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Report on the Censorship-Industrial Complex
Introduction to a series of features about the new global speech-policing bureaucracy, uncovered in the Twitter Files and beyond
Today you’ll find two new #TwitterFiles threads out, one by longtime Racket contributor Matt Orfalea, and another by Andrew Lowenthal, who worked for 18 years defending digital rights at EngageMedia and watched activists in his space slowly be absorbed by what we’re now calling “The Censorship-Industrial Complex.”
The two new threads collectively show the wide political range of revelations in the #TwitterFiles material, which have been slandered — absurdly — as a partisan exercise. Lowenthal, who in his “Insider’s Guide to ‘Anti-Disinformation’” describes himself as a “progressive-minded Australian,” printed a series of exchanges between journalists who attended a summer “tabletop exercise” at the Aspen Institute about a hack-and-leak operation involving Burisma and Hunter Biden, weeks before the actual event. When the actual scandal broke not long after, the existence of that tabletop exercise clearly become newsworthy, but none of the journalists present, who included David Sanger of the New York Times and current Rolling Stone editor Noah Schactman — said a word. Perhaps, as was common with anti-disinfo conferences, the event was off the record. (We asked, and none of the reporters commented). It doesn’t matter. Lowenthal showed how another “anti-disinformation” conference featured the headline speaker Anthony Blinken. He’s currently suspected of having “triggered” the infamous letter signed by 50 intelligence officers saying the Hunter Biden laptop story had the “classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
As Lowenthal writes: “See how it works? The people accusing others of “disinformation” run the biggest disinformation campaigns themselves.”
On the flip side, Orfalea found a document showing that both the Wikileaks account and that of Dr. Jill Stein were algorithmically added by Twitter to a list given the creepy name is_russian. This was one of two buckets of “Russians” Twitter was collecting, one called “A Priori Russians” (usually, accounts identified as Russian by 3rd party researchers), the other “Inferred Russians” (accounts that had “strong,” “medium,” or “weak” “signals” of Russianness, involving language, type of email account, location of IP address, tweet time, etc). Even Twitter’s own analysts noted that any system that “captured” Jill Stein as “Russian” spoke to the “overly broad nature of is_russian.” It was just such a “signals” or “marker”-based methodology that Twitter and other researchers used to identify “Russians” on the Internet, a methodology Twitter internally called one of “educated guesses,” concealing a company secret about identifying accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency: “We have no realistic way of knowing this on a Twitter-centric basis.”
As Stein noted when I spoke to her yesterday, these unseen algorithmic tweaks to the political landscape have the effect of decreasing the visibility of political independents during a time of “record hunger for political alternatives.” Stein noted a Gallup poll just showed “identification with the Democratic and Republican parties is at an all-time low,” and said such digital meddling is “an outrageous excuse for political repression,” and “more that Joe McCarthy would be proud of.”
When Stella Assange was told about the is_russian list, she first speculated that any algorithm that demerited users based on location might produce false positives if account holders used, say, the Tor Browser, which could “randomly result in an RU exit node.” Since “Tor is an essential tool for civil liberties and privacy communities,” you could have people being tossed in a “Russian” bucket for the crime of trying to evade surveillance.
In another part of his thread, Orfalea notes that a Clemson University researcher hailed as a “troll hunter” in the press and used as a source by major media outlets, speculated that an account called @drkwarlord that was sharing a hashtag, #BloombergisRacist because the account was tweeting at odd hours:
That’s the “expert” opinion. Orfalea just called @drkwarlord, who laughed, “I’m a nurse at a hospital in Indiana. In 2020, I worked the night shift.”
Whether it’s suppression of a news story conservatives care about like the Hunter Biden laptop tale, or deamplification of a left-leaning Green Party candidate like Jill Stein, the #TwitterFiles consistently hit at the same theme, but it’s not partisan. It’s really summed up by something Stella Assange said, about the difference between Wikileaks and the “anti-disinformation” facsimile, Bellingcat. “Wikileaks coined ‘intelligence agency of the people.’ Bellingcat went with ‘for the people.’”
Civil society institutions, the media, politicians, and government are supposed to maintain distance from one another in democracy. The Censorship-Industrial Complex shows an opposite instinct, for all of these groups to act in concert, essentially as one giant, incestuous intelligence operation — not of the people, but paternalistically “for” the people, or so they believe. Journalists attend conferences where news happens and do not report it, breaking ranks neither with conference organizers, nor with each other. The Trump era has birthed a new brand of paranoid politics, where once-liberalizing institutions like the press and NGOs are encouraged to absorb into a larger whole, creating a single political cartel to protect against the “contagion” of mass movements. As Lowenthal notes, this explains why so many “anti-disinformation” campaigns describe language as a kind of disease, e.g. “infodemic,” “information pollution,” and “information disorder.”
Surrounded by the “disease” of dangerous political ideas, checks and balances are being discarded in favor of a new belief in banding together. The Guardian’s Luke Harding laid out this idea a few years ago, in a gushing review of a book about Bellingcat by its founder, British journalist Eliot Higgins:
Higgins thinks traditional news outlets need to establish their own open source investigation teams or miss out. He’s right. Several have done so. The New York Times has recruited ex-Bellingcat staff. Higgins approves of this. In his view, rivalry between media titles is a thing of the past. The future is collaboration, the hunt for evidence a shared endeavour, the truth out there if we wish to discover it.
Harding makes this sound cheery, but the rivalry of media titles is the primary (if not only) regulatory mechanism for keeping the press honest. If the Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC no longer go after each other for uncorrected errors — like the Hamilton 68 fiasco exposed in the #TwitterFiles, or Harding’s own infamous report that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort managed to have a secret meeting in London’s Ecuadorian embassy with the world’s most-watched human, Assange — they can and will indulge in collective delusions. A “shared endeavour” vision of politics is just a synonym for belief in elite concentration of power.
As noted in Lowenthal’s thread, the story of the #TwitterFiles and the Censorship-Industrial Complex is “really the story of the collapse of public trust in experts and institutions, and how those experts struck back, by trying to pool their remaining influence into a political monopoly.” The losers in any advancement of this story would include anyone outside the monopoly, and they can be on either the right or the left. The intense negative reaction by traditional press to the #TwitterFiles stories published to date is rooted in a feeling of betrayal. The new media leaders see themselves as doing the same service police officers in the stop-and-frisk era called “order maintenance,” pouncing on visible signs of discord or disruption. They’re gatekeepers, and the #TwitterFiles — classic old-timey journalism that assumes the public has a right to know things — represents an unacceptable breach of the perimeter.
Orfalea is also releasing today a video he compiled for the “Report on the Censorship-Industrial Complex.” Titled “Eleven Minutes of Media Falsehoods, Just On One Subject, Just On One Channel,” it’s what’s left of a more ambitious plan the Racket team tried to put together as part of this wider series, whose first pieces are coming out today. Andrew and Matt’s material is coming out first, but in the next weeks you’ll be reading from a series of contributors in this “Report on the Censorship-Industrial Complex,” each looking at this subject from different angles.
The project started with a question: who’s on this list?
You’re looking at page 7 of a report by the State Department Inspector General from August, 2020, featuring the forgettable title, “Audit of Global Engagement Center Federal Assistance Award Management and Monitoring.” On the first page, the State IG explained it was auditing a new agency, the Global Engagement Center, which was housed in the U.S. State Department and dedicated to the fight against “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation.” The IG added some history:
In March 2016, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13721, which required the Secretary of State to establish the Global Engagement Center (GEC). The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2017 then mandated that GEC “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”
The report went on to say that in Fiscal Year 2018, the new anti-disinformation wing of the State Department received $98.7 million, including “approximately $78.7 million in congressionally appropriated funds, and $20 million transferred from the Department of Defense.” That was distributed among 39 different award recipients, whom the Inspector General was kind enough to list. Only, they redacted all but three names, none of which have what one would describe as vibrant online presences today: Park Advisors, the Democracy Council of California, and the CNA Corporation.
I first read this report in mid-February, roughly three months into the #TwitterFiles project. At the time, I was trying to learn more about Hamilton 68, the reporter-friendly anti-disinformation “dashboard” purporting to track a list of accounts linked to “Russian influence activities.” Internal Twitter emails showed executives reverse-engineered the Hamilton list and found it to be a fraud, mostly tracking not Russians but ordinary people here at home.
Multiple sources told me to look for Hamilton ties to the GEC. Among those who claimed to help design the site included a writer called J.M. Berger, who told me he’d been on the GEC payroll until about a month before the list’s launch (though he vigorously denied doing work on Hamilton for GEC). Hamilton’s public spokesperson Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, worked at GEC’s predecessor agency, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC. The first head of GEC, former Time editor Rick Stengel, lauded the Hamilton 68 project in odd language, saying, “If only we’d had it during the election”:
Trying to answer these questions about a relatively small amount of money and 39 names, I soon realized the “anti-disinformation” world was awash in cash from a range of public and private sources, and we weren’t dealing with dozens of organizations but at least hundreds, many engaged in language-policing at scale. By early February, seeing that keeping track of which group did what was clearly too much work for one person to even begin to take on, I put out an APB for help mainly in trying to answer one question: exactly how big is this new speech bureaucracy?
#TwitterFiles reporters like Michael Shellenberger, and myself didn’t have much of a hint of what we were looking at until later in the project. That larger story was about a new type of political control mechanism that didn’t really exist ten years ago. In preparation for testimony before the House in March, Shellenberger gave it a name: the Censorship-Industrial Complex.
The allusion was an unpleasantly perfect fit. America was introduced to the original Military-Industrial Complex on January 17, 1961, in the farewell address of President Dwight Eisenhower. The former Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in WWII warned of something “new in the American experience”: an interlocking network of financiers, extra-governmental organizations and official bureaucracies who were organized around permanent arms production and who collectively wielded more power than kings, presidents, and other such titular authorities.
Ike forced Americans for the first time to think of power as suffuse, insuperable, and geographically indistinct, less like a king’s scepter than electricity running through a brain. In the context of the Military Industrial Complex, the Oval Office from which Eisenhower delivered his famous farewell was just a room, Eisenhower himself just a recoiling pile of bones and fluids, following a final stage direction:
The Censorship-Industrial Complex is much the same. Shellenberger coined the term while working with me on a #TwitterFiles project that began with a parallel mystery story: who had the power to muzzle a president?
We didn’t understand at the time, but the third, fourth, and fifth installments of the #TwitterFiles — about the three days of infighting at Twitter between the Capitol riots on January 6th and their decision to remove Donald Trump on January 8th — served as an introduction for all of us to the major components of a vast new public-private speech bureaucracy, one that appeared to have been founded in the United States, but was clearly global in scope.
The material you’ll be reading in the next week or so is designed to accomplish two things. The first task we settled on was to create, through interactive lists and other features, a quantitative map of the world Shellenberger described in his written testimony, a censorship industrial complex that:
Combines established methods of psychological manipulation… with highly sophisticated tools from computer science, including artificial intelligence. The complex’s leaders are driven by the fear that the Internet and social media platforms empower populist, alternative, and fringe personalities and views, which they regard as destabilizing.
In pursuit of that first goal, organized loosely around a thing we’ve been calling “The List,” Racket welcomed people like Lowenthal and Geneve Campbell, (formerly of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard). With their experience in the “anti-disinformation” space, Andrew and Geneve helped a team of journalists and researchers put together what we hope will be an accessible starter kit for everyday readers hoping to acquaint themselves with the biggest organizational names in the “CIC.”
The second goal had reporters like Aaron Maté, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Susan Schmidt, “The Hunt for Tom Clancy” writer Matt Farwell (a co-worker of my late colleague Michael Hastings), military-veteran-turned-reporter Tom Wyatt, the wonderfully obsessive Racket contributor Orfalea, and others attempt to tell the broader history of the new international censorship phenomenon.
Each took on different stories under the theme of the CIC, aided by leads from the Twitter Files, like: what was the genesis of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Russia investigation? How did the post-9/11 counter-terrorism project morph into a post-Trump counter-populism project? How does the development of the CIC fit with the broader history of American “information operations”? Does a CIC that claims to stop “fake news” actually create it — spoiler, it does — and if so, how many media stories need retracting, or at least an editor’s note, in the face of information found in the Twitter Files? Lastly, can the CIC target individuals, and if so, what would one particularly devastating test case look like? These stories will be coming out in the next weeks.
All the contributors to this report are independents. Many are not formally trained journalists, and some, like the tireless @Techno_Fog, represent a new kind of citizen journalism it seemed important to recognize. A major subtext of the CIC story is that ordinary people are going to have to build their own media and oversight institutions to represent them, as virtually the entire landscape of traditional institutional checks on power seems to have been compromised.
If the Military Industrial Complex was propped up by an “Iron Triangle” of donors, Congress, and quasi-private interest groups, the “CIC” is more like a four-legged animal: government, “civil society” organizations, tech companies, and a shocking fourth partner, news media. Stanford’s Election Integrity Project, a supposedly independent group that director Alex Stamos said was created in 2020 to fill the “gap” of what government couldn’t do by itself, did us the favor of creating a graphic representation of these four “major stakeholders”:
Note the way reports flow both to and from the media, which has completely rethought its role vis a vis the public. Over and over in the #TwitterFiles, we saw newspapers finking on their own readers instead of advocating for them. The typical progression involved a “civil society” organization like the Britain-based Center for Countering Digital Hate reaching out to reporters with lists of people or accounts deemed to be bad actors, followed by queries from those reporters to Twitter, demanding to know: why hasn’t this group been deleted? These voices? This idea?
One of the first observations Andrew made when he started looking through the Files was how bizarre it was to see “civil society organizations” holding tabletop exercises about election security with representatives of the military.
“‘Not the military’ is what civil society is supposed to mean,” he says. “They’re not supposed to be partners.”
Democracy relies on the dynamic tension between liberalizing institutions like the press, NGOs, and the media, but the CIC seeks to unite these groups and homogenize information flow. This is not only morally wrong, but ridiculous: there’s no way to keep a cap on 8 billion voices forever. The people you’ll be reading about in this series want to try, however. How? Raw numbers. Money. The sheer application of political will and computing power. As you’ll read and see, if they have to build one NGO for every human on earth, they’ll do it.
Franz Kafka dreamed up the “one gatekeeper per person” idea over a century ago as ironic metaphor in Before the Law, but the modern United States is moving in that direction as political reality. It’s the ultimate convergence of the huge-scale-waste approach to governance as perfected across generations of forever wars and Pentagon spending, and the authoritarian thinking that flowered all over in response to episodes like 9/11, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. The core concept is too much democracy and freedom leads to mischief, and since the desire for these things can’t be stamped out all at once but instead must be squashed in every person over and over and endlessly, the job requires a massive investment, and a gigantic bureaucracy to match.
How gigantic? Read on, starting with today’s threads, and Matt’s mind-boggling video. Stay tuned to this space for more.