The Federal Bureau of Investigation is not unaccustomed to suspecting domestic dissidents of being foreign agents. The bureau infamously thought everyone from civil-rights activists to the peace movement to opponents of South African apartheid were the tools of communists and thus the Soviet Union. Which is why the FBI’s announcement that its task force to counter foreign influence and disinformation has plans to monitor social media should be raising serious questions. The rhetoric around Russiagate is increasingly mirroring that of the Cold War FBI—and in some cases resurrecting some of its most insidious tendencies. No matter who is tasked with monitoring or regulating social media, serious concerns about free speech arise. Allowing Silicon Valley to self-police is to essentially entrust unaccountable corporations with regulating our modern public square. Congressional committees, while the most democratic form of oversight, can also have chilling effects on speech. Yet, whatever concerns may exist about these other bodies, the FBI is the worst possible candidate for the job.
Recent public comments indicate that the FBI will alert both private companies and the public to social media–based foreign influence in the upcoming election. It is then up to social-media providers and the public to decide how to respond. There doesn’t have to be state-mandated censorship for this system to threaten free expression. Allowing the nation’s top law-enforcement agency to designate speech as foreign disinformation is inherently chilling. The FBI itself seems aware of how bad this idea sounds like from a First Amendment standpoint. A FBI spokesperson proclaimed, “We’re not here to be the thought police. That’s obviously, clearly, not something that we would ever want to get into.”
Anyone familiar with the FBI’s own history knows that from its very inception the bureau has always sought out the role of thought police. J. Edgar Hoover got his start in the Bureau of Investigation’s Radical Division (also referred to as the General Intelligence Division), where he oversaw the Palmer Raids, a mass roundup of political radicals. After the Bureau of Investigation became the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover became its director, it would continue to devote significant resources to policing First Amendment–protected speech, such as its infamous COINTELPRO program, which sought to neutralize and disrupt political movements.
Critics will dismiss such concerns as being anachronistic or tantamount to holding the contemporary FBI responsible for the sins of the past. However, in spite of repeated attempts at reform, the FBI continues decade after decade, year after year, to engage in the same pattern of surveilling dissent. For example, the FBI’s use of its counterterrorism authorities in recent years has demonstrated a deep-seated political bias. The FBI has consistently monitored groups it conceded were nonviolent on the grounds that violent activists might someday overtake them. This could be true of any civil-society group, but the FBI doesn’t monitor just any group. It singles out for counterterrorism investigation groups like the anti-war School of the Americas Watch or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just as was true in the time of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI has an institutional bias toward believing that movements for economic justice, racial justice, or peace are inherently suspicious. There is zero reason to believe that its social-media task force would not hold these same political biases. And to make matters worse, many arguing for such actions demonstrate these very political biases themselves.