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The Tragic Victimhood of "Disinformation Experts"
Hey, digital censors are people, too.
On June 8th, the Washington Post ran, “These academics studied falsehoods spread by Trump. Now the GOP wants answers,” a story about how “records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits” were wielded as “tools of harassment” against “scholars” in the “field of disinformation.” In photo portraits, Kate Starbird of the University of Washington stared plaintively in the distance, a caption under one: “The political part is intimidating — to have people with a lot of power in this world making… false accusations about our work.” Starbird sits on an advisory committee for the 245,000-person, $185 billion Department of Homeland Security, but perhaps she meant “a lot of power” in a different sense?
When Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger, and I first started working on the Twitter Files, none of us knew much about people who did “anti-disinformation” work. Before it became controversial, these “experts” didn’t seem bashful about security-state credentials. For instance, New Knowledge, the firm profiled by Susan Schmidt last week that authored a Senate report on Russian interference and was caught creating fake accounts in an Alabama Senate race, gained this cheerful description in VentureBeat after raising $11 million for “anti-disinformation”:
What further distinguishes New Knowledge is that its founders are AI and Homeland Security experts who grew up in the NSA and have worked as security advisers. [CEO Jonathon] Morgan, for instance, was an adviser for the U.S. State Department and published research at the Brookings Institution.
When lawsuits like Missouri v. Biden and then the Twitter Files began shining light on this direction, experts reinvented themselves as “scholars” or research fellows. That their LinkedIn pages often featured odd gaps, or periods listed as “consultants” to the military or the FBI, was apparently not important, nor that “anti-disinformation” is not an academic discipline. Even if they were very new arrivals to campuses, we were expected to show deference to new roles as “researchers,” much as campaign reporters were asked to stop calling Rick Perry a dummy when he put on glasses.
Reporters once didn’t fall for this sort of thing, reserving special bile for politicians or spooks who tried to pass themselves off as intellectuals. But these days they swoon like teen girls seeing the Elvis wiggle for the first time for “anti-disinformationists,” with anchors like Nicolle Wallace, Brian Stelter, and Rachel Maddow giving the “We’re not worthy!” treatment to anyone with intelligence credentials who utters dire prophecies about Trump and “fake news.”
Even the once-mocked “smart glasses” trick became foolproof, as former counterterrorism warriors like Hamilton 68 frontman Clint Watts earned plaudits as bespectacled “disinformation experts,” and even media figures who once went for hunky or fetching in headshots donned solemn expressions — and glasses — when moved to the disinfo beat. I don’t remember Rick Stengel wearing specs much as editor of Time magazine, but he accessorizes nicely in his new role as former head of the Global Engagement Center, pimping books like Information Wars.
This is all background for “Big Brother is Flagging You,” about the House Weaponization of Government Committee report on Stanford’s Election Integrity Partnership. I’ve been in media long enough not to be shocked by much, but the people picked to man “anti-disinformation” bureaucracies have an almost admirably bottomless capacity for self-pity and deception. With teary eyes, they’ll swear they’re not in the censorship business, but then it will come out that they’re sending notes to platforms like, “We recommend that these posts be removed immediately.”
They’ll describe concerns about the First Amendment as conspiracy theories, but then we learn about people like Stanford’s Renée DiResta making notes about “very real 1st amendment questions” in a presentation about the EIP, or a lawyer for former CISA director Chris Krebs snapping at congressional investigators to cite a legal authority “other than the First Amendment” to justify questioning. “Researchers” will declare unequivocally that CISA did not “found, fund, or control” their program, but then it will come out the superficially private structure of the EIP was necessary because “DHS cannot openly endorse the portal,” while a “behind-the-scenes” arrangement was fine. And so on.
Put bluntly, these people lie, but do it in a way that would impress even a politician. In one of the many times I was pestered this year by a mainstream reporter asking why a nice “scholar” like DiResta should be prevented from “just doing research,” I asked him to go back and find out what academic credentials qualified her for “scholar” status (she’s listed as a “research manager”), and to cite another type of “research” that involves flagging content for removal of speech on behalf of an intelligence agency. As my podcast partner Walter Kirn puts it, Stanford’s Observatory is the first one in history that destroys planets.
I asked the same reporter why non-doctors should be allowed to police the scientific opinions of MDs and PhDs, why publicly funded programs targeting the speech of voters should be exempt from FOIA requests, and so on, but it’s hopeless. In the new world, brazen enough scams are respected, those who don’t fall for them become the outlaws, and we all have to get used to it.