FBI facilitated social media ‘takedown requests’ made by Ukrainian spy agency: report

The FBI colluded with a Ukrainian intelligence agency to pressure social media companies into taking down accounts accused of spreading Russian disinformation — some of which belonged to Americans, a House committee said.

The report issued by the House Judiciary Committee and the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government on Monday was part of the Republican-controlled committees’ probe into the federal government’s role in censoring speech on social media platforms.

The report is based on documents subpoenaed from Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – and Alphabet – the parent company of Google and YouTube – in February.

“In light of well-documented instances of the FBI’s civil liberties abuses, this new information raises grave concerns about the FBI’s credibility as the nation’s premier law enforcement organization,” the report states.

It alleges that the “FBI violated the First Amendment rights of Americans and potentially undermined our national security.” 

The FBI did not respond to The Post’s request for comment. 

The committees found that following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) enlisted the FBI in support of an effort to combat the spread of “Russian disinformation” on social media. 

According to a House committee report, the FBI colluded with a Ukrainian intelligence agency to pressure social media companies to take down posts.
According to a House committee report, the FBI colluded with a Ukrainian intelligence agency to pressure social media companies to take down posts.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

As part of the effort, the SBU transmitted lists of social media accounts to the FBI that it wanted to be banned and the bureau, in turn, “routinely relayed these lists to the relevant social media platforms.” 

The report characterizes the SBU’s initiative as a “censorship operation” and accuses the intelligence agency of having been “compromised by a network of Russian collaborators, sympathizers, and double agents at the time of its interactions with the FBI.” 

The committee claims that “the authentic accounts of Americans, including a verified US State Department account and those belonging to American journalists” were ensnared in the censorship effort and flagged for social media companies to take down. 

The State Department’s Russian-language Instagram account, @usaporusski, was one of the authentic American accounts flagged for removal in a list composed by the SBU and transmitted to Big Tech companies by the FBI.  

As was the Instagram account of an American journalist – not named in the report – working for “a self-styled ‘socialist’ news organization based in the United States” who has “written extensively advocating for transgender rights and has repeatedly criticized Republicans.”

The two accounts were among several accused by the SBU of “distribut[ing] content that promotes war, inaccurately reflects events in Ukraine, justifies Russian war crimes in Ukraine in violation of international law,” among other charges.

“I have a few more Instagram and [Facebook] accounts that according to the SBU spread Russian disinformation. For your review and action as deemed appropriate,” an email from an FBI employee to Meta obtained by the agency read. 

The email included a spreadsheet of 5,165 Facebook accounts flagged for moderation, according to the report. 

The report notes that “it appears that Meta did not immediately take noticeable action against these accounts,” which triggered a follow-up email from the FBI 

The report was based on documents subpoenaed from Meta and Alphabet.
The report was based on documents subpoenaed from Meta and Alphabet.
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

“I work with Elvis Chan at [San Francisco] FBI. Would you be able to tell me if these accounts were taken down, or if you need some legal process from us?” an FBI employee writes in an email to Meta. 

The report found that neither the FBI nor the SBU provided an explanation as to how the State Department account was “involved in disinformation” and suggests the bureau “either negligently or intentionally relayed the SBU’s request.” 

Accounts critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian invasion were also flagged by the SBU and FBI, according to the report. 

The report gives several examples, including one of a US-based account using the hashtags “#stopputin,” “#freeukraine,” and “#nowarinukraine” as being flagged for removal. 

“These examples show either that the FBI did not meaningfully vet the SBU’s lists or that the FBI endorsed the SBU’s censorship requests knowing full well that they contained American accounts,” the report states. 

The investigation could not determine how Meta reacted internally to the takedown requests. 

“Due to the limited nature of Meta’s productions to the Committee to date — which do not contain an appreciable volume of internal communications within Meta — it is unclear how Meta employees reacted internally to the requests from the FBI to censor Americans. For similar reasons, it is also not immediately apparent to what extent Meta agreed to the FBI’s and SBU’s demands or what vetting Meta may have conducted internally,” the report notes. 

Similar to the campaign with Meta, the FBI also transmitted the SBU’s censorship requests to Google and YouTube, so much so that a senior employee on Google’s cybersecurity team interviewed by congressional investigators said the company was “deluged with various requests” for the removal of content following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The employee also testified that the “Department of Justice would route [censorship] requests from foreign governments.” 

The report highlights a March 11, 2022, email from a Google employee to the FBI about requests Google had received directly from the SBU. 

“We have received about 30 [Emergency Disclosure Requests] today . . . They all appear to be related to YouTube. Any that include takedown requests we are forwarding to the removals team,” the Google employee informs the bureau. 

The report found that the FBI’s participation in the SBU’s censorship efforts continued even after Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth warned the bureau about American accounts being on the SBU’s lists. 

“Based on open-source information, it appears that the FBI’s cooperation with the SBU remains ongoing,” according to the report.