Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is someone who’s been a guest on the show before. His name is Martin Gurri. He’s a media analyst, the author of the very important book, the Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in The New Millennium. He spent much of his career examining the relationship between politics and global media as a CIA analyst, and he continues to do so now as a writer and visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center. We published many of his essays in City Journal and his writing has appeared in other outlets as well, including the New York Post, First Things, and he maintains a blog called The Fifth Wave. Today though, we’re going to discuss his most recent essay for us, which was called “The New Censorship.” It appears in our summer issue and details the government’s increasing efforts to control digital speech. So Martin, thanks for joining us. Great to have you on again.
Martin Gurri: Happy to be here.
Brian Anderson: So this essay, “The New Censorship,” very important piece. If our readers haven’t gotten to it yet, they should. It opens with the scene from earlier this year, a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government to prominent journalists, Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, who’s written for us, testified before the committee on what Shellenberger described as the censorship–industrial complex in which federal entities work closely with digital platforms to control and police online speech. Taibbi and Shellenberger had been given, famously, access to internal documents known as the Twitter files. What did these documents reveal about federal Agency’s involvement in Twitter’s pre-Elon Musk content moderation?
Martin Gurri: Well, it’s really kind of fascinating because I’m pretty sure, I know both of those guys pretty well, and I’m pretty sure the two of them went in there thinking that they were going to uncover a lot of internal bias in the big digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter favoring obviously the progressive side and opposed to particularly Trumpism, but Conservatism and Republicans in general. What they actually found was this amazingly elaborate multi-agency White House directed system of censorship. I mean, there’s another word for it, of basically bullying the social media platforms into canceling millions of posts, silencing an untold number of American citizens without any previous debate, discussion, enabling legislature, all sort of in semi-secret. There wasn’t really super secret, but nobody said, we are doing this. Starting maybe shortly after the 2016 election, but really attaining maturity with the election of Joe Biden, who is a very strong practitioner in the censorship.
Brian Anderson: And we saw a great number of people who had worked in intelligence for the federal government moving over to start working for the social media platforms. So you create this kind of ongoing communication between people who were in and out of government.
Martin Gurri: Intelligence and law enforcement, which is, I come from CIA and the charisma of CIA doesn’t work for me because I know it as a big bureaucracy, but the FBI, which is a law enforcement agency for Americans, the CIA doesn’t have any writ to investigate Americans except in very special circumstances. The personnel from FBI and Twitter just flitted back and forth, back and forth. And when you look at some of the people who were involved in, for example, de-platforming Trump, even though the Twitter executives themselves with their terms of service couldn’t find a reason for doing it, the strongest advocates were the former government people, the former FBI people.
Brian Anderson: Americans, as you discuss in your piece, have traditionally understood the Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and the press as a defense of individual expression. This view was Jeffersonian in spirit in that it regarded the power of government as the primary threat to liberty. Recently though, the establishment progressive Left has really embraced a kind of reversal of this ideal so that now society is seen as the primary danger to American governance. I wonder if you could trace the origins of this new understanding of speech in our society, and is it really compatible with democracy as it has been traditionally understood in America?
Martin Gurri: I am not a young person, Brian. I have lived through the free speech movement in Berkeley, and the idea that Left progressivism is an extreme version of individualism that must be protected against institutions, and this is a complete reversal of that. It basically suggests pretty explicitly that the vast majority of the public are lambs that can be led to the slaughter by these wolves. And of course the head wolf is Donald Trump, but Elon Musk is not too far behind. These are people who by basically telling persuasive lies can bamboozle millions into acting against their own interest and that the role of government therefore is to intervene in the conversation. So these people are not bombarded by lies. As you say, the Jeffersonian idea that is the one that I grew up with, is that the government is the thing we need to fear, and these people, I have to say, are making indirectly a very good case for that.
Brian Anderson: Now, also involved in this process of increasing censorship and control of platform speech, digital speech, which originally were viewed as these kind of mechanisms for near limitless expression. But another fundamental role, and this is in its own way disturbing, is that the social media started relying on the advice of various non-governmental organizations to justify the censorship. So I wonder how the NGOs got involved here to start policing speech.
Martin Gurri: Honestly, I think it all goes back to 2016 and to Donald Trump and the elites who had managed this country, who thought of themselves as being not only wonderful in and of themselves, but beloved of the public suddenly realized that they were not, they were being held in contempt. And what’s the explanation? Well, it couldn’t be that they were contemptible. The explanation was these people are being lied to. And a whole host of organizations arose around the principle that disinformation is the poison that is destroying what they call our democracy. I love that term. It’s very possessive, right? Our democracy, it’s ours.
And so they fund these groups from the Atlantic Council to, they’re all kinds of names, and there are these people who pose as experts that tell you, oh, yes, yeah, my favorite one is Renee DiResta who says, disinformation is one of the existential threats of our time, so we have to do something about it. It would be irresponsible not to. So this is choir, this chorus, this Greek chorus of panic. We have to do something. We have to do something, and we are experts. We’re almost scientists in this field, so you have to listen to us. You don’t understand, the Russians are manipulating us. People who are against you taking the right medications for Covid are manipulating you, and we to save you from harm need to intervene.
And I have to say, the media, the press is right there. They are part of that chorus. Instead of doing what the media used to do, which is so point the finger at abuse of power, which is what Jim Jordan’s committee with his terrible name, weaponization of government, what they really mean is abuse of power by the government. The media is completely on the side of, no, the government needs to intervene. And one last thing is when you look at the polls, a distressing number of Americas agree.
Brian Anderson: Especially younger ones. Last year, and you tell us a remarkable story in your essay, the Biden administration established what was called the Disinformation Governance Board, and this basically was kind of centralizing the government’s attempts to shape online narrative. The Biden administration wound up dissolving this board after only four months. Why did it fail so quickly? And maybe just recount that story briefly.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, that’s a funny one. That’s a fun story. What it tells you. I think this idea that they were going to, first of all, it was going to be in the homeland defense agency that tells you what they think, which is an idea that they’re defending their country against these attacks, both internal, domestic, and foreign because they had given up on pretending that it was just the Russians, that they had domestic anti-democratic threats that they were looking at. And after much thought that maybe amongst the NGOs we were talking about earlier, there was a lot of debate, should this be centralized or should this be dispersed? And the NGOs, as they always do, came down on heavily centralized and whole of government effort is what Renee DiResta said. And after a while, the Biden people decided to go along with that and came up with that governance board.
They appointed this woman, Nina Jankowicz, who was in part responsible for the thing collapsing because she is, first of all, she was a heavy two-fisted defender of the fact that the Hunter Biden’s laptop was a Russian hack. So this is remarkable that a person who was so completely wrong about that is now being made the head of a disinformation board. And secondly, if you look at her up online, she is online saying that she is the Mary Poppins of disinformation, singing basically what you might call in an older era, indecent songs about herself, about who she needs to be with to get ahead in life. I mean, she was just a crazy person. But I think the main reason that board failed is that inside that establishment left, it is a self-evident good to have control of disinformation. And no matter what kind of government intrusion you need, it’s the outcome that matters.
So then the outcome is you’re stopping lies. And they live in this bubble where it is very important for them politically to have that control. It’s all one-sided. It aimed at conservatives and Republicans, or somewhat less so at Maverick lefties and Democrats like Robert F. Kennedy. So they have come to the habit of basically believing that everything that’s good for them politically is good for our democracy, and they live in this bubble. And it never occurred to them if they said to the American public, we’re going to have this disinformation governors, it’s going to govern your information, that a lot of Americans are going to go, what are you talking about? And I think the response by the public and by the opposition, and many outlets, caught them by surprise. To them, it is just a self-evident good.
Brian Anderson: Now we have the 2024 presidential election looming, and you write in the essay, 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. On the other hand, Elon Musk’s acquisition and opening up of Twitter puts at least one obstacle in the way of Progressives’ ability to control online speech. So how might each party look at the challenges of social media going forward into this campaign year, next year and a half, and how will the election’s outcome affect the future of digital speech?
Martin Gurri: I think the outcome is going to be massively decisive. I think if the public can look at this censorship apparatus that has been erected in Washington, and by the way has been temporarily halted by a judge, at the end, this is not going to be, I don’t think, a legal battle. It’s going to be a political battle. And if they can look on that and say, “No, we are good with that,” that’s what we got for the next generation. I think the Republicans are, it’s a question beyond the censorship. The progressive left owns all the culture, owns the culture wholesale, right?
So it’s not like the Republicans are not allowed to say things. It’s not like Conservatives or Libertarians. They’re not allowed to say things. Well, of course they are, but they’re kept in a ghetto. They’re kept in a ghetto where they talk to themselves. So the left can talk to everybody. They got the New York Times, they got the TV networks, but the Republicans can talk only to themselves. So I think starting towards 2024, even with Elon Musk, who is a volatile substance anyway, I think the Democrats have things to worry about, but they have most of the chips.
Brian Anderson: Well, we will see. It’s a very important topic, obviously, because it goes to the heart of our democracy. You have done a lot to illuminate these questions in your writing. Martin, so I wanted to thank you very much for that. Don’t forget to check out Martin Gurri’s work on the City Journal website. That’s www.city-journal.org. You’ll find this essay, “The New Censorship” and his other writings there, and we’ll link to his author page in the description. You can also find Martin on Twitter @mgurri. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal, and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. If you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Martin Gurri, thanks. Always great to talk.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, loved it.