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.
Traditionally, the left has viewed the FBI with skepticism because of its long history of civil-rights abuses. However, given the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, the FBI has acquired a semi-heroic status among some on the left who wrongly view it as a check on Trump (overall, public trust in the FBI has declined, thanks to a stark drop in support amongst Republicans). As a result, Trump and the Republicans’ absurd attempts to portray the FBI as carrying out a politically motivated witch hunt are met with strong defenses of the FBI’s institutional integrity.
But focusing progressive energy on a defense of the FBI’s integrity has serious drawbacks. The FBI was recently exposed for having drafted a report on “Black Identity Extremism,” which seeks to blame African Americans concerned with police racism for violence committed against police officers. Trump’s second Muslim ban cited as its justification two terror plots manufactured by FBI paid informants. During his nomination, Trump’s FBI director, Christopher Wray, declined to say whether he’d refuse to spy on mosques. Wray did tell Congress that the FBI was investigating “anarchist-extremists” motivated to commit violence by “Antifa ideology.” Thanks to Russiagate, there’s increasingly less space for criticisms of these actions to be aired. Whatever conspiracy theories the right may promulgate about the FBI, it isn’t very concerned with surveillance of left-wing movements or Muslims. And the left will find it difficult to try to raise public trust in the FBI while raising awareness about its continued threat to civil liberties.
The FBI needs heavy scrutiny from the left. And that includes the FBI’s social-media task force. Efforts to counter Russian propaganda have not focused merely on Trump. Some of the leading fearmongers about Russian interference have consistently conflated political views they don’t like with a foreign attack on our democracy. RT’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street, social-media ads promoting Black Lives Matter, and congressional attempts to block US military aid to an alleged neo-Nazi militia in Ukraine have all been cited as examples of Russian propaganda’s reach within the United States. Those who object to current US-Russia policy or question key elements of the intelligence community’s claims about Russian actions are unfairly tarred as aiders and abettors of a foreign nemesis. Dissent on purely domestic issues is also now transformed into playing into the hands of the Russians. Given the FBI’s proclivities, progressive causes—for all of the bluster from the right wing about the bureau’s “witch hunt” against Trump—are likely to be the victims of such a task force.
It is entirely legitimate to be concerned about foreign interference in our democracy, be it by Russia or any other country. However, this does not mean the FBI should be given carte blanche to carry on free from criticism. And we certainly should be wary of any attempts to expand the FBI’s capabilities to spy on dissent. Social media should be safeguarded from censorship—both public and private—the same way traditional media should be safeguarded. Of all the possible bodies to be given the power to delegitimize online speech, the FBI may very well be the worst.