From the FBI to the White House, federal intervention shaped social media narratives from Hunter Biden to pandemic policy.
Two hundred and thirty-one years ago this month, America’s founders enshrined free speech as the first protection in the ratified Bill of Rights with a declaration that the government could not infringe expression. A series of blockbuster revelations at the end of 2022 show just how imperiled those protections have become in the era of Big Tech.
From Elon Musk’s “Twitter files” to an FBI agent’s candid testimony, Americans have gotten a glimpse into a once-hidden enterprise where federal agencies pressured social media platforms – directly and through proxies – to censor content under their terms of service. The goal, it appears, was to preserve the ruling elite’s favored narratives on everything from the pandemic to election integrity.
The exposés have undercut claims that the FBI only targeted foreign disinformation, making clear that everyday opinions of Americans were also in the crosshairs. They also have raised alarm across the political spectrum about the future of free speech in the world’s most famous constitutional republic.
“We’ve entered into this period of American history where the range of permissible thought and speech has so narrowed that if you depart from it at all you are, you’re labeled, you are censored, and you are silenced,” retired Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli told Just the News earlier this month. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”
“And the odd thing about it is the very institutions which have been the safeguard of American free thought and speech — American universities, think tanks, the media — are the worst offenders,” he added.
The FBI is defending itself by saying it did not order social media firms to censor content, and instead just suggested posts that the bureau believed violated the platform’s services. It called those who question the bureau’s censorship activities conspiracy theorists.
“The men and women of the FBI work every day to protect the American public. It is unfortunate that conspiracy theorists and others are feeding the American public misinformation with the sole purpose of attempting to discredit the agency,” it said.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said he was troubled by the bureau’s dismissive response, calling for a new Church Committee like the one empaneled by Congress in the 1970s to investigate the bureau’s misdeeds a half century ago,
“After Watergate, there was bipartisan support for reforming the FBI and intelligence agencies. Today, that cacophony of voices has been replaced by crickets, as much of the media imposes another effective blackout on coverage of the Twitter Files,” Turley wrote in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper. “This media silence suggests that the FBI found the ‘sweet spot’ on censorship, supporting the views of the political and media establishment.”
The revelations about just how the government impacted debate and targeted opinions for censorship have been accelerating. Just the News assembled 10 of the most important disclosures.
The FBI set up a command center in San Francisco in fall 2020 that forwarded censorship requests from bureau headquarters to social media platforms.
FBI Special Agent Elvis Chan testified in a free speech lawsuit brought by Louisiana and Missouri that the FBI set up an elaborate system that involved field agents, prosecutors and the bureau’s headquarters to monitor and flag content. Requests to censor content that were approved by headquarters were then sent to the command center he ran in San Francisco and forwarded to Big Tech.
“By the time it’s reached us, there’s already been what I will characterize as an FBI headquarter stamp of approval,” he testified.
The FBI succeeded frequently with social media firms when it forwarded censorship requests, including content posted by Americans.
Chan testified that social media companies complied often when he made requests to censor content, in Some cases taking down the posts. “I would not say it was 100 percent success rate. If I had to characterize it, I would say it was like a 50 percent success rate. But that’s just from my recollection,” he testified.
You can read Chan’s full deposition here:
Twitter messages released by Musk show some of the targeted content was posted by Americans, including one example of an Indiana GOP politician targeted for raising election integrity concerns.
Federal agencies also partnered with contractors to ensure certain content was policed and censorship, creating a degree of separation.
After Elon Musk granted access to Twitter’s emails and a trove of other data to certain members of the media, Matt Taibbi reported earlier this month that in addition to the FBI seeking takedowns of select posts, the DHS was also working with security contractors to make sure select content was deemed misinformation.
DHS also partnered with various think tanks – including a consortium called the Election Integrity Partnership – and met with executives from Big Tech with shocking regularity to go over what would constitute “disinformation.”
Homeland Security officials took part in weekly meetings with Twitter executives as the 2020 election approached.
DHS was part of a group of government agencies keeping in regular contact with Twitter executives in the final weeks leading up to the 2020 election. These meetings became routine and included the FBI and other federal entities.
One internal Twitter communication showed a “weekly sync with FBI/DHS/DNI” (Department of National Intelligence), to discuss election security matters.
Homeland Security knew Twitter had second thoughts about censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story.
Following revelations from a New York Post article in October 2020 about then-candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter – and his laptop revealing the extent of his Ukrainian business dealings, along with other potential criminal activity – Twitter took action and blocked access to the story. They later restored it, and then worked to suppress it again.
Taibbi’s review of the third release of Twitter’s internal files disclosed that Twitter’s chief of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth, was having communications describing his regular meetings with senior U.S. intelligence officials.
A screenshot from one of the communications from a “yoelr,” thought to be Roth, showed him criticizing the handling of the Hunter Biden article and taking issue with how it affected Twitter’s public image.
“We blocked the NYP story, then we unblocked it (but said the opposite), then said we unblocked it… and now we’re in a messy situation where our policy is in shambles, comms is angry, reporter think we’re idiots, and we’re refactoring an exceedingly complex policy 18 days out from the election,” it read. “In short, FML.”
The screenshot also showed the message was in fact sent as part of a weekly meeting on election security between Roth and the FBI, DHS and the Office of DNI.
Whistleblower memos show DHS downplayed plans for a “Governance Board” to fight “misinformation.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) made public some whistleblower documents from inside DHS late last month, showing the agency had “internal plans for the Disinformation Governance Board, including a potential partnership with Twitter and a public-facing ‘Rumor Control Program.'”
“The new documents also reveal that the Disinformation Governance Board plans to partner with Big Tech were far more extensive than DHS or the White House has admitted,” Hawley’s official website reads. “Internal emails detail how DHS officials planned to meet with Meta’s Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher in February 2022, the same official who was in charge of security during Facebook’s suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden ahead of the 2020 election. The Disinformation Governance Board also planned to establish an ‘analytic exchange’ with ‘industry partners’ in Big Tech.”
The documents also cite how the Disinformation Governance Board coordinated with the Omidyar Network, a “left-wing dark money organization that has funneled millions of dollars into liberal advocacy groups.”
FBI paid Twitter $3.4 million as part of its disinformation monitoring
“Government paid Twitter millions of dollars to censor info from the public,” Musk tweeted in a post last week. The message included a Twitter thread from reporter Michael Shellenberger detailing how much money was received.
Shellenberger posted an image of a February 2021 email to Twitter’s then-deputy general counsel Jim Baker, who previously served as general counsel for the FBI.
The sender’s name was blocked, however, the message was clear: “I am happy to report we have collected $3,415,323 since October 2019!” the unidentified sender said to Baker. The money apparently came as a “reimbursement for the time spent processing requests from the FBI.”
Federal agencies launched a coordinated campaign to discredit stories about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.
Shellenberger released memos that showed how the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community “discredited factual information about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.”
“In Twitter Files #7, we present evidence pointing to an organized effort by representatives of the intelligence community (IC), aimed at senior executives at news and social media companies, to discredit leaked information about Hunter Biden before and after it was published,” Shellenberger wrote.
“First, it’s important to understand that Hunter Biden earned ‘tens of millions’ of dollars in contracts with foreign businesses, including ones linked to China’s government, for which Hunter offered no real work. Here’s an overview by investigative journalist @peterschweizer” he continued.
“And yet, during all of 2020, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies repeatedly primed Yoel Roth to dismiss reports of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a Russian ‘hack and leak’ operation,” Shellenberger tweeted, citing a sworn declaration by Roth given in December 2020.
Federal agencies also impacted Americans’ debate over the COVID-19 pandemic, at times censoring factually accurate posts at odds with the government’s preferred narrative.
Twitter altered the COVID conversation by censoring information that was true but not in line with U.S. government policy, discrediting public health experts who disagreed and suppressing contrarian users, according to a release of documents Monday “[B]oth the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes,” journalist David Zweig said in the release of the 10th tranche of Twitter Files.
When President Joe Biden took office, the White House began focusing on “anti-vaxxer accounts” during meetings with Twitter, Zweig reported. The Biden administration specifically targeted reporter Alex Berenson, who was critical of vaccines and subsequently removed from Twitter. Musk recently restored his account.
“Inevitably, dissident yet legitimate content was labeled as misinformation, and the accounts of doctors and others were suspended both for tweeting opinions and demonstrably true information,” Zweig reported.
The pandemic censorship efforts in 2020 even targeted President Donald Trump and his call for Americans to avoid being fearful about the virus.
Zweig on Monday released an exchange between Twitter’s Jim Baker, the former FBI general counsel, and then-head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth.
“Feeling really good!” Trump tweeted as he left the Walter Reed Medical Center. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Trump referred to “some really great drugs & knowledge” developed in his administration: “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
Baker emailed Roth to ask why the tweet didn’t violate Twitter’s COVID policy, pointing to the “Don’t be afraid” exhortation. Roth responded that Trump simply made a “broad, optimistic statement” that “doesn’t incite people to do something harmful” or advocate against guidelines such as masking.
In the end, the post survived.
What’s next? Congress is investigating how far reaching federally sanctioned censorship has become, including at platforms beyond Twitter.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told Just The News he is planning to spearhead a wide-ranging investigation into the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ), including their potential collusion with other agencies to engage in censorship. He said some of the interventions with Big Tech improperly meddled with U.S. elections.
“This was an information operation and misinformation operation run by big government and Big Tech against we the people,” he added. “And they did it before the most important election we have and that is not supposed to happen in this great country. But it did. Again, that’s why we have to expose it so that it never happens again.”