CISA, FBI resuming talks with social media firms over disinformation removal, Senate Intel chair says

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. (L) speaks with NightDragon Founder and CEO Dave DeWalt (R) at the 2024 RSA conference in San Francisco, California.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. (L) speaks with NightDragon Founder and CEO Dave DeWalt (R) at the 2024 RSA conference in San Francisco, California. David DiMolfetta/Staff

The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold an election security hearing in two weeks, according to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

SAN FRANCISCO — Key federal agencies have resumed discussions with social media companies over removing disinformation on their sites as the November presidential election nears, a stark reversal after the Biden administration for months froze communications with social platforms amid a pending First Amendment case in the Supreme Court, a top senator said Monday.

Mark Warner, D-Va., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters in a briefing at RSA Conference that agencies restarted talks with social media companies as the Supreme Court heard arguments in Murthy v. Missouri, a case that first began in the Fifth Circuit appellate court last July. The case was fueled by allegations that federal agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency were coercing platforms to remove content related to vaccine safety and 2020 presidential election results.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether agencies are allowed to stay in touch with social media firms about potential disinformation. Missouri's then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed the suit on the grounds that the Biden administration violated First Amendment rights pertaining to free speech online in a bid to suppress politically conservative voices.

According to Warner, communications between agencies and social platforms resumed roughly around the same time that multiple justices appeared to favor the executive branch’s stance on the issue, he said. 

“There seemed to be a lot of sympathy that the government ought to have at least voluntary communications with [the companies],” he said, adding that, in the event of election interference attempts akin to Russia in 2016, the Biden administration should more forcefully call out nation-state entities that attempt to meddle in the U.S. election process.

Warner said his committee will convene a hearing on elections security in two weeks. The panel was supposed to hold the session with CISA Director Jen Easterly and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines last month, but it was postponed amid GOP attempts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

For around six months, agencies chilled their communications with social firms about election security and other disinformation flash points. Warner previously said that White House lawyers had been “too timid” in their legal interpretation of the case, especially given that the high court allowed the Biden administration to temporarily continue their talks until a ruling was made.

Officials fear that a loss of faith in electoral systems at home could lead to a repeat of the widespread voter fraud claims that occurred during the 2020 presidential election, which ended in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. On the domestic front, content moderator staff reductions at social media companies have also been deemed a major risk to election integrity, and election workers worry they will face threats of violence from voters who don’t accept the polling results.

Additionally, artificial intelligence tools have already been used to augment election disruption efforts around the world.

“If the bad guy started to launch AI-driven tools that would threaten election officials in key communities, that clearly falls into the foreign interference category,” said Warner, though it may not necessarily take a formal definition of misinformation, and may be deemed a “whole other vector of attack,” he added.

Foreign adversaries have been found deploying fake social media personas that have engaged with or provoked real-life users in an attempt to assess U.S. domestic issues and learn what political themes divide voters.

The U.S. has been putting its foot down in diplomacy talks on election interference, telling major economic adversaries like China to not intervene in election processes come November. Two weeks ago in Shanghai and Beijing, cyberspace and digital policy ambassador Nathaniel Fick and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken gave a stern warning to Chinese officials about election dynamics.

“The secretary … delivered a very clear message that we view interference in our domestic democratic process as dangerous and unacceptable,” Fick said in a separate RSA briefing with reporters Monday. “Diplomacy is most important when it is most challenging, which is why the discussions with the Chinese at this moment matter a lot,” he said.