Have you noticed the narrative around “disinformation” changing recently?
In his new, self-styled outlet Racket News, Twitter Files journalist Matt Taibbi examines three, interrelated streams of activity by the U.S. government, private consultants, and social media giants from 2015 to the present that – taken jointly – paint a troubling picture of efforts to “de-platform” voices it smeared at suspicious.
This analysis provides a new context in which to consider Sen. Angus King’s campaign reaching out to Twitter in 2018 to provide an “enemies list” of hundreds of “suspicious” accounts, many of which were Mainers and supporters of King’s opponent, State Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), in that year’s election.
By the time King’s campaign did it, conspiring with social media firms to blacklist, de-platform, and smear political critics had become a cultural norm within the Washington-Palo Alto circuit.
In his reporting Thursday, Taibbi looked at the Global Engagement Center (GEC), an internal sub-agency within the State Department created under the Obama administration. The U.S. developed the GEC as a tool for better monitoring what the rest of the world says about us and correcting misperceptions. But what began as Uncle Sam’s PR firm morphed into an information weapon used by the political establishment against its enemies.
Following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, GEC’s focus shifted from Islamic extremism to “fighting disinformation.” A new breed of “disinformation warriors” was born – young people with minimal world experience who were somehow able to make calls about what was probable Russian interference, or – once that chestnut had been played for well more than it was worth – domestic extremists.
There were, for example, GEC-funded activities The Maine Wire reported on last month that commingled financing with left-wing billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute to create a “Disinformation Index” that included a number of prominent conservative news sites in the U.S.
Taibbi’s report shows how a diverse array of interests developed a coordinated and sophisticated mechanism for controlling online dialogue. Government employees and often third-party contractors would create massive lists of social media handles, and then they would concoct some vital national security-linked reason why these accounts needed to be kicked off of Twitter.
For example, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR), a project funded by the U.S. government and GEC, called on Twitter in 2021 to target more than 40,000 accounts it suspected of being paid operatives for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The list the DFRLab gave Twitter looks remarkably similar to the list Sen. King’s staff supplied. And in both cases, Taibbi was able to contact multiple people on the list who were just ordinary social media users, not bots or paid Hindu nationalists.
In another instance, the “disinformation experts” at GEC tried to convince Twitter to suspend 5,500 accounts it said were engaged in coordinated manipulation on behalf of the Chinese. In that list, Taibbi was able to find ordinary Americans with no connection to the Chinese communists, including multiple low-level CNN employees.
According to Taibbi’s investigation, GEC used the “guilt by association” technique for investigating. Which in this case meant that users who retweeted a Russia-linked news story, for example, would be added to a list of accounts engaged in censor-worthy behavior. (Those techniques are similar to the now-discredited Hamilton 68 dashboard, which successfully convinced large media institutions that Russian botnets were promoting conservative causes on social media.)
Twitter, to their credit, sometimes proved skeptical of GEC’s lists and requests. However, in those instances, GEC would leak alarming reports of foreign influence operations to the media, who would in turn knock on Twitter’s door to ask why they were aiding and abetting malign foreign actors.
After recent confirmations that COVID-19 most likely originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, Americans are looking at the “disinformation” industry with fresh eyes. Through his painstaking work on the Twitter Files, Taibbi is doing us all a favor.
On Tuesday, he will be testifying before Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-OH) committee on the weaponization of government.
It should be an instructive hearing.