FBI resumes outreach to social media companies

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The FBI has resumed some of its efforts to share information with some American tech companies about foreign propagandists using their platforms after it ceased contact for more than half a year, multiple people familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The program, established during the Trump administration, briefed tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Meta when the U.S. intelligence community found evidence of covert influence operations using their products to mislead Americans. It was put on hold this summer in the wake of a lawsuit that accused the U.S. government of improperly pressuring tech companies about how to moderate their sites and an aggressive inquisition from the House Judiciary Committee and its chair, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

The lawsuit, filed by the Republican attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court. A majority of justices appeared skeptical of the suit when they heard its claims, and the court is scheduled to rule on the suit at the end of June.

The FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, responsible for conducting the briefings, resumed outreach a little more than two weeks ago.

“In coordination with the Department of Justice, the FBI recently implemented procedures to facilitate sharing information about foreign malign influence with social media companies in a way that reinforces that private companies are free to decide on their own whether and how to take action on that information,” an FBI spokesperson said Wednesday.

The FBI’s previous outreach to the tech companies similarly did not include any requirement that they act on the information, said people at three of the tech companies that previously received them.

It was not clear how fully the FBI had resumed the program. Employees at two companies that had previously received the briefings said the agency had resumed limited outreach but that it had not resumed the substantial briefings.

The briefings became a fixation for Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee and Jordan, its chair, who proposed without proof that the briefings were part of an FBI conspiracy to help President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign by hiding emails from Biden’s son Hunter. Tech companies disputed that characterization.

The briefings generally involved FBI representatives’ giving the companies information that the U.S. intelligence community had gathered about alleged dedicated foreign propagandists. While companies that received the briefings have rarely shared details about them, Meta has occasionally mentioned in quarterly reports that it has banned campaigns of alleged “coordinated inauthentic behavior” from both Iran and people formerly associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency after having learned about them through the FBI.

At a hearing last week, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, D-Va., alluded to the dates the FBI paused and resumed the program.

“All throughout the Trump administration, and in this case the Trump administration did right, there was voluntary sharing that went back and forth on a regular basis. So if NSA or CISA found evidence of foreign malign influence, that could be shared in a voluntary basis with the companies, and vice versa,” Warner said, referring to the National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

“As of last July and literally until about two weeks ago, there’d been no communication between those social media platforms, where a lot of this foreign misinformation/disinformation takes place, and the government,” Warner said.

Two people who work at different major U.S. tech companies that previously received the briefings, who requested they not be named over fears of harassment, said their companies had still been sharing information about propaganda campaigns with each other despite the lack of information from the U.S. government.

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