- The State Department funded the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a foreign organization that works to police online platforms.
- ISD has partnerships with YouTube and Spotify to inform their content moderation decisions, and claims it helps platforms curb “misinformation.”
- “By funding organizations – including foreign organizations, no less – that put their thumbs on the scale of hot-button domestic political debates, the federal government is wading into a dangerous Constitutional minefield,” Michael Chamberlain, director of government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The U.S. State Department funds and partners with a U.K.-based think tank that collaborates with online platforms to censor perceived mis- and disinformation.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is a British nongovernmental organization that styles itself as a research group working in partnership with several online platforms to combat extremism, hate and disinformation. However, the organization frequently classifies typical conservative discourse and journalism as hate and/or disinformation and has received funding from the U.S. government.
The State Department awarded the organization a grant in September 2021 to “advance the development of promising and innovative technologies against disinformation and propaganda” in Europe and the U.K. after it won the U.S.-Paris Tech Challenge. The event, which was held in collaboration with the “U.S. Embassy Paris, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) [and] the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” was also won by the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), an organization which reportedly seeks to demonetize conservative news sites.
The State Department confirmed that its Global Engagement Center funded ISD to study Russian disinformation tactics against Wikipedia through a grant to Park Advisors. The department told the Daily Caller News Foundation that it plays no role in content moderation decisions on social media platforms.
“By funding organizations – including foreign organizations, no less – that put their thumbs on the scale of hot-button domestic political debates, the federal government is wading into a dangerous Constitutional minefield,” Michael Chamberlain, director of government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust, told the DCNF. “The government cannot get around First Amendment restrictions by outsourcing or using surrogates or agents for prohibited activities.”
Additionally, the State Department and ISD partnered to create the Strong Cities Network, a United Nations-affiliated initiative that seeks to combat “hate, polarisation and extremism” abroad; the State Department solicited several grants as part of this arrangement, naming ISD as a sub-awardee.
The organization also lists as funders left-wing billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Group, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with several European government agencies.
ISD maintains several partnerships with platforms to inform their content moderation decisions, largely regarding extremist and terrorism-related content, but also, significantly, what it deems hate and misinformation.
The organization has a special advisory role with Spotify to “curb” misinformation on the audio streaming platform, and is tasked with flagging content for YouTube.
“The State Department’s partnership with the ISD is problematic at best and unconstitutional at worst,” Mike Davis, president of the Internet Accountability Project, told the DCNF. “Taxpayer dollars essentially funding the censorship of conservatives under the guise of ‘misinformation’ shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed the Biden administration’s assault on the marketplace of ideas.”
While much of ISD’s work focuses on various forms of extremism such as radical Islam and white supremacy, a significant portion involves “disinformation” and online hate. However, the organization frequently characterizes staples of conservative discourse as hateful and/or as disinformation.
For instance, ISD appears to consider the comparison of abortion to murder as misinformation, admonishing social media platforms for not enforcing their abortion misinformation policies against such claims.
Moreover, in a 2022 report on “climate disinformation,” ISD profiled a form of discourse it labeled “delayism,” which accepts as a premise the existence of climate change but does not, in ISD’s view, advocate strong enough or urgent enough policy solutions. Criticism of particular policies designed to address climate change, such as the promotion of electric vehicles, were also included within the “disinformation” report.
“In contemporary discussions on what actions should be taken, by whom and how fast, proponents of climate delay would argue for minimal action or action taken by others. They focus attention on the negative social effects of climate policies and raise doubt that mitigation is possible,” the report read.
ISD cited as an example a Facebook post from Republican Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw that warned of the “radical obsession with wind and solar as the only clean energy solution” and argued instead for nuclear energy and natural gas with carbon capture technology.
Another example was a meme that compared an electric vehicle to a Flintstones-esque rock car.
“This outlandish form of censorship cannot be allowed to happen in America, such as simple policy preferences related to electric cars being labeled as misinformation,” Davis told the DCNF.
The organization characterized Libs of Tik Tok, a conservative Twitter account that publicizes examples of left-wing pedagogy including Critical Race Theory (CRT) and gender ideology, as a “prolific spreader of hate,” and classified conservative journalist Scott Morefield as an individual “known to spread disinformation and amplify hateful right-wing talking points.”
ISD also considered “misgendering” an example of “anti-trans hatred” in a report on social media discourse surrounding the participation of men in women’s sports. ISD concluded by urging platforms to take action against posts that misgender trans individuals.
While ISD’s work is primarily research-oriented, the organization has successfully embedded itself in roles informing content moderation decisions within hugely influential social media and technology companies. Much of ISD’s work with online platforms focuses on terrorism and violent extremism, but the organization’s purview also includes mis- and disinformation.
ISD is a member of Spotify’s Safety Advisory Council, formed in 2022 as a response to criticism of the audio streaming platform for Joe Rogan’s December 2021 interview with COVID-19 vaccine skeptic Dr. Robert Malone.
The council, though not tasked with directly making content moderation decisions, is nevertheless empowered to “inform” Spotify’s policies and enforcement actions regarding “misinformation.” In ISD’s own words, the group will help Spotify “curb the spread of misinformation” on its platform and “independently keep watch over the platform’s content and safety policies.”
Additionally, ISD is part of YouTube’s “Trusted Flagger program,” an initiative in collaboration with several nongovernmental organizations and government agencies designed to improve YouTube’s enforcement of its guidelines. Trusted Flaggers are able to flag more content than average users, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014, and receive special treatment from YouTube.
“[O]ur teams prioritize flags from Trusted Flaggers for review,” Google’s description of the program reads.
ISD partnered with Google.org for its Impact Challenge on Safety grant initiative which distributed €10 million to organizations working to “counter hate and extremism” in Europe, and also received a $1.3 million grant from Google in 2017 to counter hate in the U.K.
The organization also boasts partnerships with Microsoft, Amazon’s audiobook platform Audible and Facebook.
“The State Department exists to represent the American public’s interests abroad,” Chamberlain told the DCNF. “If they are interested in countering concerns about weaponizing the government, they could start by not assisting outside groups that target the speech of American citizens.”
ISD did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.
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