I have been writing about “the Global Disinformation Index” produced by a British group funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which itself is funded by the federal government. That includes a recent column in The Hill. The NED receives a massive $330 million budget through the U.S. State Department. The NED contacted me today after the column ran and informed me that it will no longer fund the GDI.
The columns suggest that this effort should be included in the broader investigations by Congress, so we can have the full facts on what is being done to score or to censor speech. We also do not know the full role or knowledge of the federal government in such efforts.
The GDI used allegedly biased analysis to target conservative and libertarian sites as spreaders of dangerous disinformation. Indeed, all ten of the most “risky” sites are some of the most popular sites for conservatives, including a site offering legal analysis from conservative and libertarian law professors. The group warns advertisers that supporting these sites could damage a company’s reputation and brand.
My concern is how this index contributes to a broader effort to target opposing views or speakers on the Internet and why further congressional investigation is warranted:
“After yielding to an outcry over the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board, the Administration disbanded it. It never mentioned that a far larger censorship effort was being carried out with an estimated 80 federal employees in targeting citizens and others. While the GDI effort is smaller in comparison and effect, it is an additional facet of this effort. It is not known if the Administration has other programs of this kind and the Democrats continue to vehemently oppose any investigation into these free speech concerns.”
After the Hill column ran, I was contacted by the NED.
NED wanted to make clear that the decision to fund GDI was its own choice and not directed by the Biden Administration. While the columns do not say that this funding was directed by the government, the NED felt it could be implied for readers. That is, of course, a fair point of clarification and I immediately added it to the columns on the blog. However, it does not alter the underlying concern over federal support for an organization, including the NED, that funds work inimical to free speech.
The NED confirmed that “given our commitment to avoid the perception that the NED is engaged in any work domestically, directly or indirectly, we will no longer provide financial support to GDI.”
The decision is commendable but there remain unanswered questions and I have asked the NED for clarification on a number of points. That includes a reference to a possible different donor supporting the GDI effort. It is not clear if the NED raised this money as part of a more general disinformation initiative and whether federal funds are used in such grants. The NED website has various references to its work to combat disinformation.
It is also not clear how the federal funds are committed by the NED. The email states that the State Department does not exercise control over the Endowment’s grant making. I have asked for an explanation how it uses discretion in the commitment of the federal funds. For example, could federal funds have been used for the GDI and is the source of the funding expressly stipulated as part of the grant? I also asked for confirmation on whether the NED informed the government of its funding of the GDI or similar disinformation efforts.
The concern is still obvious that a congressionally-created and federally funded 501c3 organization like the NED would be engaged, directly or indirectly, in this type of controversial scoring system given its implications for free speech. It is not clear if the NED secured specific funding for this effort from other donors and, if so, why it did so. It is also not clear if the NED could use federal funds and private funds on an interchangeable and discretionary basis.
It is also not clear what type of review the NED exercised over this work.
Finally, I asked to be able to post the entirety of the NED email with this blog. I have not heard back on these queries. I will update the blog if I can share additional information.
I appreciate the NED supplying the information and the clarification on this funding. With thousands of grants, this may be an unfortunate anomaly. The NED clearly does important and laudable work around the world. However, given the federal support for the NED, it would useful to have greater transparency on these issues.