Internal Twitter materials released by Elon Musk and a bombshell lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by Louisiana and Missouri have revealed the key role an FBI agent named Elvis Chan played in pushing the platform to censor the speech of conservatives.
But Chan, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco Division cyber branch, also made some remarkable statements on the topic out in the open, as part of a 149-page academic thesis he wrote on “social media companies and U.S. government efforts to combat Russian influence campaigns during the 2020 U.S. elections.”
Chan’s thesis, submitted to The Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, in September, 2021, reveals an animus toward former President Trump, a disregard for the First Amendment, and a blindness toward the bureau’s well-chronicled transgressions in investigating the 45th president. Here are some takeaways from that thesis:
1) Chan’s best evidence that the Russians made a difference in the 2016 presidential election is that the black voting rate declined from 2012—which is more readily explained by the fact that in 2012, the nation’s first black president was on the ballot.
Chan repeatedly came back to the fact that more blacks sat out the 2016 election compared to the 2012 election as evidence that the Russians had manipulated them. He only once mentions in passing that in 2012, Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was on the ballot; in 2016, he was not.
“Analysis of voter turnout revealed a relatively high overall high voter turnout but low Black voter turnout in the 2016 elections. This combination of factors may have led to Vladimir Putin achieving his desired goals of eroding American faith in its democratic process and the election of Donald Trump,” he wrote.
This logic becomes tortured as he tries to explain why the 2020 election favoring Joe Biden was cleaner than the 2016 election favoring Trump. In 2016, non-black voters had high turnout, which he suggests was a response to Russian propaganda. In 2020, he says that high turnout among all groups shows that propaganda did not work.
“The ultimate proof was the record turnout of voters across all demographic groups, including Black voters… Ultimately, the American actions appeared effective in mitigating the Russian online tactics because voters were undeterred and turned out in record numbers.” By Chan’s logic, the FBI’s proof of whether Russia interfered in an election or not was seemingly whether blacks, a reliably Democrat voting bloc, came out to the polls.
2) Chan’s thesis laid out why the FBI needs to work with social media companies: As an end-run around the First Amendment.
“Due to First Amendment constraints, federal agencies have little involvement in Americans’ usage of social media,” he wrote. However, the FBI could “communicate” with social media companies, and share information—the goal of which was having the social media companies take down posts that did not necessarily violate the law.
Chan recommended that the U.S. government establish a “National Counter Information Operations Center as an interagency fusion center and focal point for countering disinformation campaigns… This center could be modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center, which also operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” he wrote. “An effective strategy would involve providing counter-narratives using factual information across various mediums to ensure the public received it, such as through news media and social media outlets.”
3) Suppressed information included criticism of the FBI that was accurate.
Chan celebrated that in 2019, Twitter removed 422 accounts allegedly controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency that “focused on promoting Trump, a right-wing meme that accused the FBI of misusing the Steele dossier to obtain a surveillance order on Trump associate, Carter Page, and Islamophobic rhetoric. The themes promoted by the IRA on Twitter showed its continued acuity in determining the hot-button issues that would agitate right-wing voters.”
The reason the topics “agitated right wing voters” is because the FBI did, in fact, rely on the discredited and Democrat-funded Steele dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant against Page as part of its ill-fated quest to link Trump to Russia, and former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to falsifying materials related to the warrant application.
4) Some of the examples of misinformation campaigns that Chan touted had miniscule engagement.
In his dissertation, he cited an outside researcher to say that 59% of Facebook users were exposed to Russian misinformation. But when it came to actual examples, some he found worthy of highlighting seemed to have no significant impact.
An example he highlighted to exemplify “Facebook Political Ads Targeting Black Voters” had only 223 views. He complained that Twitter and other social media companies did not act aggressively enough, but that is often because the social media companies were pointing out that the activity was insignificant.
He singled out “PeaceData” as a notable Russia-linked campaign, but acknowledged that “Twitter noted that the PeaceData-associated Twitter accounts were ‘low quality and spammy,’ and assessed they did not garner much attention from other Twitter users.”
5) America’s woke sensibilities allowed Russia to exploit it.
Social media companies allow ad buyers to target viewers based on “race, ethnicity, and self-identity,” which “allowed [Russia] to use Facebook and Instagram to target specific demographic groups,” Chain wrote in his thesis.
Further, the “misinformation” pushed to blacks—which was expected to create cynicism and anger—faithfully mirrored authentic contemporary rhetoric from the American left: “The EBLA employees focused primarily on racial issues such as police brutality, displays of anger towards white people, and black empowerment.”
6) Chan wanted American schools to “indoctrinate” so they are more like Soviet ones.
How could the 2016 election resulting in a Trump victory be invalid because of Russian misinformation, when similar influence campaigns are routinely run in other countries? Chan suggests that other countries’ residents are simply more astute, and that American schools could play a role in making sure that elections aren’t impacted by “disinformation.”
“The democracies in former Soviet Bloc countries appear to have relatively informed and resilient electorates because media literacy and critical thinking are indoctrinated into their entire education and news media ecosystem,” he wrote.
7) Chan does not seem to like Donald Trump.
His thesis said that “anti-immigrant rhetoric” was “a hallmark of the Trump campaign” (Trump is married to an immigrant) and that “Putin may have sensed that Donald Trump’s rise as a legitimate candidate offered an avenue to advance his anti-American agenda. ”
He complains that not enough Americans listened when the government told the public that Russia was working against Democrats. The suggestion that Americans didn’t hear about the idea that Russia was backing Trump is dubious to begin with, but Chan’s explanation for why they didn’t hear it is especially amusing: Because the American media was too busy already telling voters not to vote for Trump for other reasons.
The Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out a statement to “inform the American electorate of malign actions being taken by Russia,” he wrote, but the “effect was probably diminished because on the same day, the media was focused on the breaking news that Donald Trump had made lewd comments about women to Entertainment Tonight reporter Billy Bush in 2005 when the Washington Post released a video of their conversation.”