- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2023

Two independent journalists given access to Elon Musk’s Twitter Files vault warned lawmakers Thursday of a sprawling “censorship industrial complex” that has eroded Americans’ freedom of speech.

Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger appeared before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government in an explosive hearing that focused on the federal government’s alleged sweeping efforts to silence disfavored views.

Mr. Shellenberger harked back to President Eisenhower’s warning of a ballooning military complex that would one day “endanger our liberties” while he described a web of government-funded and private efforts to monitor online speech and squelch disfavored views.

“Today, American taxpayers are unwittingly financing the growth and power of a censorship industrial complex run by America’s scientific and technological elite, which endangers our liberties and democracy,” he told the panel.

“The Twitter Files, state attorneys, general lawsuits and investigative reporters have revealed a large and growing network of government agencies, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations that are actively censoring American citizens, often without their knowledge, on a range of issues,” he said.

In a sprawling Twitter thread released in the final hour before appearing before the panel, Mr. Taibbi detailed what he said was a vast web of censorship that included online speech monitoring programs spearheaded by nongovernmental organizations, some of which had direct access to Twitter’s platform monitoring system to flag posts and accounts that fell outside the mainstream.

Mr. Taibbi said the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Election Integrity Partnership had nearly 22 million tweets flagged in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

“It’s crucial to reiterate: EIP was partnered with state entities like [the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] and [State Department’s Global Engagement Center] while seeking the elimination of millions of tweets,” Mr. Taibbi wrote. “Twitter execs did not distinguish between organizations, using phrases like ‘According to CISA, escalated via EIP.’”

He said those efforts centered on silencing disfavored views regardless of whether the posts were true.

Mr. Taibbi said the Stanford Internet Observatory was at one point “onboarded” onto Twitter’s system to track posts.

In one email that Mr. Taibbi revealed Thursday, the Virality Project, another Stanford Internet Observatory project, recommended that several platforms flag “stories of true vaccine side effects” and “true posts which could fuel hesitancy.”

The Stanford Internet Observatory, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Global Engagement Center did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“This, ultimately, is the most serious problem with the censorship industrial complex,” Mr. Taibbi said. “Packaged as a bulwark against lies and falsehood, it is itself often a major source of disinformation, with American taxpayers funding their own estrangement from reality.”

Mr. Taibbi told the panel that while reviewing the internal documents, he “learned Twitter, Facebook, Google and other companies developed a formal system for taking in moderation requests from every corner of government.”

He added, “This is a grave threat to people of all political persuasions. The First Amendment and the American population accustomed to the right to speak is the best defense left against the censorship industrial complex. If there’s anything that Twitter Files show is that we’re in danger of losing this most precious right, without which all democratic rights are impossible.”

In December, the two journalists began exposing the extent to which the FBI worked with Twitter company executives to moderate content on the platform.

Those efforts included weekly meetings with Twitter executives before the company suppressed the New York Post’s 2020 report on Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop computer.

During those meetings, which included officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security, Twitter executives were cued to rumors that Hunter Biden would be the target of a “hack and leak operation.”

The Post’s report, which ran on Oct. 14, 2020, set off an avalanche of embarrassing emails, photos and text messages pulled from the laptop computer. It revealed details about Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction and his hugely profitable foreign business dealings that critics say smack of influence peddling.

The emails also refuted President Biden’s claims that he never spoke with his son about overseas business deals.

The Biden presidential campaign branded the now-authenticated laptop as Russian disinformation. It cited a claim peddled by more than 50 former U.S. senior intelligence officials in an open letter to the public.

The steady drip of internal documents has also revealed Twitter’s left-wing bent that led to the censorship of conservative viewpoints and the unprecedented decision to ban a sitting president, Donald Trump, from the platform.

In opening remarks, committee Chairman Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, focused on censorship of the news reports about Hunter Biden’s laptop computer.

“Our government built a cozy relationship with Big Tech,” Mr. Jordan said. “They primed him for a hacking leak operation.”

“The information op was run on us, run on we the people. And if that’s not … a weaponization of government, I don’t know what is,” Mr. Jordan said.

The top Democrat on the committee, Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, accused Republicans of “cherry-picking” evidence to attack the Biden administration.

She chided Mr. Taibbi and Mr. Shellenberger as “Elon Musk’s public scribes” and accused them of spreading a “false narrative” of widespread government censorship.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say you have called two witnesses who pose a direct threat to people who oppose them,” Ms. Plaskett said.

“This is a new Republican playbook, apparently: Risk American safety and security to score political points,” she said.

Mr. Jordan countered in the first of many testy exchanges among committee members throughout the hearing.

“It’s crazy what you were just saying,” Mr. Jordan said. “You don’t want the people to see what happened.”

Other Democrats took a similar approach to try to discredit the two witnesses.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz, Florida Democrat, said the Twitter Files raised ethical concerns with how journalists “receive and present certain information.” She called the two journalists “Elon Musk’s handpicked journalists” and accused Mr. Taibbi of profiting from the series of bombshell revelations.

Democrats pressed the witnesses to reveal their list of sources at Twitter who aided in their reporting and the conditions agreed to in publishing the Twitter Files.

“Who gave you access to these emails?” Ms. Plaskett pressed Mr. Taibbi. “Who was the individual that gave you permission to access the emails?”

Mr. Taibbi responded that the attribution for his reporting was “sources at Twitter.” He declined to reveal further details.

“Did Mr. Musk contact you, Mr. Taibbi?” she pressed further.

“Again, the attribution for my story is sources at Twitter,” Mr. Taibbi replied.

Mr. Jordan seized on the line of questioning. In a heated exchange, he accused Ms. Plaskett of violating long-standing decorum of keeping anonymous sources off limits.

Ms. Plaskett denied the accusation.

Republicans said the Democratic tactics of discrediting the witnesses and deriding Mr. Musk for turning over the files was part of a broader effort to suppress the Twitter Files.

Earlier this week, the panel revealed in a 113-page report that the Federal Trade Commission demanded that Twitter identify all journalists involved in the release of the Twitter Files as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the platform.

The FTC also is requesting that Mr. Musk give his reasons for terminating former FBI official Jim Baker from his job at Twitter. It is part of more than 350 specific FTC demands laid out in 12 letters dating back to November.

The committee said the demands have “no basis in the FTC’s statutory mission and appear to be the result of partisan pressure to target Twitter and silence Musk.”

Mr. Shellenberger on Thursday called the FTC demands “chilling.”

“It’s disturbing,” he said. “I never thought that would happen in the United States of America. I’ve lived in a bunch of authoritarian countries, visited a lot of authoritarian countries, [and I] never thought this kind of thing would be going on here.”

Mr. Taibbi called the demands “disturbing.”

“This kind of thing, where the government is looking for information about reporters, it’s usually a canary in the coal mine that something worse is coming in terms of an effort to exercise control over the press,” he said. 

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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