Twitter discloses another possible government censorship effort
An old saying, attributed to Henry David Thoreau, maintains that you do not have to find a trout in your glass to know someone is watering down the milk. This week Americans found a veritable school of trout in their milk — an unintentional demonstration by the Biden administration of why such a gathering of fish is often called a “lie.”
In the 17th release of the “Twitter Files,” journalist Matt Taibbi disclosed that the U.S. government is funding a group that has supported the censorship of dissenting viewpoints on social media, including those of U.S. citizens.
That may sound familiar. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote here that the congressionally created, federally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had supported the British-based Global Disinformation Index (GDI). The index was widely ridiculed for targeting ten conservative and libertarian sites as the most dangerous sources of disinformation; it sought to persuade advertisers to withdraw support for those sites, while listing their most liberal counterparts as among the most trustworthy.
At the time, I noted that the Biden administration had played us for chumps. As we celebrated the demise of the infamous Disinformation Governing Board with its “Disinformation Nanny,” the Biden administration never disclosed a larger censorship program.
Shortly after my column posted in The Hill, the NED wrote to me to say that it was discontinuing support for the GDI. Microsoft also was forced into retreat after it was shown to be pushing the GDI’s biased blacklist.
Again, many celebrated a victory for free speech.
Yet, here we are again staring down at a trout in our milk. This week, Taibbi reported that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) may have supported a different disinformation blacklisting operation.
The GEC controversy appears strikingly similar to the one involving the NED. Both have supported third-party organizations that carried out blacklisting. Taibbi contends that the GEC contracted with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), which sent suggested blacklists to Twitter; DFRLab says Taibbi’s report is incorrect and that it does not make content moderation decisions.
Yet, even Twitter censors reportedly balked at the size of the suggested blacklists and lack of supporting evidence. One list submitted by the GEC included several CNN journalists and Western government accounts, according to Taibbi.
Twitter’s Patrick Conlon reportedly mocked the list by referring to network anchor Anderson Cooper, joking: “Not exactly Anderson’s besties, but CNN assets if you will.” Yoel Roth, then Twitter’s head of trust and safety, responded “omg” and “what a total crock.”
It would be funny except for the fact that we know Twitter has admitted censoring many of those targeted by the government.
Still, many congressional Democrats continue to oppose efforts to investigate government censorship efforts, unleashing a type of Red Scare 2.0 by accusing critics of supporting insurrectionists or being “Putin lovers.” Others have simply insisted that if you see a trout in your milk, it is just your opinion.
When I testified at a recent hearing on the Twitter Files, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) criticized me for offering “legal opinions” without actually working at Twitter. As I have noted, it is like saying that a witness should not discuss the contents of the Pentagon Papers unless he worked at the Pentagon. It was particularly bizarre because the content of the Twitter Files — like the Pentagon Papers — are “facts.” The implication of those facts are opinions.
Twitter, however, is confirming these emails from the government — so we are not imagining trout.
“Opinion” is what we should do about it. While insisting there is nothing to “factually” see here, Democrats insist on remaining willfully blind. Rather than investigate the full scope of the government’s insular censorship programs and efforts, we are told to trust the government. In the meantime, we are left with the same game of whack-a-mole: We strike down a Disinformation Board, and a Disinformation Index pops up … we strike down a Disinformation Index, and a disinformation blacklisting appears.
Using third-party groups gives the government added cover — to a degree. The government is not allowed to engage in censorship, but Twitter has shown that censorship-by-surrogate has its own potential risks, including the possible legal status of a company as an agent of the government. While Twitter, as a private company, is not controlled by the First Amendment, it can become an agent of the government and trigger constitutional protections.
As with intelligence operations, censorship programs are best carried out behind layers of third-party groups. We do not know the full extent of the government’s knowledge of the latest blacklisting operation to be disclosed, or any similar projects. But polls have shown that the public wants an investigation despite Democrats repeatedly blocking such efforts.
The most chilling aspect of these latest two controversies is that they involve blacklisting of individuals and groups. We have citizens who were unaware that their government was flagging them to be silenced or suspended from sharing their views on subjects ranging from Indian corruption to COVID to election fraud.
The latest Twitter Files release suggests the Biden administration may have seeded various groups to help it censor by surrogate. We still have no idea how extensive the federal funding and support for censorship has been. Right now, however, it is beginning to look like we have more trout than milk in our glasses.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at The George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.