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Twitter is Fun Again!
Now, let's have the rest: Everything in the files about how national security agencies manipulate what we get to see and hear
An important story developed this weekend, unspooling in real time on Twitter over a Friday evening. Basically, billionaire Elon Musk gave a good friend of mine — the journalist Matt Taibbi — extensive access to Twitter’s internal e-mails and communications, and told Taibbi he could start sharing.
What ensued was an epic takedown of Twitter, delivered on Twitter, in what was ultimately a 41-Tweet thread. It was parceled out as fast as Taibbi could post, side by side with readers commenting in real time — offering responses ranging from “wow!” to “this is garbage”, claims that history was being made before our eyes countered by sarcastic gifs of a sesame seed bun with no hamburger inside, and quite a few variations of the line: “This is fun! Twitter is fun again!”
And it was! Twitter indeed used to be fun, with real Americans — as opposed to computer bots and paid hacks — posting real-time opinion and wit, all in a format that mandates brevity. But in recent years, most of the fun has been policed out. So it was odd to once again enjoy scrolling through a feed. One of my favorite podcasters, MIT researcher Lex Friedman (clearly one of the kinder souls on planet Earth), weighed in:
By next morning, the Twitter Files report was covered by media as far-off as Russia, and Donald Trump was citing it as the latest reason to “throw the presidential election results of 2020 OUT”. Republican-leaning media declared that Taibbi had highlighted a national scandal. Democrat-leaning media yawned: A Washington Post report described the Twitter Files as “a dud,” while CNN said the files so far have simply “largely corroborated what was already known.”
As a political independent skeptical of both parties, I find all of the above to be simultaneously true. The opening salvo of the Twitter Files did indeed come up short; corroborate what we knew; highlight a national scandal; and raise fundamental of questions about the integrity of our democracy in general, and the recent presidential election in particular.
Funny how all of that can be true at the same time. Welcome to America 2022.
The stated goal of the Twitter Files project has revolutionary potential, and Musk and Taibbi tell us this is just the beginning. By opening up Twitter’s own internal documents, they have the opportunity to detail how Twitter users have been secretly manipulated, managed, and muzzled — for years — around the world — on multiple topics of first-order significance.
“Manipulated by whom? And to what end?” Those are important remaining questions, and here too, so far, the Twitter Files come up short. In particular, I want to hear more about the involvement of three-letter security agencies like FBI and CIA in shaping our social media, and by extension our world views. (More on this below, but Alan MacLeod of MintPress News has an excellent overview of the general problem.)
“The idea here is to come clean on everything that has happened in the past in order to build public trust for the future,” says Musk.
It is an inspiring example to set. There have absolutely been similar shenanigans underway across all social media. When do we get to see the Facebook Files, the YouTube Download, the Snapchat Papers?
‘A nightmare we can’t awaken from’
For the inaugural episode of the Twitter Files, Taibbi could have drilled down into any number of key historical moments. For example, the decision to kick a sitting U.S. president out of an international public discussion forum — the decision to ban the elected U.S. president from a medium otherwise free and open to virtually everyone else around the world — that was crazy and unprecedented. As we continue to open the Twitter Files, it will be fascinating to see how that decision process unfolded to “delete” the president from Twitter.
But Taibbi sensibly enough chose to start with different historic events. In October 2020, Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies came to Joe Biden’s rescue when they actively suppressed a major — and embarrassing — newspaper story. The Twitter Files provides great new source documentation about what might have been the moment Biden won and Trump lost.
Could a single, late-breaking corruption allegation really have dictated a presidential election’s outcome?
Yes, and it has happened before. The 2020 election was razor close — but four years earlier, in 2016, the election had also been razor close, and many later blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on the FBI’s last-minute announcement that she was back under investigation for improper handling of official e-mails. Clinton herself, in her memoirs, used a prison metaphor to say FBI Director James Comey “shivved” her; statistician Nate Silver is among those who assert that the Comey surprise cost Clinton the presidency.
Comey and the FBI were clearly embarrassed and haunted by that possibility — Comey has called it “a nightmare I can’t awaken from” — and making matters worse, many top FBI officials loathed their new and unexpected boss Trump. (Comey in his memoirs says he just assumed Clinton would win.)
So it was Comey’s fault.
Or maybe it was the Russians? Weeks before Trump’s inauguration, in the final days of the Obama-Biden White House, the intelligence community — meaning, Comey & colleagues — handed down a major report that alleged broad-based Russian interference in our affairs.
This was the first big public report, the one that kicked off a cottage industry of government publications and investigations about “Russian meddling in our democracy” in the years since. Yet more than half of this grand report was just a prolonged, petulant sulk about ingrates around the world who, on YouTube, seemed to actually prefer English-language Kremlin television over BBC and CNN.
In fact, our intelligence community continued, Kremlin-sponsored television had garnered such popularity by reporting on things like fracking damage to the environment and “alleged” Wall Street greed that it was now more popular in London than CNN. (It was still Russia-run television, though: it got very unpopular very quickly after the invasion of Ukraine).
The intelligence community was indignant about all of this, and the FBI, cheered on by a wildly delusional press corps, soon opened a new chapter in the story of American xenophobia. They would spend years investigating (or manufacturing) some ludicrous propositions: that Donald Trump was a Russian sleeper agent; that Russia had compromised the 2016 election by posting a tiny amount of totally obscure clickbait ads of no possible logical significance.
Fast forward to 2020. After years of hyperventilating that Russians are trying to control us through our social media and “hack our elections”, representatives of FBI and CIA now seemed far better placed to do that instead.
The FBI’s former top lawyer, Jim Baker — a man who had spent years signing off on key moments of the Trump Russiagate investigations — had by this point taken up a new job, as a top lawyer for Twitter. Baker joined a surprising number of other FBI, CIA, and NATO think tank officials who had all moved into top Twitter posts in recent years.
From Rainbow Buff Bernie to that notorious laptop
As the 2020 election loomed, the FBI was hosting weekly meeting with executives from Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants to discuss, essentially, how to police social media. Five weeks before Election Day, for example, Twitter announced proudly that it was deleting accounts identified by the FBI as having “originated in Iran” — nefarious accounts that “were attempting to disrupt the public conversation during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential Debate.”
The sight of a major social medium and the FBI proudly declaring they had just teamed up to protect the election from 130 Twitter accounts — accounts that Twitter in the same announcement also stated that no one actually read or followed — well, it should have seemed ridiculous, right?
“All four of the messages from this Iranian operation that Twitter itself shared showed that none of them garnered any likes or retweets whatsoever, meaning that essentially nobody saw them,” observes journalist MacLeod of MintPress. “This was, in other words, a completely routine cleanup operation of insignificant troll accounts. Yet the announcement allowed Twitter to present the FBI as on the side of democracy and place the idea into the public psyche that the election was under threat from foreign actors.”
Chest-thumping about how the FBI needs to drive the dastardly foreigners out of our Facebook and Twitter feeds was, of course, not new. It was always eye-rolling to anyone who looked into it.
For example, we’d been told it was a major national security concern that the Russians were using our own Facebook against us — dividing us from within, with devious and manipulative ad purchases! — because they hated our freedoms. But as summarized in the Columbia Journalism Review, at issue was a mere $100,000 in “Russian” Facebook ads over the entire election season, at a time when Facebook’s advertising revenue per day, much of it political in that pre-election moment, was running about $96 million. So the entire alleged months-long Russian propaganda campaign would have amounted to less than 0.1 percent of a single day’s Facebook ads.
(It gets even more ludicrous. The ads were of no actual coherence — they were obviously nothing more than random, revenue-generating clickbait. As cited by solemn U.S. Congress reports, “the Russians” had spent their $100,000 on a bunch of nonsense — ranging from ads for fake hotlines to get help with masturbation addiction, to banners with the words “Born Liberal!” over a peaceful skycape of birds. So this was almost certainly not a devious Kremlin-directed plot, and instead simply the sleazy-lazy business of spam and clickbait.)
For me, the symbolic pinnacle of this insanity was a cartoon supposedly weaponized against us by our Russian adversaries. It was of a muscular, rainbow-colored Bernie Sanders:
Rainbow Buff Bernie ran for a single day in 2016. It was clicked on 54 times. Yet the U.S. House Intelligence Committee addressed this social media posting as part of a formal report into Russian meddling in our affairs. It was a matter of the highest concern. The House report informed us “the Russians” paid the exchange rate equivalent of $1.60 for this. Buzzfeed at the time solemnly reported these “facts” — $1.60, spent to buy 54 clicks — yet instead of mocking Congress and the FBI for this lunacy, they dutifully tracked down the American citizen who originally drew the cartoon for a pro-Bernie Sanders coloring book, so that she could explain herself! (She told them, “I feel pretty violated and very confused!”)
Clearly by 2020 we needed the FBI and the national media working hand-in-hand to police our social media — because Russia! Iran!
Yoel Roth, who at Twitter carried the Robespierrean title of Head of Site Integrity, has testified that he and other industry peers in the months before the 2020 election had “regular meetings with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI … regarding election security.”
“During these weekly meetings, [Roth testified] the federal law enforcement agencies communicated that they expected ‘hack-and-leak operations’ by state actors might occur in the period shortly before the 2020 presidential election, likely in October … I also learned in these meetings that there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden.” (Emphasis is mine).
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has also said the FBI was giving his social media platform a similar warning.
Let this sink in. Weeks before the story of Hunter Biden’s notorious laptop broke, FBI officials were laying the groundwork — at Twitter, at Facebook, and no doubt beyond — to squelch it.
When 5 former CIA chiefs lied, and meddled in our elections
All of this was the backstory for the moment when The New York Post — a conservative publication that is also one of the oldest and largest newspapers in the nation — broke the bizarre story that candidate-for-president Biden’s son had abandoned a laptop at a computer repair shop; that it had all sorts of embarrassing and incriminating material on it; and that it had made its way to the FBI for investigation.
This was a major news story from a serious organization. The New York Post often reports through a political lens, no doubt — but no more or less than does The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Twitter, moving swiftly to suppress The New York Post’s story, immediately shut down the entire newspaper’s Twitter account. It stayed shut down for two weeks — in a 21st century equivalent to the old game of smashing presses, and gathering up and burning newspapers.
We know from Zuckerberg that Facebook, also at FBI request, took similar emergency steps to shut the story down.
Is there any reason to believe the story was not suppressed across the Internet, from Reddit to Snapchat to TikTok?
At Facebook, Zuckerberg told podcaster Joe Rogan, they did not prevent ordinary citizens from sharing the New York Post story — but they did take action to limit how often the story appeared on feeds, so that “fewer people saw it.”
Twitter was even more ruthless. If ordinary Twitter users tried to share links to the story, Twitter removed them.
Taibbi picks up the story:
It was an incredible moment.
And when a White House press secretary re-Tweeted the New York Post / Hunter Biden laptop story, Twitter shut down her account, too.
Four days after The New York Post story had been released and then immediately squelched, more than 50 former intelligence officials — including five former CIA chiefs (John Brennan, Michael Hayden, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell and Leon Panetta) — signed a letter declaring the laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
It was a hilarious formulation. These well-informed individuals surely knew the laptop story, as depressing as it is, was the real deal. They knew it because the Bidens did not deny it, among other things. It’s since been confirmed as an authentic story by everyone from CBS News to the U.S. Justice Department and The New York Times. So it’s real now, and it was real then. Hence the letter’s meaninglessly vague formulation — the story “has all the classic earmarks” of something is different than saying it actually is that something.
What a spectacle. Five former chiefs of the CIA — dozens of top intelligence officials — all of them openly using deception to meddle in the American democratic process. Remember: The laptop had been in the possession of the FBI. They knew exactly what it was! Yet they had just spent weeks briefing social media companies to watch out for a “Russian deception” involving the Hunter Biden laptop story, a story they all knew was actually true — and now they were doubling down on the deception with this corny public letter.
Nor were any of them being called out over this obvious deception by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN or other leading media. No doubt no one wanted to accidentally help get Trump re-elected — to pull a Jim Comey, and then be trapped in Comey’s “nightmare I can’t awaken from”. (Twitter’s Site Security chief Roth might well have had the ghost of Comey in mind when he e-mailed colleagues they would continue to suppress The New York Post story, “Given the SEVERE risks here and the lessons of 2016 …”)
Twitter executives — under the watchful eyes of their FBI colleagues — were left all alone to try to sort through this moment. I almost feel sorry for them when I think of it. Did the professional journalists of America step up to help? Please. Sadly, the more “respectable” a news media is, the fewer ethics it still has. What about our politicians? Again, when it comes to upstanding or moral leaders, they too are an endangered species in our country. Taibbi could find only a single Congressional Democrat, the reliable Ro Khanna, who would reach out to Twitter to ask about the First Amendment implications of censoring a major newspaper story of critical public interest.
And when Twitter turned to their legal department, their top lawyer on the case was former FBI top lawyer Jim Baker, offering them soothing advice to stay the course.
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