files or the Facebook Files. The Stanford Internet Observatory is receiving large government and private sector grants. And the news media, the censorship industry, and a shocking number of Democrats in Congress support government censorship of social media platforms.
But the backlash to the censorship industry is growing. Jacob Siegel’s long essay in Tablet, along with the work of Benz and Taibbi, has put into historical context the censorship industry’s rise to power. Our appearances in Congress, and on independent podcasts like Joe Rogan’s, have been seen by millions of Americans. And, let’s face it, the American people don’t want elites like DiResta deciding what they can and can’t read, and not simply because it’s grotesquely unconstitutional.
And now, DiResta has responded defensively to my criticisms and, in the process, has issued new, easily-disproved lies. For example, DiResta claimed, “Shellenberger… never asked me about these ‘undisclosed CIA ties.’” That claim is false.
In an October 13 email, which she had asked me to send over What’s App, that I sent to her, I asked her four questions: “According to recorded remarks by your supervisor at Stanford, Alex Stamos, you have previously “worked for the CIA.” Is that true? What did you do for the CIA? What funding and/or employment and direction have you taken from government agencies? If you did work with the CIA, and/or other government agencies, activity, why haven’t you mentioned it in your previous biographies and 2018 Senate testimony?”
DiResta claims, “…Shellenberger continues to mislead. He cited fabricated statistics and claims from a crank…”
The so-called “crank” DiResta refers to is Benz, whose information has proven highly reliable. My colleagues and I have confirmed Benz's facts directly and on his website. We have not found Benz making a single unsubstantiated accusation, much less peddling conspiracy theories. As for the supposedly “fabricated statistics” come directly from DiResta’s “Election Integrity Project” and Virality Project. EIP claims that it classified 21,897,364 individual posts comprising unique “misinformation incidents” from August 15, 2020, to December 12, 2020, from a larger 859 million tweets connected to “misinformation narratives.”
DiResta claims that Stanford Internet Observatory has not been using government funding for censorship. Writes DiResta, “we received an NSF grant after our 2020 election and 2021 covid projects had ended and no government funding went into this work.”
But the National Science Foundation awarded its grant to Stanford, through the University of Washington, in July 2021, when the Virality Project was underway. And in DiResta’s October 2021 video presentation about “partnering,” she said, “Over the spring and summer of 2021,” she says, “VP partnered with federal, state, and local stakeholders, as well as civil society organizations and coalitions of medical professionals, to support their efforts to understand encounter vaccine hesitancy.”
In the same CISA video, DiResta claims it was Stanford interns — not US government officials — who came up with the idea while at CISA. “In August 2020, students from the Stanford Internet Observatory were doing an internship with CISA, and they identified a massive gap in the capability of federal, state, and local governments to become aware of, to analyze, and to rapidly respond to mis- and disinformation, both foreign and domestic, targeting the 2020 election.”
Others confirm this. “This initiative, the Election Integrity Partnership, or EIP, came together in June of 2020 at the encouragement of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA,” wrote EIP partner, the Atlantic Council’s Disinformation Forensic Laboratory. And why doesn’t DiResta mention the 2022 elections? Perhaps she doesn’t want you to know that her SIO, and its EIP partners, were also involved in social media censorship last year.
DiResta made other false claims. She said I told Rogan that she and SIO “had censored Shellenberger, his book, and Rogan himself.” That is simply ridiculous. I said no such thing. DiResta said I had “personal grievances” and had been “speculating about whether I’m a good mom.” Also false. Here’s what I actually said: “I agree with her [Renee] on some things. I’m sure she’s a fine person in her personal life. She’s probably a good mother,” to which Joe said, “You’re trying to be nice,” which was true. Anyone who listens to the exchange can tell I was making clear that my criticism of DiResta was not personal.
Finally, DiResta claimed, “we never discussed climate,” but we did, at length, as the audio file and transcript of our interview, which she permitted me to record, proves. We spent over 12 minutes discussing the censorship of accurate climate change information on Facebook. I raised the exact same climate censorship issue on the podcast with Bari Weiss and Sam Harris on February 1 and made clear both times that it was an extremely important issue to me personally. (Transcript here.)
Would you be surprised to learn that DiResta is a master of misleading people? In her response to me, she appears to be denouncing censorship and advocating more free speech. Consider this sentence: “I’ve long advocated against content and account takedowns in favor of the context - the counter-speech - of a label in the majority of relevant situations.”
The power of language is such that you might have read that sentence, as I first did, and missed that she’s not denying that she advocates “content and account takedowns.” All she’s saying is that she advocates labeling more frequently than she advocates de-platforming and removing posts. And, notably, in our conversation, DiResta described the fact check label as “not censorship in any way, shape, or form.”
While “labeling content” sounds harmless, it has repeatedly been used as a way to spread the kind of disinformation that DiResta claims to be fighting, such as against legitimate opinions about covid vaccines, covid’s origins, The New York Post’s accurate Hunter Biden laptop story, and climate change.
And exaggerating Russian influence may help Putin, or the people trying to win his favor. “When we propagate the idea that Russian propaganda is the all-powerful source of disinformation in American politics,” writes Benkler, “we reinforce precisely this primary goal: We sow confusion.” Wrote Facebook in 2022, “These actors… have an interest in exaggerating their own effectiveness...”
And, as is now clear, DiResta and her colleagues are, in fact bringing to the US the same kinds of influence operations the US government, through the CIA and others, has used to influence elections in past decades, including in South Vietnam and Japan, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Brazil, Israel, Lebanon, Panama, Iran, Greece, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.
The good news is that change is happening and quickly. In the wake of broad public backlash, the Department of Homeland Security in August 2022 terminated the Disinformation Governance Board. CISA removed information about domestic-facing censorship from its website and scrapped its MDM (“Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation”) subcommittee. And Congress has been holding multiple hearings on the rise of the censorship industry, including one last week that included the Attorney General of Louisiana and the former Attorney General of Missouri.
While we must defund and dismantle the Censorship Industrial Complex, the greatest change must happen within ourselves. We must be suspicious of those who raise the alarm about “foreign election influence” and “disinformation” and demand greater “content moderation” by social media platforms. As such, we should take a page from our would-be censors and make ourselves more resilient to their disinformation.