On March 9, in the bowels of the Capitol building, a gathering took place of a type that might be possible only in Washington, D.C. The host was Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, chair of the curiously named House Select Committee on the Weaponization of Government. The guests: Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, semi-famous for revealing, in the “Twitter Files,” the deeply tangled relationship between the social-media platform and the federal government. The subject was freedom of speech in the digital age.
The Republicans had recently won a slim majority in the House and were eager to score points off the Biden administration. Taibbi and Shellenberger had been invited because they had a troubling story to tell about the abuse of power—what Jordan meant by “weaponization.”
According to Taibbi, federal entities, from the White House to the CIA, had developed a “formal system” to convey their demands to the digital platforms regarding what could be said online and who could say it. A gaggle of “quasi-private” organizations, many of them recipients of government funding, acted as force multipliers, repeating the same demands. Rather than question these practices, the news media aped them, becoming “an arm of a state-controlled thought-policing system.” Shellenberger called it the “censorship-industrial complex.”
The substance of the Twitter Files appeared to confirm these allegations. The FBI loomed large in Twitter’s content-moderation decisions. The agency dedicated as many as 80 staffers to hunting transgressors on the platform, overwhelming Twitter executives with requests for action and ultimately paying the company $3.4 million for its troubles. During the controversies surrounding the 2020 presidential campaign, Twitter leaned heavily on the judgment of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Federal intervention in digital speech followed a tendentious pattern. Any opinion that offended establishment sensibilities was a target for suppression. That included left-wing populist views and eccentrics like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but most of the heretical voices belonged to Donald Trump and his Republican supporters. During the 2020 campaign, Trump was “deamplified” by Twitter—meaning that he was essentially talking to himself. After the January 6 riots in Washington, Twitter booted him off the platform, though it never identified how he had violated its terms of service. FBI personnel took jobs with Twitter in significant numbers, intensifying the partisan tilt. James Baker, who played a leading role in the Trump investigation while at the FBI, became a persistent advocate of expelling Trump after moving to Twitter.
At the same time, the speech police protected from criticism members in good standing of the establishment, with a special fondness for Anthony Fauci. It did that for Joe Biden, too, before and after his election to the presidency. There’s no need to repeat here the sordid details of the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco, but given that the predicate for censorship has been the defense of truth, the bare facts of the story should be noted: the FBI lied to Twitter, and Twitter passed the lie on to the public. If it was a disinformation operation, it succeeded completely.
As Taibbi and Shellenberger observed, these maneuvers were unprecedented in the lifetimes of those assembled at the hearing. Even Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist frenzy encountered strong opposition from elements of the political and media establishment. The new censorship seemed to rely on universal elite conformity. No debates had been held, no enabling laws passed. The federal government’s standing legal authority had been used to silence, in secret, the online opinions of an untold number of Americans. Whatever the Republicans’ motivation, one would think this to be a worthy subject of conversation for the House.
Democratic committee members largely ignored the testimony that Taibbi and Shellenberger presented. They showed no interest in discussing the boundaries of free speech. Oscillating in mood between boredom and rage, they treated the two witnesses like war criminals to be badgered and insulted without mercy until they confessed to their awful, if indeterminate, crimes.
Virgin Islands’ delegate Stacey Plaskett, the ranking minority member, opened the prosecution’s case by showing a video of a former Twitter executive complaining that he had to sell his house because of the Twitter Files. Then she seemed to accuse Taibbi and Shellenberger of terrorism: “you represent a direct threat to people who oppose you.” The word “threat,” it should be understood, carries a specific and ominous meaning in government.
Other charges followed. Taibbi and Shellenberger were “Elon Musk’s chosen scribes,” bought and paid for “to promote his chosen narrative.” Because they were “Republican witnesses,” they could not claim any credibility as journalists—they were “so-called journalists.” Because they served as stooges for Musk, they facilitated the work of Russian agents. At one point, Dan Goldman (D-NY) insisted that, as a kind of loyalty oath, Taibbi endorse two of Robert Mueller’s indictments of Russian entities. When Taibbi observed that indictments were charges, not proof of guilt, Goldman, who has a law degree, imperiously cut him off: “Let me move on. . . . That’s how this works. You should know this by now.”
The two witnesses found themselves accused of selling out for fame and more Twitter followers. They had unleashed “Trump and other MAGA extremists to post incessant lies.” Their most appalling crime, however, was disrespecting the establishment. When Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-FL) proclaimed, “I support the FBI and our law enforcement agencies,” she seemed to imply that the highest duty of every patriotic American was devotion to the established order.
I happen to know Taibbi and Shellenberger, as well as Bari Weiss, another author of the Twitter Files. They are independent souls. None is a Republican; all three began life as liberal Democrats and are now, in Weiss’s phrase, “politically homeless.”
But nobody was really expected to believe the accusations hurled at them in the hearing, least of all the accusers, which probably accounts for the listlessness that prevailed between bursts of performative anger. What, then, motivated the House Democrats to such a determined exercise in personal destruction? Many possible explanations arise. The kindest would be that they found the issue to be a loser and wanted to change the subject. A psychological theory might propose that they lapsed into a state of political psychosis, striking wildly at those who punctured their fantasies.
The worst-case scenario, to which I subscribe, is that the Democrats were acting on principle. Their behavior reflected, quite faithfully, their current understanding of government.
Historically, the American approach to freedom of speech was Jeffersonian in spirit. The supreme threat to freedom, on this view, was the power and heft of government, against which the individual must be defended by a wall of inviolable and inalienable rights. The First Amendment has nothing to say about abuses by private persons or groups but enjoins Congress to “make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press.” This is the argument that Jordan was trying to make with his talk of weaponization.
The modern Left espoused a radical version of Jeffersonian individualism. Born at Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964, it considered the primary threat to democracy to lie in the great hierarchical institutions like the university, the corporation, and government. The struggle pitted the individual against the machine-like inhumanity of the industrial age. Mario Savio, the movement’s leader, told his comrades: “You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop.”
A remarkable transvaluation has occurred since that idealistic time. In essence, the postmodern establishment Left has reversed the terms of the Jeffersonian ideal. The threat to democracy is now society—a realm of injustice and oppression, in which human wolves perpetually devour the weak. Trump and Musk stand as archetypes of the predator. They represent the authoritarian impulse, and they can manipulate the dull-minded masses, even unto insurgency, by spreading falsehoods and fake news. The pandemic showed them willing to kill with their lies, to undermine the authority of science.
Only a powerful, watchful government, in the hands of the Party of Truth, can impose democracy on a troubled society by controlling the words said, as well as the means of communication that convey them, to the public. A wise guardian class, advised by specialists, must be mobilized to assume control of politics and culture. In this framework, opposition can never be legitimate—it belongs to the Party of Lies. Those who follow Savio’s exhortation and throw themselves on the gears of the great institutions will be ground to pulp—for their own good.
The ideology of control has a long history, harking back to the Republic of Plato and the vanguard parties of Marxism-Leninism. The American version, absorbed by the House Democrats and the establishment Left generally, emerged out of the early-twentieth-century Progressive Era and was best articulated by Walter Lippmann.
Lippmann was a true Platonist. His experience with propaganda in World War I convinced him that public opinion could be manufactured by nefarious “invisible hierarchies.” The ordinary citizen, he believed, was hopelessly gullible and ignorant. Modern government must therefore depend on “specially trained” experts, possessors of “technical knowledge,” who represented not just the voters but “people who are not voters, functions of voters that are not evident, events that are out of sight, mute people, unborn people, relations between things and people.”
How this guardian class would be reconciled with democracy Lippmann never worked out. Fatefully, and with more than a hint of despair, he wrote: “The problems that vex democracy seem to be unmanageable by democratic means.” The implication was clear. To save democracy, “specially trained” elites had to control it.
The Weaponization of Government spectacle played out under the shadow of the digital storm. Information had burst its institutional boundaries and escaped elite control. Predators could presumably feast, untroubled, on helpless victims. By far the most catastrophic event associated with all of this was the rise and fall and potential return of Donald Trump.
For today’s guardian class, Trump was the quintessential problem of democracy that could be solved only by undemocratic means. Three months after his election, he was under investigation for conspiring with Russian agents. According to journalist Jeff Gerth, half a million news stories were produced on the subject of Trump–Russia collusion—a volume that, if true, suggests a pathological level of obsessive compulsion. Failure to find guilt merely confirmed Trump’s supervillain powers. A barrage of accusations, impeachments, and indictments has targeted Trump since 2016; the thinking seems to be that, sooner or later, someone will find him guilty of something. That is probably correct.
But the establishment Left faced a second and more complex problem of democracy: how to control social media, which they believed had lifted Trump to power and might do the same for other dangerous carnivores of the Party of Lies. The new censorship began with certain dogmatic assertions heard in opaque corners of the federal bureaucracy. The key concept was “disinformation,” defined as lying deliberately to some adversary. Influence operations were conflated with attempts by foreign players to hack U.S. government information systems, such as election records; the Russians hovered like phantoms over the scene. Very quickly, telling fibs online got ratcheted into a national security crisis under the purview of Homeland Security.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided the “experts” to justify this effort. Many of the NGOs working the issue, like the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic Council, received federal funds—but all sowed panic about disinformation, and all demanded government regulation of social media. Here is Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, testifying before the Senate in a typical example of NGO alarmism: “Over the past decade, disinformation, misinformation and social media hoaxes have evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war. . . . This will be one of the defining threats of our generation.” Also typically, DiResta recommended a “whole-of-government defense strategy” that included a Cold War–sounding “international detection and deterrence strategy.”
The NGOs developed the umbrella conclaves where personnel from federal agencies like Homeland Security, the FBI, and State Department inducted their social-media “partners” into the mysteries of digital orthodoxy. Government instruction occurred both face-to-face and through confidential messaging channels. Among the most influential groups were the Election Integrity Partnership and the Virality Project, both spawned by the Stanford Internet Observatory, which monitored millions of posts across platforms and were responsible for two specific expansions of the field of play.
First, they dropped the pretense of protection against foreign conspirators to focus on domestic content. “Domestic threat actors,” whose fraudulent posts were considered to be an attack on “democratic institutions,” replaced the ghost-like Russians in the priorities of Homeland Security. Second, they transitioned from disinformation—that is, the fig leaf of fighting falsehood—to the censoring of uncomfortable truths. Accurate criticism of Anthony Fauci that might “exacerbate distrust,” “true stories that might fuel hesitancy” about the Covid-19 vaccine, along with heretical though feasible opinions about the Ukraine war and U.S. elections, became viewed as actionable.
Now there were good truths and bad truths. In cases like that of the Hunter Biden laptop, noble lies had to be told to solve the problems of democracy. The new censorship sidestepped the old legal niceties: warrants, judges, formal investigations. It was a bureaucratic process. As such, it was self-justified, secretive, and open-ended.
The chronology is significant. Most pieces of the system came to life early in the Trump administration. The pandemic proved an incubator and accelerator of government control of digital speech. Personal reports of vaccine aftereffects, talk of natural immunity, and, of course, any suggestion that the virus had been “leaked from a lab” came under scrutiny: this was the moment when truth became relative. By the 2020 election campaign, as we have seen, Trump, the sitting president, had been deamplified on Twitter. The January 6 disorders took this trend a step further—at last, as the elites had believed all along, Trumpism could be equated with treason.
With the ascent of Joe Biden to the presidency, the system achieved something like maturity. Biden was a believer—and a practitioner. He accused the digital platforms of “killing people” with disinformation, and he demanded, successfully, that Twitter exile critics and political opponents. The bureaucrats could finally come out of the closet, but uncertainty remained as to how centralized and visible to the public the system should be.
NGOs like the Virality Project and the Aspen Institute’s Information Disorder Commission came down hard in favor of a “centralized national response strategy,” with “clearly-defined roles and responsibilities across the Executive Branch.” After some hesitation, the administration agreed. In April 2022, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of Homeland Security, announced the establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board, headed by Nina Jankowicz. Incredibly, Jankowicz, a creature of the NGO world, had promoted the Russian hack misdirection play during the laptop controversy. She could be found on TikTok claiming to be “the Mary Poppins of disinformation” and elsewhere online singing lewd songs.
Biden’s Disinformation Governance Board self-detonated, and it is instructive to grasp why. The news media blamed Republican opposition. The ridiculous Jankowicz played a part in the disaster. But the board failed mainly because the administration imagined such an agency to have self-evident value and was totally unprepared for the torrent of criticism that flooded in. Few Americans want federal governance of information. The establishment Left, conversely, can’t survive politically without control of the web—and it dwells in a dim institutional bubble where self-interest is forever confused with the salvation of democracy.
While digital chaos and Trumpian turbulence formed the deep background to the Weaponization of Government circus, the presidential election of 2024 loomed like a reckoning in the near distance.
Desperate to break the Democrats’ hold on our culture, Republicans like Jordan aim to ride the First Amendment to escape their media ghetto and reach the large majorities required to win national office again. That is a reasonable strategy—but ours is an unreasonable age. The Republicans are caught in a circular dilemma: they need the presidency to be heard above the censorship, yet the censorship radically diminishes their chances of getting to the White House. Even Trump, despite his extraordinary ability to hold the attention of the news media, in the end was punished with the mute button.
The Democratic Party is the natural home of the establishment Left. To this arrangement, the Left brings apparent advantages like the reflexive applause of the New York Times, but also, less evidently, a heavy load of ideological baggage. Its doctrines tend to be unpopular even among Democrats. Most blacks oppose defunding the police, for example. Most Hispanics disapprove of open borders. Most Democrats don’t believe that grievance should trump merit. If put to a vote, these propositions would lose. The Left must therefore transform them into moral commandments, beyond the reach of politics. In the digital age, this can be accomplished only by policing and controlling the Web—and censorship of that magnitude is possible only if Biden or some other Democrat holds the presidency after 2024.
From the Democrats’ perspective, the portents look grim. The loss of Twitter to Elon Musk was a terrible blow. The condemnation of free speech that attended Twitter’s sale astonished many of us; we can now see that it was driven by foreknowledge that the new censorship, so discreetly implemented, was about to be exposed. The loss of the House reminded Democrats of the eternal problem of democracy. Other means of control will be preferred, with the serial prosecution of Trump serving as the model. The IRS thus paid a surprise visit to Taibbi’s New Jersey home while he was testifying in Washington. The FTC hit Musk with “more than 350 specific demands” for information, including all the juicy details of Twitter’s dealings with journalists like “Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger.” As we swing into campaign mode, we should expect an upsurge of creativity along this front.
Both parties, for good reasons, fear an electoral disaster. Neither remembers that we have faced this choice before. The Sedition Act of 1798, concocted during the presidency of John Adams, made it illegal to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States”—a precept that the Party of Truth might find congenial today. But Jefferson, in the course of time, defeated Adams, declared in his inaugural address that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,” and dominated American politics with his vision for the next century and more.
It is painful, and possibly unfair, to place Jefferson and Adams side by side with Biden and Trump. By any standard, the latter are too old, too small, too failed. Beyond the crooked timber of our political humanity, however, we come to a contest of principles: the Jeffersonian tradition is being challenged by a new vision of government oversight of digital speech. Powerful and influential Americans, like the House Democrats, insist on the superiority of the principle of control, and they have pushed our institutions far in that direction. The next presidential election will determine whether the rest of the nation agrees.
Top Photo: Journalist Matt Taibbi, given access to internal Twitter information by Elon Musk, testified to Congress that the Biden White House, the CIA, and other federal groups had developed a “formal system” to convey their demands to the digital platforms about what could be said online and who could say it. (TOM WILLIAMS/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC/GETTY IMAGES)