Knight Institute v. Department of State

A FOIA lawsuit seeking records related to foreign state efforts to influence platforms’ content moderation

On March 24, 2023, the Knight Institute filed a FOIA lawsuit to enforce its request for records of correspondence between the Department of State and U.S.-based social media companies regarding foreign government requests to suppress or promote content on the companies’ platforms.

For more than 4.9 billion users worldwide, social media sites offer a platform for engaging in public debate, expressing political dissent, and organizing social movements. In recent years, however, authoritarian governments have used various coercive tactics to demand that platforms suppress political speech and prioritize state-endorsed narratives on their services. This practice, often referred to as “jawboning,” poses a grave threat to freedom of expression around the world.

The Institute’s FOIA request, filed on December 9, 2022, followed recent reporting on government interference in platforms’ content moderation practices in India, Brazil, and the Philippines, among other countries. The Knight Institute filed this lawsuit to enforce its request after the State Department failed to comply with the request in a timely manner.

In 2024, the Department of State released partially redacted documents from its Global Engagement Center’s Technology Engagement Team, which offer a glimpse of the Department’s efforts to engage with platforms in addressing disinformation, primarily about Russia’s war in Ukraine. These also summarize actions taken by platforms and by foreign governments, including Russia, against those platforms. The documents can be viewed here and here.

The documents cover a period of about one year in 2021 and 2022, during which time GEC officials met with Meta employees several times, including for “informal information exchanges." These include GEC flagging content that could violate Facebook’s terms of service, asking questions about user reporting and takedowns, and conversations about accounts supporting the Russian government’s war in Ukraine.

Agencies Involved: Department of State

Status: Complaint filed on March 24, 2023.

Case Information: Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Dep’t of State, No. 1:23-cv-2513 (S.D.N.Y.).

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