Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger testify on Thursday before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Little they say will be new, yet because corporate media have refused to cover the story, many Americans remain ignorant about the massive scandals Taibbi, Shellenberger, and the other independent journalists have revealed over the last three months in the “Twitter Files.”
Here’s what the House committee must do to break the cone of silence.
Introduce Taibbi and Shellenberger to Americans
Most Americans know little about Taibbi and Shellenberger, allowing the left to execute its go-to play when faced with inconvenient facts: call the messengers members of a right-wing conspiracy. The House’s weaponization committee should thus ensure the public knows neither Taibbi nor Shellenberger can be written off as conservative conspirators, much less “ultra MAGA.”
Hopefully, the two witnesses for the majority party will ensure their opening statements detail their non-conservative “credentials” — something Taibbi has attempted to do on Twitter, writing: “I’m pro-choice and didn’t vote for Trump,” and noting he is an independent.
Taibbi’s work covering politics for Rolling Stone and his “incisive, bilious takedowns of Wall Street,” as well as past appearances on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, and his work with Keith Olbermann, are the non-conservative credentials Americans need to hear.
Shellenberger’s biography likewise confirms he is no right-winger or Trump surrogate. Time Magazine named him “Hero of the Environment.” “In the 1990s, Shellenberger helped save California’s last unprotected ancient redwood forest, inspire Nike to improve factory conditions, and advocate for decriminalization and harm reduction policies,” his webpage reads — details helpful to highlight for the listening public.
If Taibbi and Shellenberger’s prepared testimony omits these and other details, Chair Jim Jordan should open the hearing by asking the witnesses to share with the country their political and policy perspectives and then push them on why all Americans should care about the “Twitter Files.”
Here, the committee and its witnesses need to remind Americans of the importance of free speech and that the silencing of speech harms the country, even when it is not the government acting as the censor. (In fact, I would argue it is precisely because our country has lost a sense of the importance of free speech that the government successfully outsourced censorship to Twitter.)
Guide Them So They Tell a Coherent Story
Next, the questioning will begin. Unfortunately, here’s where most committee hearings flounder because politicians prefer to pontificate than pose insightful questions to their witnesses. But in the case of the “Twitter Files,” Republicans can do both because the witnesses have already provided detailed answers to much of what the country needs to know in the nearly 20 installments they published over the last several months.
Thus the goal of the committee should be to provide a platform that allows the witnesses to tell the story of the scandals uncovered. Ideally, then, committee members will lead the witnesses through their testimony as if each question represents the opening paragraph of a chapter, with Taibbi and Shellenberger given the floor to provide the details.
Start at the Beginning, the Best Place to Start
Committee members will all want to focus on the most shocking discoveries, such as the censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story and the government’s demands to silence unapproved Covid messages. But those events merely represent symptoms of the diseased state of free speech Taibbi and Shellenberger uncovered, and the latter represents the real threat to our country.
Democrats, independents, and apolitical Americans will also be inclined to immediately write off the hearings as political theater if Republicans immediately flip to the Hunter Biden laptop scandal and Covid messaging. Both are important parts of the story, but Americans first need to understand the context.
Begin there: After Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he provided Taibbi, Shellenberger, and other independent journalists access to internal communications. What communications were accessible? What types of emails did the journalists review? How many? What else remains to explore?
Buckets of Scandals
The story will quickly progress from there, but how?
While the committee could walk Taibbi and Shellenberger through each of their individual “Twitter Files” reports, the better approach would be to bucket the scandals because each thread the journalists wrote included details that overlapped with earlier (and later) revelations.
Remember: The scandals are not merely the “events,” such as the blocking of the New York Post’s coverage of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Rather, they go back to first principles — in this case, the value of free speech.
Twitter’s Huge Censorship Toolbox
Moving next to what Taibbi called Twitter’s “huge toolbox for controlling the visibility of any user,” the House committee should ask the witnesses to expand on those tools, which include “Search Blacklist,” “Trends Blacklist,” “Do Not Amplify” settings, limits on hashtag searches, and more.
What were those tools? How often were they used and why? Did complaints from the government or other organizations ever prompt Twitter to use those visibility filters? Were official government accounts ever subjected to the filters? If so, why?
The natural next chapter will focus on any coordination between Twitter and the government. Again, the “Twitter Files” exposed the breadth and depth of government interaction with the tech giant — from FBI offices all over the country contacting Twitter about problematic accounts to, as Taibbi wrote, Twitter “taking requests from every conceivable government agency, from state officials in Wyoming, Georgia, Minnesota, Connecticut, California, and others to the NSA, FBI, DHS, DOD, DOJ, and many others.”
Internal communications also showed the CIA — referred to under the euphemism “Other Government Agencies” in the emails — working closely with Twitter as well. Other emails showed Twitter allowed the Department of Defense to run covert propaganda operations, “whitelisting” Pentagon accounts to prevent the covert accounts from being banned. The multi-agency Global Engagement Center, housed in the Department of State, also played a large part in the government’s efforts to prompt the censorship of speech.
Both the Biden and Trump administrations reached out to Twitter as well, seeking the removal of various posts, as did other individual politicians, such as Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
To keep the conversation coherent, the committee should catalog the various government agencies, centers, and individuals revealed in the “Twitter Files” and ask the witnesses how these government-connected individuals or organizations communicated with Twitter, how they pressured Twitter, the types of requests they made, and their success.
The “Twitter Files” detailed censorship requests numbering in the tens of thousands from the government. Asking the witnesses to expand on those requests and how individual Americans responded when they learned they were supposedly Russian bots or Indian trolls will make the scandal more personal.
Questioning should then proceed to the non-governmental organizations connected to Twitter’s censorship efforts. Again, the committee should first provide a quick synopsis of the revelations from the “Twitter Files,” highlighting the involvement of various nonprofits and academic institutions in the “disinformation” project, including the Election Integrity Partnership, Alliance Securing Democracy (which hosted the Hamilton 68 platform), the Atlantic Council’s Center for Internet Security, and Clemson University.
What role did these organizations play? Have you reviewed all of the communications related to these groups? Were there other non-governmental organizations communicating with Twitter? How much influence did these groups have?
Disinformation About Disinformation
The story should continue next with testimony about the validity of the various disinformation claims peddled to Twitter. Internal communications showed Twitter insiders knew the Hamilton 68 dashboard’s methodology was flawed. Other emails indicated Twitter experts found the claims of Russian disinformation coming from Clemson, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, and the Global Engagement Center questionable.
Highlighting these facts and then asking the witnesses to elaborate on the revelations, organization by organization, will advance the story for the public.
Next up should be the funding of those organizations, which came from government grants and often the same few private organizations. Here the Committee should ask Taibbi the status of his research on the financing of these organizations — something the journalist indicated last month he is delving into.
Taibbi also suggested the Global Engagement Center’s funding should be looked at in the next budget. Why? What should the House know before it makes future budget decisions?
Connecting the Censorship Complex Dots
After these details have been discussed, the committee should connect the dots as Taibbi did when he wrote: “What most people think of as the ‘deep state’ is really a tangled collaboration of state agencies, private contractors and (sometimes state-funded) NGOs. The lines become so blurred as to be meaningless.”
Read that quote — and other powerful ones from either the emails or the journalists covering the story — to the witnesses. Hopefully, staffers already have the best quotes blown up and ready for tomorrow.
Can you explain what you mean, here, Mr. Taibbi? What “state agencies”? What NGOs? Mr. Shellenberger, do you agree? What governmental or non-governmental players did you see involved?
What Was the Media’s Role?
Asking the witnesses about the media’s involvement will then close the circle on the big picture, which is ironic given the press’s role in circular reporting — something even Twitter recognized. Hamilton 68 or the Global Engagement Center would announce Russian disinformation and peddle it to the press, Twitter, and politicians. Then when Twitter’s review found the accounts not concerning, politicians would rely on the press’s coverage to bolster the claims of disinformation and pressure Twitter to respond. And even when Twitter told the reporters (and politicians) the disinformation methodologies were lacking, the media persisted in regurgitating claims of Russian disinformation.
Can you explain how the press responded when Twitter told reporters to be cautious of the Hamilton 68 database? What precisely did Twitter say? Did you find similar warnings to the media about the Global Engagement Center’s data?
Specific Instances of Censorship
Then the committee should focus on specific instances of censorship, with the Hunter Biden laptop story and Covid debates deserving top billing.
While Republicans care most about the censorship of the laptop story, this committee hearing is not the place to put the Biden family’s pay-to-play scandals on trial. Rather, Americans need to understand four key takeaways: The laptop was real, the FBI knew it was real, the FBI’s warnings to Twitter and other tech giants prompted censorship of the Post’s reporting, and the legacy media were complicit in silencing the story. Having the witnesses explain why Twitter censored the story with the goal of conveying those points will be key.
However, highlighting the censorship of Covid debates offers a better opportunity to cross the political divide of the country and to convince Americans that the hand-in-glove relationship between media and government threatens everyone’s speech. Stressing that both the Trump and Biden administrations pushed Twitter to censor Covid-related speech will also bolster that point.
The committee should start by summarizing the various Covid topics considered verboten — the virus’ origins, vaccines, natural immunity, masking, school closings — and then stress that the science now indicates the speech silenced was correct. Highlighting specific tweets that were blocked and medical professionals who were axed from the platform, while asking the witnesses to explain how this happened, will show the public the real-world implications of a Censorship Complex governing debate in America.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The committee should close by giving Taibbi and Shellenberger the floor, asking: “Where do we go from here?”
The “Twitter Files” revealed that the government and its allies did not limit their efforts to Twitter but pushed censorship at other platforms, and also that a new “cottage industry” in disinformation has already launched. How do Americans know they are hearing the truth? How do we know the government is not manipulating or censoring the truth?
Furthermore, if the same Censorship Complex that limits speech on social media succeeds in canceling alternative news outlets, and if the legacy media won’t provide a check on the government, how do we preserve our constitutional republic?
That last question is not for tomorrow’s witnesses, however. It is for every American.