Statement to Congress: The Censorship-Industrial Complex
Statement to Congress
THE CENSORSHIP-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
“MONITOR ALL TWEETS COMING FROM TRUMP’S PERSONAL ACCOUNT/BIDEN’S PERSONAL ACCOUNT”
When #TwitterFiles reporters were given access to Twitter internal documents last year, we first focused on the company, which at times acted like a power above government.
But Twitter was more like a partner to government.
With other tech firms it held a regular “industry meeting” with FBI and DHS, and developed a formal system for receiving thousands of content reports from every corner of government: HHS, Treasury, NSA, even local police:
Emails from the FBI, DHS and other agencies often came with spreadsheets of hundreds or thousands of account names for review. Often, these would be deleted soon after.
Many were obvious “misinformation,” like accounts urging people to vote the day after an election.
But other official "disinfo" reports had shakier reasoning. The highlighted Twitter analysis here disagrees with the FBI about accounts deemed a “proxy of Russian actors":
Then we saw "disinfo" lists where evidence was even less clear. This list of 378 “Iranian State Linked Accounts” includes an Iraq vet once arrested for blogging about the war, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter and Truthout, a site that publishes Noam Chomsky.
In some cases, state reports didn’t even assert misinformation. Here, a list of YouTube videos is flagged for “anti-Ukraine narratives”:
But the bulk of censorship requests didn’t come from government directly.
Asked if Twitter’s marketing department could say the company detects “misinfo” with help of “outside experts,” a Twitter executive replied:
We came to think of this grouping – state agencies like DHS, FBI, or the Global Engagement Center (GEC), along with “NGOs that aren’t academic” and an unexpectedly aggressive partner, commercial news media – as the Censorship-Industrial Complex.
Who’s in the Censorship-Industrial Complex? Twitter in 2020 helpfully compiled a list for a working group set up in 2020.
The National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, and Hamilton 68’s creator, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, are key:
Twitter execs weren’t sure about Clemson’s Media Forensics Lab (“too chummy with HPSCI”), and weren’t keen on the Rand Corporation (“too close to USDOD”), but others were deemed just right.
NGOs ideally serve as a check on corporations and the government. Not long ago, most of these institutions viewed themselves that way. Now, intel officials, “researchers,” and executives at firms like Twitter are effectively one team - or Signal group, as it were:
The Woodstock of the Censorship-Industrial Complex came when the Aspen Institute - which receives millions a year from both the State Department and USAID - held a star-studded confab in Aspen in August 2021 to release its final report on “Information Disorder.”
The report was co-authored by Katie Couric and Chris Krebs, the founder of the DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Yoel Roth of Twitter and Nathaniel Gleicher of Facebook were technical advisors. Prince Harry joined Couric as a Commissioner.
Their taxpayer-backed conclusions: the state should have total access to data to make searching speech easier, speech offenders should be put in a “holding area," and government should probably restrict disinformation, “even if it means losing some freedom.”
Note Aspen recommended the power to mandate data disclosure be given to the FTC, which this committee just caught in a clear abuse of office, demanding information from Twitter about communications with (and identities of) #TwitterFiles reporters.
Naturally Twitter’s main concern regarding the Aspen report was making sure Facebook got hit harder by any resulting regulatory changes:
The same agencies (FBI, DHS/CISA, GEC) invite the same “experts” (Thomas Rid, Alex Stamos), funded by the same foundations (Newmark, Omidyar, Knight) trailed by the same reporters (Margaret Sullivan, Molly McKew, Brandy Zadrozny) seemingly to every conference, every panel.
The #TwitterFiles show the principals of this incestuous self-appointed truth squad moving from law enforcement/intelligence to the private sector and back, claiming a special right to do what they say is bad practice for everyone else: be fact-checked only by themselves.
While Twitter sometimes pushed back on technical analyses from NGOs about who is and isn't a “bot,” on subject matter questions like vaccines or elections they instantly defer to sites like Politifact, funded by the same names that fund the NGOs: Koch, Newmark, Knight.
#TwitterFiles repeatedly show media acting as proxy for NGOs, with Twitter bracing for bad headlines if they don't nix accounts. Here, the Financial Times gives Twitter until end of day to provide a “steer” on whether RFK, Jr. and other vax offenders will be zapped.
Well, you say, so what? Why shouldn’t civil society organizations and reporters work together to boycott “misinformation”? Isn’t that not just an exercise of free speech, but a particularly enlightened form of it?
The difference is, these campaigns are taxpayer-funded. Though the state is supposed to stay out domestic propaganda, the Aspen Institute, Graphika, the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, New America, and other “anti-disinformation” labs are receiving huge public awards.
Some NGOs, like the GEC-funded Global Disinformation Index or the DOD-funded Newsguard, not only seek content moderation but apply subjective “risk” or “reliability” scores to media outlets, which can result in reduction in revenue. Do we want government in this role?
Perhaps the ultimate example of the absolute fusion of state, corporate, and civil society organizations is the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), whose “Election Integrity Partnership” is among the most voluminous “flaggers” in the #TwitterFiles:
After public uproar “paused” the Orwellian “Disinformation Governance Board” of the DHS in early 2020, Stanford created the EIP to “fill the gaps” legally, as director Alex Stamos explains here (h/t Foundation for Freedom Online).
EIP research manager Renee DiResta boasted that while filling “gaps," the EIP succeeded in getting “tech partners” Google, TikTok, Facebook and Twitter to take action on “35% of the URLS flagged” under “remove, reduce, or inform” policies.
According to the EIP’s own data, it succeeded in getting nearly 22 million tweets labeled in the runup to the 2020 vote.
It’s crucial to reiterate: EIP was partnered with state entities like CISA and GEC while seeking elimination of millions of tweets. In the #TwitterFiles, Twitter execs did not distinguish between organizations, using phrases like “According to CIS[A], escalated via EIP.”
After the 2020 election, when EIP was renamed the Virality Project, the Stanford lab was on-boarded to Twitter’s JIRA ticketing system, absorbing this government proxy into Twitter infrastructure – with a capability of taking in an incredible 50 million tweets a day.
In one remarkable email, the Virality Project recommends that multiple platforms take action even against “stories of true vaccine side effects” and “true posts which could fuel hesitancy.”
None of the leaders of this effort to police Covid speech had health expertise.
This is the Censorship-Industrial Complex at its essence: a bureaucracy willing to sacrifice factual truth in service of broader narrative objectives. It’s the opposite of what a free press does.
Profiles portray DiResta as a warrior against Russian bots and misinformation, but reporters never inquire about work with DARPA, GEC, and other agencies. In the video below from @MikeBenzCyber, Stamos introduces her as having "worked for the CIA":
DiResta has become the public face of the Censorship-Industrial Complex, a name promoted everywhere as an unquestioned authority on truth, fact, and Internet hygiene, even though her former firm, New Knowledge, has been embroiled in two major disinformation scandals.
This, ultimately, is the most serious problem with the Censorship-Industrial Complex.
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.
DiResta’s New Knowledge helped design the Hamilton 68 project exposed in the #TwitterFiles.
Although it claimed to track “Russian influence,” Hamilton really followed Americans like “Ultra Maga Dog Mom,” “Right2Liberty,” even a British rugby player named Rod Bishop:
Told he was put on the Hamilton list of suspected “Russian influence” accounts, Bishop was puzzled.
“Nonsense. I’m supporting Ukraine,” he said.
As a result of Hamilton’s efforts, all sorts of people were falsely tied in press stories to “Russian bots”: former House Intel chief Devin Nunes, #WalkAway founder @BrandonStraka, supporters of the #FireMcMaster hashtag, even people who used the term “deep state”:
Hamilton 68 was funded by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which in turn was funded by the German Marshall Fund, which in turn is funded in part by – the Department of State.
The far worse scandal was “Project Birmingham,” in which thousands of fake Russian Twitter accounts were created to follow Alabama Republican Roy Moore in his 2017 race for US Senate.
Newspapers reported Russia seemed to take an interest in the race, favoring Moore.
Though at least one reporter for a major American paper was at a meeting in September, 2018 when New Knowledge planned the bizarre bot-and-smear campaign, the story didn’t break until December, two days after DiResta gave a report on Russian interference to the Senate.
Internally, Twitter correctly assessed the Moore story as far back as fall of 2017, saying it had no way if knowing if the Moore campaign purchased the bots, or if “an adversary purchased them… in an attempt to discredit them.”
Twitter told this to reporters who asked about the story contemporaneously. Moreover, after the story broke, Twitter's Roth wrote:
“There have been other instances in which domestic actors created fake accounts… some are fairly prominent in progressive circles.”
Roth added, “We shouldn’t comment.” Repeatedly in the #TwitterFiles, when Twitter learned the truth about scandals like Project Birmingham, they said nothing, like banks that were silent about mortgage fraud.
Reporters also kept quiet, protecting fellow “stakeholders.”
Twitter stayed silent out of political caution. DiResta, who ludicrously claimed she thought Project Birmingham was just an experiment to “investigate to what extent they could grow audiences… using sensational news,” hinted at a broader reason.
“I know there were people who believed the Democrats needed to fight fire with fire,” she told the New York Times.
“It was absolutely chatter going around the party.”
The incident underscored the extreme danger of the Censorship-Industrial Complex. Without real oversight mechanisms, there is nothing to prevent these super-empowered information vanguards from bending the truth for their own ends.
By way of proof, no major press organization has re-examined the bold claims DiResta/New Knowledge made to the Senate – e.g. that Russian ads “reached 126 million people” in 2016 – while covering up the Hamilton and Alabama frauds. If the CIC deems it, lies stay hidden.
In the digital age, this sprawling new information-control bureaucracy is an eerie sequel to the dangers Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address, when he said:
“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists.”