Journalists Testify to Congress on ‘Censorship-Industrial Complex’
Journalists are exposing the federal government’s online censorship regime in explosive congressional testimony. On Thursday, “Twitter Files” journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger detailed to the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government how the federal government pressured social media companies to suppress and censor the online speech of Americans in order to influence elections. The pair of reporters addressed the partisan, pro-Democrat nature of what they termed the “censorship-industrial complex.” Taibbi said of political bias amongst organizations censoring Americans, “They all tend to drift in one direction.”
Representative Elisa Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked Shellenberger, “Do you believe that this censorship is a form of election interference?” He responded, “Absolutely it is. There’s no question in my mind.”
Taibbi, Shellenberger, and fellow journalist Bari Weiss published a series of reports beginning in December 2022 entitled the “Twitter Files,” exposing, detailing, and documenting how the federal government, U.S. intelligence agencies, and third-party, leftist-affiliated organizations weaponized “misinformation” protocols and pressured social media giants to silence Americans’ speech online. Relying on internal files from Twitter, made available to the reporters after Elon Musk purchased the company, the “Twitter Files” detailed how the federal government had ordered the suppression of the New York Post’s coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop, how Democratic Party operatives had manipulated personal relationships with social media company employees to censor conservative reporting and posting, and how the FBI gave Twitter direct orders regarding who to censor, and much more.
Much of what Taibbi and Shellenberger have uncovered has been confirmed in reports published by the Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government and in committee Chairman Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) “Facebook Files.”
Taibbi and Schellenberger also spoke to Congress about a recent report they had published concerning whistleblower testimony on a censorship regime put in place by the U.S. and U.K. governments in order to stifle conservative voices in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Brexit, both in 2016. The reporters state that their findings on the Cyber Threat Intelligence League (CTIL) “rival[s] or exceed[s] the Twitter Files and Facebook Files in scale and importance.” According to the report, the CTIL was initially established in 2018 as a non-governmental conglomerate of volunteer data scientists and former defense and intelligence agency officials and staffers. Together, they laid the groundwork for the “censorship-industrial complex” to silence conservatives in the U.S. and U.K.
Relying on whistleblower testimony and a “new trove of documents” provided by the whistleblower, the CTIL report claims that the “censorship-industrial complex” was spearheaded by ex U.K. defense researcher Sara-Jayne Terp, who began working on the idea when then-president Barack Obama said in 2017 that a censorship machine was necessary to prevent a “repeat of 2016.” The report’s authors wrote:
“The CTIL framework and the public-private model are the seeds of what both the US and UK would put into place in 2020 and 2021, including masking censorship within cybersecurity institutions and counter-disinformation agendas; a heavy focus on stopping disfavored narratives, not just wrong facts; and pressuring social media platforms to take down information or take other actions to prevent content from going viral.”
According to internal CTIL documents, the organization not only flagged online content for censorship but actually created a multitude of fake social media accounts and AI-generated images in order to launch online campaigns to completely alter public opinion. Furthermore, while CTIL and its founders laid the groundwork for the “censorship-industrial complex” over the course of 2017 and 2018, they had officially partnered with U.S. government agencies — namely the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its subsidiary the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — by the beginning of 2020, possibly even earlier. According to the whistleblower, CTIL’s goal “was to become part of the federal government. In our weekly meetings, they made it clear that they were building these organizations within the federal government, and if you built the first iteration, we could secure a job for you.” Additionally, he said, almost 20 of the individuals active in the CTIL were employees of the FBI or CISA.
Federal government officials saw their partnership with CTIL as a means of circumventing the First Amendment. Former U.S. Navy commander and CTIL leader Pablo Breuer attempted to organize meetings of “nontraditional partners in… one room,” allowing government officials, censorship experts, and social media executives “to talk in a non-attribution, open environment in an unclassified way so that we can collaborate better, more freely and really start to change the way that we address some of these issues.” Terp, Breuer, and others in CTIL, DHS, and CISA called their coalition a “public-private partnership,” arguing that private companies aren’t beholden to the U.S. Constitution the same way that government agencies are, and could therefore censor Americans with impunity, even if it were at the behest of the federal government. As Breuer put it:
“If you talk to the average Chinese citizen, they absolutely believe that the Great Firewall of China is not there for censorship. They believe that it’s there because the Chinese Communist Party wants to protect the citizenry, and they absolutely believe that’s a good thing. If the US government tried to sell that narrative, we would absolutely lose our minds and say, ‘No, no, this is a violation of our First Amendment rights.’ So the in-group and out-group messaging have to be often different.”
The whistleblower said that Terp and CTIL leaders did not explicitly discuss whether they were violating the First Amendment. “The ethos was that if we get away with it, it’s legal,” he explained, “and there were no First Amendment concerns because we have a ‘public-private partnership’ — that’s the word they used to disguise those concerns. ‘Private people can do things public servants can’t do, and public servants can provide the leadership and coordination.’”
Speaking to Congress on Thursday, Shellenberger said, “The Supreme Court has ruled that the government 'may not induce, encourage or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish,' [but] there is now a large body of evidence proving that the government did precisely that.”
Perhaps most unnerving of all is the fundamentalist and “overtly political” view Terp and her co-conspirators took of mis- and disinformation. Terp herself even said, “Most misinformation is actually true but set in the wrong context.” She explained:
“You’re not trying to get people to believe lies most of the time. Most of the time, you’re trying to change their belief sets. And in fact, really, deeper than that, you’re trying to change, to shift their internal narratives… the set of stories that are your baseline for your culture. So that might be the baseline for your culture as an American.”
The whistleblower said that Terp called CTIL the “Hogwarts school for misinformation and disinformation.” He added, “They were superheroes in their own story.”
The report’s authors wrote, “The sum total of the documents is a clear picture of a highly coordinated and sophisticated effort by the US and UK governments to build a domestic censorship effort and influence operations similar to the ones they have used in foreign countries.” They concluded, “Over the next several days and weeks, we intend to present these documents to Congressional investigators, and will make public all of the documents we can…”
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.