Is Big Brother coming for the press?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to monitor hundreds of thousands of news sources around the world and build a database that enables it to track and search journalists, editors, and “media influencers” based on their beat and past work. The agency’s efforts to monitor the media landscape comes at a time of increased anxieties about “fake news” and foreign influence over U.S. politics, as well as a global crackdown on freedom of the press.
DHS, which is currently seeking a contractor for the work, says it “has a critical need to incorporate [monitoring] functions into their programs in order to better reach Federal, state, local, tribal and private partners” according to a bid posted to the website FedBizOpps.gov on April 3. Bloomberg Law first reported the existence of the bid on April 5. The government is seeking “to monitor traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.”
Troublingly, the request for bids was issued by a segment of DHS called the National Programs and Protection Directorate, a division that handles cybersecurity and biometric identity management—aka this is the division that alerts DHS to cyber threats, which, considering this new request, appears to mean that DHS now looks at media as a potential threat.
Once completed, the database will enable DHS staff to engage in real-time monitoring of online news articles and social media conversations, including by analyzing coverage in terms of “content,” “volume,” and “momentum.” Journalists, editors, social media influencers, and others working in media will be searchable by location, beat, and type of influencer, as well as “any other information that could be relevant.”
Apparently, such “other” information will include a Big Brother-style routing out of influencers’ contact details “and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.”
DHS’ move comes amid an increasingly repressive environment for reporters, both across the globe and in the U.S. where, in February, Trump declared the press an “enemy of the American people” on Twitter, a forum he has used to silence critics, including reporters such as Women’s Media Center staffer Lauren Wolfe, who Trump blocked after she countered that one of his tweets about the September 2017 London bombing was a lie. The government has made a concerted effort to “block White House access to multiple media outlets in retaliation for critical reporting,” according to Reporters without Borders, and in 2017, the president reportedly urged then-FBI Director James Comey to consider prosecuting journalists. Then there are the jailings and physical assaults that have come from government officials at all levels: The administration has refused to drop charges against at least one reporter who was present at the J20 protests, which was a demonstration against Trump’s inauguration. In May 2017, House GOP candidate Greg Gianforte physically attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. The list goes on.
According to the bid, the new DHS program will better enable the government to “monitor traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.” The databases will include English-language journalists and news coverage in addition to reporting published in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.
News of the contract comes amid heightened concerns about the media landscape from across the political spectrum. In early March, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera to register as a foreign agent, alleging that the channel “undermines American interests with favorable coverage of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” There have been continuing concerns about the impact of “fake news” on the U.S. political landscape, including material funded by Russia or circulated via private companies like Cambridge Analytica. Then, of course, there is President Trump’s version of “fake news,” which includes “Fake CNN,” Fake NBC,” and so on.
After the Committee to Protect Journalists shared a news article about the bid, DHS responded: “Despite what some reporters may suggest, this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media,” tweeted out DHS spokesman Tyler. “Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”
While there may not yet be enough informational available to reach media code red, media advocates are on alert.
“To be clear, none of this is to say the solicitation for a media monitoring service at DHS is per se a threat to free speech,” writes Gabe Rottman at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “But, far more mundane things—like the IRS—have been used to infringe on personal privacy, press freedoms and free speech. At the very least, the ‘tin foil’ comment by DHS’s press secretary is inappropriately dismissive of our growing concerns. Even if nothing now, this could easily turn into something bad. We need to know more.”
As of today, at least 18 companies had expressed interest in fulfilling the contract. Initial responses to the bid are due to the agency on April 13.
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