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By Jeff Cercone October 11, 2022

Partnership targeted election misinformation, not conservatives

If Your Time is short

  • The Election Integrity Partnership, composed of researchers, worked with government agencies, civilian groups and social media platforms to counter mis- and disinformation during the 2020 election cycle. The partnership focused on claims intended to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters or delegitimize election results.

  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, partnered with the project on election misinformation claims. But in practice, no one from CISA sent examples of misinformation to the partnership, and the partnership sent no reports to social media companies on the agency’s behalf.

  • The Global Engagement Center, which is part of the U.S. State Department, also partnered with the project. But the Global Engagement Center is focused on foreign propaganda, and less than 1% of the claims investigated by the partnership involved foreign actors.

A former congressional candidate claims that he and other conservatives were targeted on social media with the government’s help around the time of the 2020 election. 

"(The) Department of Homeland Security and the State Department coordinated with a group called the ‘Election Integrity Partnership’ to censor Joe Biden’s opponents," says the caption on an Oct. 5 Instagram post by Robby Starbuck. 

Starbuck is a Republican who announced in November 2020 that he would run for Congress in Tennessee before his own party kicked him off the primary ballot in April 2022. He later filed to be a write-in candidate for the August election after losing his challenge to stay on the ballot.

Starbuck’s caption also says the "Biden regime paid ‘Election Integrity Partnership’ entities $12+ MILLION from taxpayer funds" and that Starbuck was added to the partnership’s "enemies list." He detailed his claims in an accompanying 50-minute video, as well as in a lengthy thread on Twitter. 

The Election Integrity Partnership, which conducted its work publicly throughout 2020 and published a final report of its findings in March 2021, has drawn criticism in conservative media outlets and seen online attacks against its researchers in recent weeks.

The Instagram post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center were among several organizations that worked with the Election Integrity Partnership — a collaboration of researchers — on 2020 election misinformation claims. The working relationship between the federal agencies and the Election Integrity Partnership began during the tenure of former President Donald Trump.

In practice, though, no one from CISA sent examples of misinformation to the Election Integrity Partnership, and the partnership sent no reports to social media companies on the agency’s behalf, a blog post from the partnership stated.

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which focuses on foreign propaganda and disinformation, submitted some misinformation claims to the partnership, though it’s unclear how many. However, less than 1% of the claims investigated by the partnership focused on claims involving foreign actors, the report said.

There’s no evidence the partnership or government agencies working with it sought to "censor" conservatives.

Groups involved in the partnership have received more than $12 million in federal grants since Biden took office, and $3 million of those grants were related to the partnership's work.

There is no evidence that the grants were politically motivated. Starbuck told PolitiFact he didn’t say the grants were connected to the partnership’s work in 2020, but "people can decide for themselves what they think about it." 

What is the Election Integrity Partnership?

The partnership, which began in July 2020, has a goal to work with government and civilian stakeholders to combat mis- and disinformation on social media about voting and elections before and after the hotly contested 2020 presidential election. The partnership said in July 2022 that it would continue its work in this year’s midterm elections.

Four research groups collaborate on the project: the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public; the Stanford Internet Observatory; Graphika, a social analytics firm; and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The partnership said when announcing its creation that its mission was to support "real-time information exchange between the research community, election officials, government agencies, civil society organizations, and social media platforms." It was focused narrowly on content "intended to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters as to election processes, or delegitimize election results without evidence." 

The partnership laid out how it conducted its work, what it found and its recommendations to safeguard future elections in a 290-page report titled "The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election," which it published in March 2021. 

The partnership initially was set up in consultation with DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The idea for the partnership began with four Stanford Internet Observatory students who were interning at CISA, which is focused on protecting against cyber threats and working on election infrastructure security, and often partners with the private sector.

On Oct. 5, in response to recent attacks on its work, the Election Integrity Partnership said in a blog post that its partnership with CISA was reviewed and approved by Trump administration attorneys. The partnership’s aim was helping CISA "understand rumors and disinformation around the 2020 election and so CISA could provide corrective and/or clarifying information from election officials," it said.

Kim Wyman, a senior election security advisor at CISA, rejected claims of censorship.

"CISA does not censor speech, period," Wyman said in a statement to PolitiFact, adding that the agency works "in a non-partisan manner with state and local election officials" to provide voters with accurate information about elections. "Online content platform operators make their own decisions."

Renée DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained how the Election Integrity Partnership was formed in this video from a 2021 cybersecurity summit. (CISA)

How did it work?

The partnership allowed its own researchers and what it deemed "trusted" external stakeholders to flag social media content or communicate with analysts regarding online claims.

The external stakeholders listed in its March 2021 report included government agencies such as CISA and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

Also listed was the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which is a elections and cybersecurity organization that’s a division of the nonprofit Center for Information Security. It gets some of its funding through the Department of Homeland Security. 

Civil organizations, such as the NAACP, AARP and others, also could flag content and communicate with analysts. The major social platforms — Facebook and Instagram, Google, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, Nextdoor, Discord and Pinterest —  also signed on to the partnership

Three teams evaluated flagged content. 

  • The first team determined whether the concern was within the project’s scope and checked the claim’s veracity; 

  • The second team delved deeper into the claim and recommended action, such as communicating to partners if appropriate; 

  • A third team of managers from the four research groups could tag platform partners on a claim, communicate with government partners to get information, or close a case.

Who flagged content?

Overall, the partnership said it processed 639 claims that it considered to be within the project’s scope, 72% of which were related to "delegitimizing the election results." 

The partnership did not recommend specific actions to social media platforms, but tagged them on reports if researchers believed the claims violated the platforms’ published policies. Those platforms "made their own determinations on how to treat our reports," the partnership said.

It noted that 35% of the links shared with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube were either "labeled, removed, or soft-blocked." (PolitiFact has a partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and you can read more about it here.)

About 79% of the claims analyzed were submitted by analysts from the four research organizations of the partnership, rather than external partners. An additional 16% were reported by the nonprofit Center for Internet Security as tips from election officials.

That accounts for about 95% of claims submitted overall. Other stakeholders submitting claims were MITRE, Common Cause, the Democratic National Committee, the Defending Digital Democracy Project and the NAACP, the report said. 

Both the Democratic and Republican national committees were invited to submit tickets. The DNC submitted four reports. The RNC did not respond to the partnership’s outreach and submitted no reports.

Censorship claims

Starbuck claimed in his Instagram post that he was named in an "enemies list" in the Election Integrity Partnership’s March 2021 report, along with other conservative figures, such as Donald Trump Jr.; U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; and Charlie Kirk, founder and president of Turning Point USA, a politically conservative group advocating for limited government.

Starbuck is referring to Sec. 5.5 in the report, which includes a list of what it called "the 21 most prominent repeat spreaders on Twitter." The list is based on Twitter data collected through Dec. 12, 2020, approximately one month after Starbuck announced his run for Congress

That was the only mention of Starbuck in the report. Although the "repeat spreaders" section listed only conservative Twitter accounts, other parts of the report mentioned left-leaning accounts. For example, Occupy Democrats was included for posts that "functioned to fan fears of voter disenfranchisement and intimidation."

Overall, the report concluded that while "false narratives occasionally gained traction on the political left, almost all of the most prominent repeat spreaders …  belonged to conservative and/or pro-Trump individuals and organizations." 

The partnership said its lists of repeat spreaders, although published in its final report and in blog posts, "were not provided directly to any partner organization," such as Twitter. 

Our ruling

Starbuck claimed that the Department of Homeland Security and State Department coordinated with the Election Integrity Partnership to "censor Joe Biden’s opponents."

Agencies within those departments were external stakeholders in the Election Integrity Partnership during its 2020 work, before Biden took office. 

CISA did not pass along any claims to the partnership, which also said it didn’t forward any reports on CISA’s behalf to social media platforms. 

It’s unclear how many misinformation claims were submitted to the partnership by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which focuses on foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts. But less than 1% of the claims investigated by the partnership focused on claims involving foreign actors.

Although both government agencies were involved in the partnership, there is no evidence that either of them, or the partnership’s researchers, acted to "censor Joe Biden’s opponents." 

We rate this claim False.

Updated, Oct. 13, 2022: The story has been updated to include a statement from CISA that was received after publication.

Our Sources

Robby Starbuck, Instagram post, Oct. 5, 2022

Robby Starbuck, Twitter thread, Oct. 4, 2022

Robby Starbuck, interview via Twitter on Oct. 7, 2022

Just the News, "Outsourced censorship: Feds used private entity to target millions of social posts in 2020," Sept. 30, 2022

The Election Integrity Partnership, "A Statement from the Election Integrity Partnership," Oct. 5, 2022

The Election Integrity Partnership, "The Election Integrity Partnership in 2022: Our Work Ahead," July 31, 2022

The Election Integrity Partnership, "The 2020 Election Integrity Partnership," accessed Oct. 6, 2022

The Election Integrity Partnership, "The Final Report — The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election," accessed Oct. 6, 2022

The Election Integrity Partnership, PDF of full report, "The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election," accessed Oct. 6, 2022

The Atlantic Council, "A conversation on the release of the Election Integrity Partnership’s report, ‘The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election'," March 3, 2021

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, "Cybersecurity Summit 2021: Responding to Mis, Dis, and Malinformation," Oct. 27, 2021

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, "Election Infrastructure Security," accessed Oct. 10, 2022

Department of Homeland Security, "Congress Passes Legislation Standing Up Cybersecurity Agency in DHS," Nov. 13, 2018

The Associated Press, "Trump signs act creating cybersecurity agency," Nov. 21, 2018

CNN, "Trump fires director of Homeland Security agency who had rejected President’s election conspiracy theories," Nov. 18, 2021

The New York Times, "Trump Fires Christopher Krebs, Official Who Disputed Election Fraud Claims," Nov. 17, 2020

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, "Election Infrastructure Security," accessed Oct. 9, 2022

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, "Mis, dis, malinformation: Bridging Election Stakeholders and Social Media," accessed Oct. 9, 2022

Center for Internet Security, "Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing & Analysis Center, accessed Oct. 9, 2022

Center for Internet Security, "About us," accessed Oct. 9, 2022

USASpending.gov, "Recipient profile: The Atlantic Council of the United States, INC.," accessed Oct. 6, 2022

USASpending.gov, "Spending by prime award," accessed Oct. 6, 2022

USASpending.gov, grants to Occent Data, also known as Graphika , accessed Oct. 6, 2022

Email exchange with Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, Oct. 6, 2022

Twitter, "About search rules and restrictions," accessed Oct. 7, 2022

University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, "$2.25 million in National Science Foundation funding will support Center for an Informed Public’s rapid-response research of mis- and disinformation," Aug. 15, 2021

Stanford Cyber Policy Center, "The National Science Foundation Awards 3M to Collaborative UW and Stanford Team," Aug. 17, 2021

The Tennessean, "Tennessee Supreme Court: Robby Starbuck off the ballot again in GOP's 5th Congressional primary," June 10, 2022

The Tennessean, "Tennessee Republican Party boots 3 off ballot, including Trump-endorsed Morgan Ortagus: What to know," April 21, 2022

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Partnership targeted election misinformation, not conservatives

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