According to a new report released by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, the Biden administration is pouring taxpayer money into a National Science Foundation programme called Track F, to deal with what the White House considers misinformation and disinformation.
Under Track F, the federal government is funnelling tens of millions of dollars to elite universities for the study of AI-related misinformation and the development of potential solutions. The NSF provided $38 million in misinformation-related funding from the start of Joe Biden’s presidency through to the end of 2022. Now, the programme is injecting an extra $13 million specifically for AI-related issues.
On its face, this might seem like a good thing considering we’re on the cusp of a tidal wave of AI-generated information. However, the details of the programme should ring alarm bells. For example, according to the House Judiciary report, those with “vulnerabilities to disinformation methods” just happen to consist of core parts of the voting base of Biden’s political adversaries, including conservatives and veterans.
The question of who controls AI is the fulcrum of a massive pendulum of shifting power. Big Tech companies with the resources needed to build multi-billion-dollar AI models have become adept at trading their support of new Government regulations for a hand in crafting them.
With Track F, the research funding for universities is only the top of the funnel. Once tools and policies have been crafted, they will presumably be deployed where they matter most: with Big Tech companies whose various information streams — search engines, social networks, and even protocols like email — make up the majority of the information people consume each day.
Track F’s own programme manager, Michael Pozmantier, tacitly acknowledged its sensitivity. In 2023, following a report by the Daily Caller News Foundation on Track F which linked to some of the programme’s videos, Pozmantier emailed participants saying he was “going to see about pulling [the videos] down or locking the page ASAP.” According to the House Judiciary report, a Track F PowerPoint presentation included a note to discuss the “difficult responsibility of censorship” carried by those involved.
This calls to mind Track F’s first disastrous foray into information control, the Disinformation Governance Board led by a disinformation researcher who publicly claimed that the Hunter Biden laptop story was a “Trump campaign product”. However, the administration seems to have learnt its lesson, this time taking a more deft approach by putting distance between itself and the levers of control — and leveraging the veneer of objectivity associated with scientific institutions.
Nevertheless, this is a strange moment to hand responsibility for the creation of tools that will, effectively, enable mass control of information to elite academic institutions. During congressional testimony in December, the president of MIT — one of the most prominent institutional participants in Track F — refused to say that calls for genocide against Jews constitute campus harassment. The two other university presidents in the hearings who made similar refusals, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill, were asked to step down. The federal government subsequently launched investigations into the avalanche of hate on elite campuses.
But given that 2024 is a critically important election year, the timing might be just right. In 2016, the Biden campaign scored a major victory when Twitter censored the New York Post’s bombshell story on Hunter Biden laptop just days before the election. The effects of that censorship — complete with dozens of intelligence community figures signing a letter falsely claiming the story was “Russian disinformation” — were profound.
Effective as it was, that was a single quashed story, one that likely took countless hours and untold amounts of political capital to pull off. With top-level control of self-learning machines that have the ability to make, distribute, measure and fine-tune information streams, the power to sway elections, move markets, and shape widespread belief is unlike anything we’ve seen before. In that regard, the few tens of millions used to fund Track F constitute nothing short of the political bargain of the century.