A state-funded “disinformation” lab behind a conservative media blacklist expressed paranoia after a Washington Examiner report on the covert operation, with an employee worrying “if anything will come back to us,” messages show.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Global Disinformation Lab was trained by the State Department-backed Global Disinformation Index to conduct research for a 27-page report in December 2022 that alleged the “riskiest” websites for “disinformation” as the New York Post, the Blaze, RealClearPolitics, and other outlets, documents show. Following the Washington Examiner publishing a February 2023 story on GDI that was widely covered by right-leaning outlets and led to Republican lawmakers launching investigations, UT Austin employees feared the university would also come under the spotlight, according to records published by the Federalist on Thursday.
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“Their core operational model (which is really at issue and is what we are most removed from) is like the perfect ‘shape’ of thing to capture that media ecosystem’s imagination right now,” one person, whose name was redacted for unknown reasons by UT Austin, messaged lab personnel on Feb. 10 — linking to the Washington Examiner’s Feb. 9 report. “So I think they are really going to be hammered.”
Sally Dickerson, whom UT Austin lists on its website as its disinformation lab manager, then sent over a National Review article that claimed the prior report by the Washington Examiner “should boil the blood of anyone who believes in a free and adversarial press.” Another undisclosed person wrote back that “they link to the report which obviously mentions us,” adding, “So if a certain critical mass of attention is reached it is only a matter of time till the emails start.”
Michael Mosser, whom the lab says is the executive director, responded minutes later that he “hate[s] going to those sources,” seemingly referring to the Washington Examiner and National Review. He added that the lab will “have to prepare some sort of response to have at the ready” that should “be as anodyne as possible.”
“When I see this covered in outlets like Ars Technica or Wired or the Information, then I’ll know it’s made it to where we’re going to get emails/calls to respond,” Mosser wrote, according to records. “[S]o far so good.”
However, a separate exchange obtained by the Federalist through the Freedom of Information Act provides a further window into how UT Austin’s lab worried they too would begin to be extensively covered by outlets such as the Washington Examiner, which published a series of stories on GDI. From 2020 to 2022, GDI was granted roughly $960,000 combined from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the government-backed National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group, records show.
The endowment announced in mid-February that it would no longer grant money to GDI “to avoid the perception that NED is engaged in any work domestically, directly or indirectly.”
“Just FYI, GDI is being targeted right now by some right wing outlets and some of their domain block lists have been leaked,” an undisclosed person wrote in the apparent UT Austin lab chat, seemingly referring to a Feb. 10 Washington Examiner report based on internal data provided by ad industry whistleblowers that showed how Microsoft blacklisted conservative media outlets. Following this revelation, Microsoft suspended its relationship with GDI and purportedly launched an internal investigation, though the corporation has stonewalled on providing details about the “review.”
“So do we think anything will come back to us?” Dickerson wrote back roughly 30 minutes later.
In response, a person whose name was redacted in records provided by UT Austin wrote “don’t believe so.” Mosser, the director, said he “heard rumors of this,” noting he would “[h]ate to see it happen” and wonders “how far this is going to go.”
An undisclosed person put out the idea that the story could “spiral into Tucker Carlson land,” to which Mosser wrote back, “If it comes to that, there’s nothing anyone can do. It’s all aboard the crazy train at this point.”
“I mean the methodology goes out of its way to look at very basic journalistic practice,” an undisclosed employee messaged. “Even if you want to quibble with how some of that was operationalized.”
A follow-up message by an undisclosed employee read, “The problem is extreme right-wing media does not care about the details right now.”
As far as recruiting people in connection to the GDI partnership, Dickerson wrote over email that GDI works “with governments, policymakers, social media platforms, and adtech companies to defund disinformation,” according to the Federalist.
“They are instrumental in providing data to a bunch of people that I am not sure if I am allowed to talk about,” Dickerson reportedly emailed.
Revelation of the communications comes weeks after the State Department was sued in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by Protect the Public’s Trust, a watchdog group, in connection to its failure to turn over records related to GDI. Roughly one month ago, in April, Oracle announced through the Washington Examiner that it would no longer partner with GDI on a touted “brand safety” initiative.
“After conducting a review, we agree with others in the advertising industry that the services we provide marketers must be in full support of free speech, which is why we are ending our relationship with GDI,” Michael Egbert, vice president for corporate communications at Oracle, previously said.
Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are still on the hunt for documents and communications related to the State Department’s relationship with GDI. House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) sent a letter to the agency in late February to obtain records, though the State Department missed his deadline.
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The State Department also in mid-May skirted a deadline set by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by its chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), with regard to his GDI-linked records request on May 1.
UT Austin and GDI did not return requests for comment.