The podcast returns with more coverage of The Twitter Files. On this episode, I am discussing how the US government used the FBI to exert censorship control over Twitter and many other tech companies to reinforce government narratives and silence critics.
In this episode, I finally continue my ongoing coverage of The Twitter Files. In case you have forgotten or are new to the show, you can use that link to catch up with my previous episodes on the topic. But as a quick refresher: When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he gave a number of journalists – among them Matt Taibbi – access to internal messages that proved that the US government, mostly through some NGOs and also the FBI, was pushing censorship at Twitter on a wide variety of subjects. But always with the intention to strengthen official government narratives and suppress dissident thinkers – with other words: classic propaganda.
Censorship at Companies Aside from Twitter
We only have access, thanks to Elon Musk, to internal information from Twitter and the big tech companies – and the journalists apparently doing their bidding – have so far successfully prevented the public from gaining insight into more companies, but through the access journalists had at Twitter alone, it has become obvious that many other social media and tech companies were contacted, and coerced, by the government in a similar way to Twitter.
The other companies we know about include: Facebook, Microsoft/LinkedIn, Yahoo, Reddit, Wikimedia, Pinterest, Cloudflare, Amazon/Twitch, Google/YouTube and Apple. So it is safe to assume that all big tech companies are tied up in this censorship machine to one degree or another.
Matt Taibbi has been calling this the “censorship-industrial complex” in reference to Eisenhower’s famous Farewell Address. His news organisation Racket News has recently published an in-depth report on this phenomenon, which I will cover in-depth in an upcoming episode.
An overview of “The Censorship-Industrial Complex” (image source: Racket News)
The Agencies That Funnelled through the FBI
The FBI was instrumental in the US government’s plan to exert control over opinion on the public internet. It is important to note that the Bureau has never denied it’s role in this censorship network.
After weeks of Twitter Files reports detailing close coordination between the FBI and Twitter in moderating social media content, the Bureau issued a statement Wednesday. It didn’t refute allegations. Instead, it decried “conspiracy theorists” publishing “misinformation,” whose “sole aim” is to “discredit the agency.”
The FBI was “acting as doorman to a vast program of social media surveillance and censorship, encompassing agencies across the federal government – from the State Department to the Pentagon to the CIA.”
The operation is far bigger than the reported 80 members of the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF), which also facilitates requests from a wide array of smaller actors - from local cops to media to state governments. A chief end result was that thousands of official “reports” flowed to Twitter from all over, through the FITF and the FBI’s San Francisco field office.
Despite its official remit being “Foreign Influence,” the FITF and the SF FBI office became conduit for mountains of domestic moderation requests, from state governments, even local police.
Commentators have argued that this wasn’t actually censorship, that the FBI was merely suggesting Twitter and other websites take action. But this is very much a straw-man argument. In fact, the FBI was “clearly tailoring searches to Twitter’s policies.”
FBI complaints were almost always depicted somewhere as a “possible terms of service violation," even in the subject line. Twitter executives noticed the FBI appeared to be aasigning personnel to look for Twitter violations. They have some folks in the Baltimore field office and at HQ that are just doing keyword searches for violations. This is probably the 10th request I have dealt with in the last 5 days,” remarked [Stacia] Cardille.
The government cleverly did it this way because they knew they weren’t supposed to censor these sites due to freedom of speech provisions and also contravening the FBI’s actual mission. So they used Twitter’s terms of service as a shield. They probably also moulded Twitter’s TOS to benefit this approach in the first place – subtly massaging the platform’s rules to conform to government requirements via influence exerted through the press.
What is interesting is that the supposed foreign interference that launched this whole crusade in the first place seems to have barely existed at all.
Twitter executives struggled against government claims of foreign interference supposedly occurring on their platform and others. The Twitter Files show execs under constant pressure to validate theories of foreign influence – and unable to find evidence for key assertions. “Found no links to Russia,” says one analyst, but suggests he could “brainstorm” to “find a stronger connection.” “Extremely tenuous circumstantial chance of being related,” says another.
In a key email, news that the State Department was making a wobbly public assertion of Russian influence led an exec – the same one with the “OGA” past - to make a damning admission: Due to a lack of technical evidence on our end, I’ve generally left it be, waiting for more evidence,” he says. “Our window on that is closing, given that government partners are becoming more aggressive on attribution.” Translation: “more aggressive” “government partners” had closed Twitter’s “window” of independence. Other Government Agencies” ended up sharing intelligence through the FBI and FITF not just with Twitter, but with Yahoo!, Twitch, Clouldfare, LinkedIn, even Wikimedia.
Once the US government had locked down its control over these platforms, it was used in a variety of predictable ways:
Many people wonder if Internet platforms receive direction from intelligence agencies about moderation of foreign policy news stories. It appears Twitter did, in some cases by way of the FITF/FBI. These reports are far more factually controversial than domestic counterparts. One intel report lists accounts tied to “Ukraine ‘neo-Nazi’ Propaganda.’” This includes assertions that Joe Biden helped orchestrate a coup in 2014 and “put his son on the board of Burisma.” Often intelligence came in the form of brief reports, followed by long lists of accounts simply deemed to be pro-Maduro, pro-Cuba, pro-Russia, etc. One report says a site “documenting purported rights abuses committed by Ukrainians” is directed by Russian agents.
Intel about the shady origin of these accounts might be true. But so might at least some of the information in them – about neo-Nazis, rights abuses in Donbas, even about our own government. Should we block such material? This is a difficult speech dilemma. Should the government be allowed to try to prevent Americans (and others) from seeing pro-Maduro or anti-Ukrainian accounts? Often intel reports are just long lists of newspapers, tweets or YouTube videos guilty of “anti-Ukraine narrative”.
This is how the FBI became, in its own words, “the belly button for the US government”, interfacing with contacts at all the major tech companies.
They eventually settled on an industry call via Signal. In an impressive display of operational security, Chan circulated private numbers of each company’s chief moderation officer in a Word Doc marked “Signal Phone Numbers,” subject-lined, “List of Numbers.”
Twitter was taking requests from every conceivable government body, beginning with the Senate Intel Committee (SSCI), which seemed to need reassurance Twitter was taking FBI direction.
Requests arrived and were escalated from all over: from Treasury, the NSA, virtually every state, the HHS, from the FBI and DHS, and more. They also received an astonishing variety of requests from officials asking for individuals they didn’t like to be banned. Here, the office for Democrat and House Intel Committee chief Adam Schiff asks Twitter to ban journalist Paul Sperry. Even Twitter declined to honor Schiff’s request at the time. Sperry was later suspended, however.
Requests were often based on bullshit reasoning, hardly any reason at all or the government didn’t even bother to give a reason beyond boilerplate text.
How Twitter Was Paper Trained
So how did it happen that Twitter was compelled to let the spies into its organisation and the government dictate its moderation policies? Classic paper training.
In August 2017, when Facebook decided to suspend 300 accounts with “suspected Russian origin,” Twitter wasn’t worried. Its leaders were sure they didn’t have a Russia problem. Execs agreed the best PR strategy was to say nothing on record, and quietly hurl reporters at Facebook. “Twitter is not the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling right now - the spotlight is on FB,” wrote Public Policy VP Colin Crowell.
In September, 2017, after a cursory review, Twitter informed the Senate it suspended 22 possible Russian accounts, and 179 others with “possible links” to those accounts, amid a larger set of roughly 2700 suspects manually examined. Receiving these meager results, a furious Senator Mark Warner of Virginia – ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee – held an immediate press conference to denounce Twitter’s report as “frankly inadequate on every level.” After meeting with congressional leaders, Crowell wrote: “Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them.”
Crowell added Dems were taking cues from Hillary Clinton, who that week said: “It’s time for Twitter to stop dragging its heels and live up to the fact that its platform is being used as a tool for cyber-warfare.”
So Twitter created a task force to find evidence of Russian meddling and disappear it from its platform. The problem was that there didn’t appear to be much meddling there.
The “Russia Task Force” started mainly with data shared from counterparts at Facebook, centered around accounts supposedly tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). But the search for Russian perfidy was a dud. OCT 13 2017: “No evidence of a coordinated approach, all of the accounts found seem to be lone-wolf type activity (different timing, spend, targeting, <$10k in ad spend).” OCT 23 2017: “Finished with investigation… 2500 full manual account reviews, we think this is exhaustive… 32 suspicious accounts and only 17 of those are connected with Russia, only 2 of those have significant spend one of which is Russia Today…remaining <$10k in spend.”
This created a PR problem for Twitter because the press, with the help of current and former intelligence community officials, was convinced there was a lot of Russian meddling to be found.
Twitter’s search finding “only 2” significant accounts, “one of which is Russia Today,” was based on the same data that later inspired panic headlines like “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone”. The failure of the “Russia task force” to produce “material” worsened the company’s PR crisis. As congress threatened costly legislation, and Twitter began was subject to more bad press fueled by the committees, the company changed its tune about the smallness of its Russia problem.
Even as Twitter prepared to change its ads policy and remove RT and Sputnik to placate Washington, congress turned the heat up more, apparently leaking the larger, base list of 2700 accounts. Reporters from all over started to call Twitter about Russia links. Buzzfeed, working with the University of Sheffield, claimed to find a “new network” on Twitter that had “close connections to… Russian-linked bot accounts.”
Twitter internally did not want to endorse the Buzzfeed/Sheffield findings. Still, when the Buzzfeed piece came out, the Senate asked for “a write up of what happened.” Twitter was soon apologizing for the same accounts they’d initially told the Senate were not a problem.
Even though there was no concrete evidence of concerted Russian influence on the political discourse on Twitter – and if anybody would know you’d think it was the people running the platform – the US government and the press were convinced it existed. And therefore pressured Twitter into compliance with their new policies. Largely by shaming the company in the press – a process journalists and PR professionals call “paper training”.
This cycle – threatened legislation, wedded to scare headlines pushed by congressional/intel sources, followed by Twitter caving to moderation asks – would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement. Twitter soon settled on its future posture. In public, it removed content “at our sole discretion.” Privately, they would “off-board” anything “identified by the U.S.. intelligence community as a state-sponsored entity conducting cyber-operations.” Twitter let the “USIC” into its moderation process. It would not leave. Wrote Crowell, in an email to the company’s leaders: “We will not be reverting to the status quo.”
I will explore the bogus data that was used to make the public believe in this non-existent political meddling by the Russians in detail in an upcoming episode. This data was generated and spread by a large group of NGOs (some of which are included in the above infographic on the censorship-industrial complex) and one of the worst offenders was the infamous Hamilton 68 dashboard. But more on that in a future episode.
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Butterbeans wrote me a nice email, saying he’s glad I’m back to producing shows. He also sent me a very interesting article on the German economy that fits right in with something I’m working on for an upcoming episode.
Not everyone is paid the same wage but it is one man one vote.
Also in reply to the previous episode, Fadi Mansour chimed in on the forum:
Your point of view is that Democracy refers specifically to a way to structure government (the original definition), and do not agree with the definition creep that seems to be happening. For me personally, I would tolerate this, as long as we agree on what we are talking about.
But on the other hand, the interesting point that you raise is the reminder that consensus does not equal truth! With which I totally agree.
We might expect that, provided some conditions, consensus would approach “Truth”. These conditions would include something like free access to all available data, and giving equal rights to participants. And from this comes the importance of a free press for democracies.
For me the sign of a good episode is how much it trigger thoughts, and for me several topics jumped to mind, but now, when writing this, I start to forget the context, to please bear with me with this apparently random thought (although I have re-listened to the episode again after writing the initial draft of this feedback, but still, I have gaps in my memory).
I have to say, your assessment of the scientific process is incorrect. We are not going out to “prove” a hypothesis. See it more as an evidence gathering operation. We are supposed to be weighing information gained in an experiment, in the context of a hypothesis. Normally your null hypothesis is no difference between groups (usually control and treatment). When we get a significant difference, there is evidence to reject the null hypothesis, not that our proposed hypothesis is true. The null hypothesis still could be correct but in this instance, the way we have approached the test we have confidence to reject. When we continually test a system over and over, and we gather enough evidence against the null hypothesis, then we can conclude in fact that our proposed hypothesis is true, well as true as anything can be in science. I view the theory of evolution in this light. While still a theory, enough evidence has been presented that I can confidentially reject the null hypothesis (that evolution has not occurred or is not occurring).
My comments regarding my government and government funded media was more about the irony of them having a fit about the labeling, despite the fact that they wrote and released the document stating that they were government funded. They could’ve just shrugged and carried on as normal, but they went into toddler tantrum mode over it.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, they actually made some really good content with the money that the government gave them. These days, they get a lot more money, and most kindergarten classes could produce better content. While I do personally believe it is time for my government to stop funding them, it is more about economics than the fact that they are the propaganda department of the government here.
If the government really wanted to produce content, they could fund programs in schools and universities to both create the content and the business aspect of doing so, and while the content would likely be better, they would also be preparing people for future careers.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel the government here should be spending those billions of dollars on things that do not contribute in a positive or useful way to our society, especially given the current state of the economy. I realize that Canada is a first world country, but we have the following issues that we are not dealing with: Our government run healthcare system is in shambles and running on skeleton staff, while many workers have been banned from working in healthcare do to ongoing vaccine mandates (after 45 years of living in the same city, I no longer have a doctor). Many villages do not have clean or safe drinking water, which is a campaign promise to fix from Mr Trudeau at every election. Vast areas to not have high speed internet (I can physically see city limits from my house but have 1Mbps speeds on a good day). There is no mass transit once you leave large cities (I think amazing race just did a show on this). The electrical infrastructure is having more and more frequent outages, and electric cars haven’t even really taken off where I live yet. I could keep going, but the point is that we have a lot of current and upcoming problems that we are ignoring, while spending money in areas that there is no return on.
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