In Costa Rica and Latvia today, the Atlantic Council is hosting its 360/OS Summit at RightsCon Costa Rica and NATO’s Riga StratCom. Among other things, the influential think tank will be previewing its “Task Force for a Trustworthy Future Web” report, which they hope will “lay the groundwork for stronger cross-sectoral ideation and action” and “facilitate collaboration now between the expanding community dedicated to understanding and protecting trust and safety.”
In human terms, conference attendees are discussing how best to stay on-brand by presenting the Censorship-Industrial Complex as a human rights initiative, and as #TwitterFiles documents show, they have the juice to pull it off.
EngageMedia (which I co-founded and was the long-time Executive Director) co-organized RightsCon in Manila in 2015, and I personally oversaw a lot of the preparations. That looks like a big mistake. I now believe RightsCon represents everything that has gone wrong in the digital rights field. Specifically, it represents the capture of a once-vibrant movement by corporate and government interests, and a broader shift towards anti-liberal and authoritarian solutions to online challenges. I left EngageMedia on good terms, but now have no formal relationship.
In honor of this week’s RightsCon and 360/OS Summit, we dug into the #TwitterFiles to revisit the integration of the Atlantic Council’s anti-disinformation arm, the Digital Forensic Research Labs (DFRLabs), while also highlighting its relationship with weapons manufacturers, Big Oil, Big Tech, and others who fund the NATO-aligned think tank.
The Atlantic Council is unique among “non-governmental” organizations thanks to its lavish support from governments and the energy, finance, and weapons sectors. It’s been a key player in the development of the “anti-disinformation” sector from the beginning. It wasn’t an accident when its DFRLabs was chosen in 2018 to help Facebook “monitor for misinformation and foreign interference,” after the platform came under intense congressional scrutiny as a supposed unwitting participant in a Russian influence campaign. The press uniformly described DFRLabs as an independent actor that would merely “improve security,” and it was left to media watchdog FAIR to point out that the Council was and is “dead center in what former President Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes called ‘the blob.’”
What’s “the blob?” FAIR described it as “Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy consensus,” but thanks to the Twitter Files, we can give a more comprehensive portrait. In the runup to the 360/OS event in that same year, 2018, Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council boasted to Twitter executives that the attendees would include the crème de la crème of international influence, people he explained resided at the “no-kidding decision-maker level”:
Similar correspondence to and from DFRLabs and Twitter outlined early efforts to bring together as partners groups that traditionally served as watchdogs of one another. Perhaps more even than the World Economic Forum meetings at Davos or gatherings of the Aspen Institute in the US, the Atlantic Council 360/OS confabs are as expansive a portrait of the Censorship-Industrial Complex as we’ve found collected in one place.
In October 2018, DFRLab was instrumental in helping Facebook identify accounts for what became known as “the purge,” a first set of deletions of sites accused of “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Facebook in its announcement of these removals said it was taking steps against accounts created to “stir up political debate,” and the October 2018 “purge” indeed included the likes of Punk Rock Libertarians, Cop Block, and Right Wing News, among others. Even the progressive Reverb Press, founded by a relatively mainstream progressive named James Reader, found his site zapped after years of pouring thousands of dollars a month into Facebook marketing tools. “That’s what sticks in my craw. We tried to do everything they suggested,” Reader said then. “But now, everything I worked for all those years is dead.”
In the years since, DFRLab has become the central coordination node in the Censorship Industrial Complex as well as a key protagonist in the Election Integrity Partnership and the Virality Project. Its high-profile role at RightsCon, the biggest civil society digital rights event on the calendar, should concern human rights and free expression activists.
According to their London 2019 event “360/OS brings together journalists, activists, innovators, and leaders from around the world as part of our grassroots digital solidarity movement fighting for objective truth as a foundation of democracy.” Their Digital Sherlocks program aims to “identify, expose, and explain disinformation.” But DRFLabs are more Inspector Gadget (or double agents) than Sherlock Holmes. The Twitter Files reveal DFRLabs labeled as “disinformation” content that often turned out to be correct, that they participated in disinformation campaigns and the suppression of “true” information, and that they lead the coordination of a host of actors who do the same.
Twitter Files #17 showed how DFRLabs sent Twitter more than 40,000 names of alleged BJP (India’s ruling nationalist party) accounts that they suggested be taken down. DFRLab said it suspected these were “paid employees or possibly volunteers.” However as Racket’s Matt Taibbi noted, “the list was full of ordinary Americans, many with no connection to India and no clue about Indian politics.” Twitter recognized there was little illegitimate about them, resulting in DFRLabs pulling the project and cutting ties with the researcher.
Twitter Files #19 further revealed DFRLab was a core partner in the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which “came together in June of 2020 at the encouragement of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA” in order to “fill the gaps legally” that government couldn’t. As a result, there are serious questions as to whether the EIP violated the US First Amendment.
DFRLabs was also a core partner on the Virality Project, which pushed its seven Big Tech partners to censor “stories of true vaccine side-effects.” The Stanford Internet Observatory, which led the project, is now being sued by the New Civil Liberties Alliance for its censorship of “online support groups catering to those injured by Covid vaccines.” Debate as to the frequency of serious adverse events is ongoing, however. The German health minister put it at 1 in 10,000, while others claim it is higher.
The Virality Project sought to suppress any public safety signals at all. The Stanford Internet Observatory is also at the moment reportedly resisting a House Judiciary Committee subpoena into its activities.
TwitterFiles #20 revealed some of the Digital Forensic Lab’s 2018 360/0S events, which brought together military leaders, human rights organizations, the Huffington Post, Facebook and Twitter, Edelman (the world’s biggest PR firm), the head of the Munich Security Conference, the head of the World Economic Forum (Borge Brende) a former President, Prime Minister and CIA head, intel front BellingCat and future Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, all to combat “disinformation.” We can now reveal more.
James Clapper – former Director of National Intelligence whose tenure included overseeing the NSA during the time of the Snowden leaks. Asked whether intelligence officials collect data on Americans Clapper responded “No, sir,” and, “Not wittingly.” Clapper also coordinated intelligence community activity through the early stages of Russiagate, and his office authored a key January 2017 report concluding that Russians interfered in 2016 to help Donald Trump. Clapper has been a 360/OS attendee.
Stephen Hadley, United States National Security Advisor from 2005 to 2009 (also a 360/OS attendee)
Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State who oversaw the carpet bombing of Vietnam, among other crimes against humanity
Pfizer CEO Anthony Bourla
Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder, The Blackstone Group
Meta’s President for Global Affairs, Nick Clegg
Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest PR firm (and 360/OS attendee)
The Rt. Hon. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Former Secretary General of NATO
Ambassador Robert B. Zoellick, Former President of the World Bank
Leon Panetta, former US Secretary of Defense & CIA Director. Panetta oversaw the US’s massive growth in drone strikes.
John F. W. Rogers. Goldman Sachs Secretary of the Board
Chuck Hagel, chairman of the Council, sits on the board of Chevron and is also a former US Secretary of Defence.
The Atlantic Council raised $70 million in 2022, $25 million of which came from corporate interests. Among the biggest donors were: the US Departments of Defense State, Goldman Sachs, the Rockefeller Foundation, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Google, Crescent Petroleum, Chevron, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, Meta, Blackstone, Apple, BP, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Raytheon, ExxonMobil, Shell, Twitter, and many more. Ukraine’s scandal-ridden energy company, Burisma, whose links to Hunter Biden were suppressed by the August 2020 table-top exercise coordinated by the Aspen Institute, also made a contribution. You can view the full 2022 “honor roll” by clicking here.
The Atlantic Council is the Establishment, though many suffer from the delusion that in putting on a “Digital Sherlock” cape, they’re somehow with the rebel alliance. The opposite is true. The Atlantic Council and DFRLabs don’t hide their militarist affiliations. This week’s OS/360 event at RightsCon Costa Rica runs together with a 360/OS at NATO’s Riga StratCom Dialogue, which DFRLab note they have “worked closely with” “since 2016.”
The Birth of the Digital Forensic Research Lab
DFRLabs was founded in 2016, and has been a major catalyst in expanding the “anti-disinformation” industry. Among non-governmental entities, perhaps only the Aspen Institute comes close to matching the scope, scale and funding power of DFRLabs. DFRLabs claims to chart “the evolution of disinformation and other online and technological harms, especially as they relate to the DFRLab’s leadership role in establishing shared definitions, frameworks, and mitigation practices.”
Almost $7 million of the Atlantic Council’s $61 million spent last year went to the DRFLabs, according to their 2022 annual financial report. Through its fellowship program, it has incubated leading figures in the “disinformation” field. Richard Stengel, the first director of the Global Engagement Center (GEC), was a fellow. GEC is an interagency group “within” the State Department (also a funder of the Atlantic Council), whose initial partners included the FBI, DHS, NSA, CIA, DARPA, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and others. GEC is now a major funder of DFRLabs and a frequent partner:
In this video, Stengel says, “I’m not against propaganda. Every country does it, they have to do it to their own population, and I don’t think it’s that awful.”
Stengel was true to his word, and apart from DFRLabs, the GEC funded the Global Disinformation Index, which set out to demonetize conservative media outlets it claimed were “disinformation.” (See 37. in the censorship list) He thought the now-disgraced Hamilton68 was “fantastic.” In total, GEC funded 39 organizations in 2017. Despite Freedom of Information requests, only 3 have been made public to date. Roughly $78 million of GEC’s initial $100 million budget outlay for fiscal year 2017 came from the Pentagon, though the budgetary burden has shifted more toward the State Department in the years since.
The Global Engagement Center was established in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, via a combination of an executive order and a bipartisan congressional appropriation, led by Ohio Republican Rob Portman and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy. The GEC was and remains virtually unknown, but reporting in the Twitter Files and by outlets like the Washington Examiner have revealed it to be a significant financial and logistical supporter of “anti-disinformation” causes.
Though tasked by Obama with countering “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests,” its money has repeatedly worked its way back in the direction of policing domestic content, with Gabe Kaminsky’s Examiner reports on the GDI providing the most graphic example.
GEC frequently sent lists of “disinformation agents to Twitter.” Yoel Roth, former head of Trust and Safety referred to one list as a “total crock.” Roth is now a member of DFRLab’s Task Force for a Trustworthy Future Web. Let’s hope he brings more trust than Stengel. You can read more on GEC’s funding here.
Other DFRLabs luminaries include Simon Clark, Chairman of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (a UK “anti-disinformation” outfit that aggressively deplatforms dissidents), Ben Nimmo (previously a NATO press officer, then of Graphika (EIP and the Virality Project partners) and now Facebook’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead), and Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat. Bellingcat has an ominous reputation, which it’s earned in numerous ways, including its funding by the National Endowment for Democracy (see Glenn Greenwald’s recent report and Aaron Maté’s here). Most recently, Bellingcat assisted in the arrest of the 21-year-old Pentagon leaker, further speeding up the abandonment of the Pentagon Papers Principal where the media protected, rather than persecuted, leakers. Bellingcat was part of 360/OS backroom meetings with former intel chiefs, the head of Davos and the Munich security conference among many others, as we will see soon.
As noted in the introduction, DFRLabs itself has made several wrong calls on “disinformation.” In one report they highlighted “outright false narratives,” which focused mainly on the notion that Covid was an engineered bioweapon, but lumped in the “unverified” claim Covid was the “result of a lab accident.” A lab accident is now the preferred hypothesis of the US Department of Energy, the FBI, and many others. To the DFRLab it was “disinformation” and a “conspiracy theory.”
The Election Integrity Partnership and the Virality Project
DFRLab were core partners on two of the most influential “anti-disinformation” initiatives of recent times.
The Virality Project built on the EIP and had partnerships with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, TikTok and more to combat vaccine “misinformation.” Stanford and DFRLabs partnered with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, Graphika, NYU Tandon School of Engineering and Center for Social Media and Politics, and the National Congress on Citizenship. Through a shared Jira ticketing system they connected these Big Tech platforms together, with Graphika using sophisticated AI to surveil the online conversation at scale in order to catch “misinformation” troublemakers.
VP went far beyond any kind of misinformation remit, most infamously recommending to their Big Tech partners that they consider “true stories of vaccine side effects” as “standard misinformation on your platform.”
A Virality Project partner called the Algorithmic Transparency Initiative (a project of the National Congress on Citizenship) went further. Their Junkipedia initiative sought to address “problematic content” via the “automated collection of data” from “closed messaging apps,” and by building a Stasi-like “civic listening corps,” which in recent years has taken on a truly sinister-sounding mission. The current incarnation might as well be called “SnitchCorps,” as “volunteers have an opportunity to join a guided monitoring shift to actively participate in monitoring topics that disrupt communities:”
Garret Graff, who oversaw the Aspen Hunter Biden table-top exercise, was chairman of that same National Congress on Citizenship when they collaborated on the Virality Project. Both EIP and VP were led by Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, a former CIA fellow who engineered the now disgraced New Knowledge initiative, which developed fake Russian bots to discredit a 2016 Alabama Senate race candidate, as acknowledged by the Washington Post. You can read Racket’s previous work on the Virality Project here.
DFRLab are the elite of the “anti-disinformation” elite. They work closely with a wide range of actors who have participated in actual disinformation initiatives. Here they’re invited to an elite Twitter group set up by Nick Pickles of “anti-disinformation” luminaries First Draft, also participants in the Hunter Biden laptop tabletop, and the Alliance for Security Democracy, part of the RussiaGate Hamilton68 disinformation operation.
The 360/OS event marries this tarnished record with the financial, political, military, NGO, academic, and intelligence elite. Some of this is visible through publicly available materials. Twitter Files however reveal the behind-the-scenes, including closed door, off-the-record meetings.
“I’ve just arrived in Kyiv” Brookie notes in 2017, as he seeks to line up a meeting with Public Policy Director Nick Pickles as they discuss Twitter providing a USD $150K contribution to OS/360 (seemingly secured), and to garner high-level Twitter participation.
Pickles is visiting DC and Brookie suggests he also meet with the GEC and former FBI agent Clint Watts of Hamilton 68 renown. “Happy to make those connections,” he chimes.
360/OS events are elite and expensive — $1 million according to Brookie — so closer collaboration with Twitter, especially in the form of funding, is a high priority.
Twitter offers $150,000:
When Brookie mentions the attendees at the “no-kidding decision maker level” he isn’t kidding. Parallel to the 360/OS public program is the much more important off-the-record meeting of “decision makers ranging from the C-Suite to the Situation Room.” Here, he is explicit about a convening of military and financial power. Vanguard 25 is presented as a way to “create a discreet and honest way to close the information cap on challenges like disinformation between key decision makers from government, tech, and media.”
The document boasts of its high-level participants:
More are revealed in email exchanges, including Madeleine Albright and the head of the WEF:
They go on to list a bizarre mishmash of media leaders, intelligence officials, and current or former heads of state:
It appears Germany’s Angela Merkel was out of reach in the end, but many of the others attended this behind-the-scenes meeting on “disinformation.” Who are they?
Matthias Dopfner – CEO and 22 percent owner of German media empire Axel Springer SE, the biggest media publishing firm in Europe
Borge Brende – head of the World Economic Forum and former Norwegian foreign minister
Toomas Hendrick Ilves – former President of Estonia who co-chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on Blockchain Technology. Hendrick is also a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (where the Stanford Internet Observatory is housed) and is on the advisory council of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, of Hamilton 68 renown.
Chris Sacca – billionaire venture capitalist
Mounir Mahjoubi – previously Digital Manager for President Macron’s presidential campaign, and former Chairman of the French Digital Council
Reid Hoffman – billionaire and Linkedin co-founder
Ev Williams – Former CEO of Twitter and on the Twitter board at the time
Kara Swisher – New York Times opinion writer, who founded Vox Media Recode
Wolfgang Ischinger – Head of the Munich Security Conference
Aleksander Kwasniewski – Former President of Poland. Led Poland into NATO and the EU.
Richard Edelman – CEO of the largest PR company in the world
Elliot Shrage – previously Vice-President of Public Policy at Facebook (DFRLabs had election integrity projects with Facebook)
Lydia Polgreen – Huffington Post Editor in Chief
Jim Clapper – former US Director of National Intelligence
Maria Ressa – co-founder of Rappler and soon to be winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
JK Rowling was also invited to give an award, though appears she didn’t make it in the end:
Why would such a group all gather specifically around the question of “disinformation?” Is disinformation truly at such a level that it requires bringing together the world’s most popular author with military and intelligence leaders, the world’s biggest PR company, journalists, billionaires, Big Tech and more? Or is this work to build the case that there is a disinformation crisis, to then justify the creation of a massive infrastructure for censorship? A glimpse of the agenda offers clues:
Here the head of the most important military and intelligence conference in the world (Munich) sits down in a closed door meeting with a former Secretary of State and the Executive Vice-Chair of the Atlantic Council.
Which is followed by a closed door session with the Editor-in Chief of the now-defunct Huffington Post and peace-maker Maria Ressa who presented to the same group of military, intelligence, corporate and other elites. Is the role of a journalist and Nobel laureate to work behind closed doors with militarists and billionaires, or to hold them to account?
At 2022’s OS/360 at RightsCon Ressa conducted a softball interview on disinformation with current US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In testimony last April 2023, former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell stated that Blinken “set in motion the events that led to the issuance of the public statement” by more than 50 former intelligence officials that the Hunter Biden laptop had “all the classic earmarks of a Russia information operation.”
The Twitter Files also revealed that in August 2020 the Aspen Institute organized a table-top exercise to practice how best to respond to a “hack and leak” of a Hunter Biden laptop. The laptop only came to light however two months later. In attendance was First Draft (now the Information Futures Lab), the New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, CNN, Yahoo! News, Facebook, Twitter and more. Here, DFRLabs head Graham Brookie speaks with the Aspen Institute’s Garret Graff, who coordinated the Hunter Biden tabletop exercise.
After it turned out the Hunter Biden laptop was real, and the disinformation operation was more appropriately described as having been led by the likes of Blinken and the Aspen Institute. The appropriate response is apparently for RightsCon, DFRLabs, Blinken and Ressa to put on a nice forum to promote these figures as “anti-disinformation” leaders.
Former DFRLabs fellow and intel front Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins is also invited to the closed door sessions with a former head of the CIA, a former Prime Minister and a President. How do you keep power accountable when you are in the same cozy club? This theme runs throughout. Bellingcat is featured heavily at the public sessions also:
Higgins has a unique way of expressing himself online, given the DFRLabs emphasis on striking out against divisiveness:
Would this pass RightsCon’s code of conduct? If not, he appears to be good enough for DFRLabs to promote.
On the public side, we see Amnesty International participating to further collapse the distinction between those who are meant to hold power to account, and the powerful themselves. The Iraq war gave us embedded journalists, and the “anti-disinformation” field gives us embedded digital rights activists.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Chris Krebs also joined the closed door session. Krebs was Co-Chair of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Other members included Prince Harry, the Virality Project’s Alex Stamos (Stanford Internet Observatory) and Kate Starbird (University of Washington and previous 360/OS participant), Katie Couric, and more. Craig Newmark attended as an observer.
Meanwhile Renee DiResta, former CIA fellow and Stanford Internet Observatory Research Director, presented with the former Prime Minister of Sweden. This was years before she would launch the Virality Project, and take on the bugbear of “true stories of vaccine side effects.”
The President of the Atlantic Council participated in an “off-the-record, “ behind closed doors conversation on “trust” with the CEO of the world’s biggest PR firm, Edelman.
“Public relations” and “trust” may well be opposites, and trust is being destroyed not by the disinformation street crime that these groups claim to target, but by the disinformation corporate crime protected by, or in some cases created by these same people. Disinformation is real, but its biggest purveyors are governments and powerful corporate interests.
DFRLab and RightsCon show just how far the capture of civil society by elite interests has come. Again, I made a mistake helping to co-organize RightsCon in 2015. The jumping in bed with the government and Big Tech was arguably there in 2015, though to a much lesser degree. It now partners with militarists in the form of the Atlantic Council and is an enabler of the “disinformation” grift that is so deeply impacting freedom of speech and expression.
The air-gaps that should separate civil society, media, military, billionaires, intelligence, and government have collapsed, and many of these actors have formed a new alliance to advance their shared interests. If weapons manufacturers funding human rights is considered legitimate then where is the red line? Effectively, there is none.
This collapse however has also been pushed by funders, who have been proactive in asking NGOs to collaborate more with Big Tech and government – something I successfully resisted for my almost 18 years at EngageMedia, critically RightsCon was the only time I let my guard down.
The RightsCon sponsor matrix wouldn’t be out of place at NASCAR:
This is the equivalent of hosting a Climate Change conference sponsored by Shell, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. How do you keep power accountable when Big Tech pays your wage? The “let’s all work together” approach has failed. The weakest partner, civil society, got captured and we lost. Many more lost their way and have acquiesced to and often enabled much of the new censorship regime.
A renewed and much more independent digital rights movement, with a strong commitment to freedom of expression, is well overdue.