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Disinformation Inc: Darrell Issa demands State Department investigate conservative blacklist group

By Gabe Kaminsky

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is calling on the State Department to investigate grants it sent to a “disinformation” tracking group that is feeding conservative website blacklists to advertising companies in order to shut them down, according to a letter obtained by the Washington Examiner.

Between 2020 and 2021, the State Department-backed Global Engagement Center and National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group, steered roughly $665,000 to the Global Disinformation Index, the Washington Examiner reported. Amid censorship scrutiny from Republicans, Issa is calling for a “comprehensive inquiry” into government grants used to target U.S. media outlets, a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken shows.

“Mr. Secretary, the weaponization by the federal government of the term ‘disinformation’ for the purposes of silencing and censoring free speech must stop,” Issa wrote in his letter. “The Department of State’s flagrant disregard in this case is a clear violation of Congressional intent, the principles of our democracy, and the inherent rights of all Americans.”

The congressman added, “It is imperative that the Department of State undertake a prompt and comprehensive inquiry into any grants, authorities, and policies that may be improperly and illegally used to curtail the free expression of conservative and/or domestic media, and to take corrective measures as warranted by the results of such investigation.”

GDI compiles a “dynamic exclusion list” of conservative sites, including the Washington Examiner, that it deems the foremost peddlers of disinformation. It has publicly said that the 10 “riskiest” media outlets are the Daily Wire, the New York PostRealClearPolitics, the Federalist, and other right-leaning websites.

Advertising companies, like Microsoft-owned Xandr, have subscribed to this blacklist. Shortly after the Washington Examiner published internal data showing that Xandr is helping to defund right-leaning websites, Microsoft said it was launching an internal investigation and suspending its relationship with GDI.

In his letter, Issa alleged that the Global Engagement Center “has strayed from its original mission and organizing principles.” The center has continued to come under fire for coordinating with Twitter on content moderation related to COVID-19 and other topics in 2020, as revealed by the “Twitter Files” published by journalist Matt Taibbi.

However, Twitter also resisted demands in 2021 from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is bankrolled by the center, to blacklist 40,000 accounts linked to purported Hindu nationalists, documents show. The lab, which says it “has operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news,” partnered with the Global Engagement Center to deliver the 2021 grant to GDI, records show.

The award was through the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge, which sought to “advance the development of promising and innovative technologies against disinformation and propaganda across the European Economic Area and the United Kingdom,” according to the Atlantic Council, a major think tank.

Issa, who is a member of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, a GOP-led body investigating the alleged politicization of agencies like the FBI, also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee, led by Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), is investigating the conservative blacklists, and its staffers received a classified State Department briefing on Wednesday in connection to government funding to GDI.

While the GEC has not said whether it will commit to no longer funding GDI, the NED has taken a different position.

“Recently, we became aware that one of our grantees, the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), was engaged in an initiative, funded by a different donor, that focused on specific U.S. media outlets,” said Leslie Aun, a NED spokeswoman, on Feb. 20. “We recognize the important work GDI has done with NED support in other countries to help preserve the integrity of the information space and counter authoritarian influence. However, given our commitment to avoid the perception that NED is engaged in any work domestically, directly or indirectly, we will no longer provide financial support to GDI.”

This Thursday, the weaponization subcommittee will hear testimony from both Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, another “Twitter Files” author who ran for governor in California in 2021. Congressional staffers familiar with the matter told the Washington Examiner that the hearing might partially focus on government grants to GDI.

“This issue is obviously concerning to Chairman Jordan, and the weaponization committee will look into the government’s role in the suppression of the First Amendment,” Russell Dye, a spokesman for Jordan, told the Washington Examiner on Feb. 16.