Homeland Security logo is seen during a joint news conference in Washington, Feb. 25, 2015. The Department of Homeland Security paused the work of its new disinformation governance board earlier this year. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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A new report from non-profit news organization the Intercept details how officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been escalating efforts to target disinformation online, including closed-door pressure “to try to shape online discourse” on social media platforms. Alarm bells should be ringing for anyone who cares about free speech.

“The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted Monday in response to that report. “Our government can’t use private pressure to get around our constitutional rights.”

The debate surrounding free speech often goes off the rails, with fundamental misconceptions about what the First Amendment does and does not do. As we’ve tried to repeatedly emphasize, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech.

The First Amendment does not prevent private entities, like social media platforms, from instituting and enforcing rules about user content. It is not a violation of the First Amendment for the platforms to work to limit disinformation or hate speech, for example. Just as it is not a violation of the First Amendment for this newspaper to edit the columns and letters to the editor we receive to make sure they are accurate. In fact, our ability (and responsibility, we’d argue) to do so flows from the First Amendment.

What the First Amendment does do is prevent the government from policing speech or enforcing its own view of the truth. So when we hear about government efforts, even informal, to shape speech on private platforms, we get very uncomfortable. We’re all for entities working to make sure content they’re responsible for is not amplifying hate or falsehoods, but the government should stay far away from those efforts.

The Intercept story includes years of internal DHS communications, including a telling message from Microsoft executive Matt Masterson to Jen Easterly, the director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

“Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” Masterson said in February.

No. No they don’t. The hesitance is warranted, and we share it.

Also notable is that Masterson is himself a former DHS official, speaking to the problem of Washington’s revolving door between public service and the private sector, which raises additional concerns.

It is not hyperbolic to view this kind of activity, with government officials looking to exert influence on speech from private platforms, as a slippery Orwellian slope. This isn’t quite like the Chinese government exercising strict censorship controls over websites like Weibo, for example. But it is a step in that direction, and is too close for comfort.

The Intercept story featured an important quote from former ACLU president Nadine Strossen.

“If a foreign authoritarian government sent these messages,” Strossen said, “there is no doubt we would call it censorship.”

We happen to think that media organizations and tech platforms should constantly be thinking about ways to minimize the spread of falsehoods and hate. But the government absolutely should not be trying to influence those efforts.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...