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Disinformation Dystopia in America

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Disinformation Dystopia in America

By: Ben Weingarten

 

In the wake of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and with authorities rushing to intervene and calm financial markets, a perhaps unexpected subplot emerged.

On a Zoom call consisting of congressmen, their staffers, and officials representing the Federal Reserve, Treasury, and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on the Sunday in which the agencies would publicly announce their “non-bailout” bailout of SVB – Democrat Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona raised a question.

According to House Republican colleague Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Kelly asked agency officials “if there was a program underway on social media to censor information that would lead to a bank run.”

Massie told journalist Michael Shellenberger for “Public” Substack that:

I believe he [Sen. Kelly] couched it [the censorship inquiry] in a concern that foreign actors would be doing this…but he didn’t suggest the censorship should be limited to foreigners or to things that were untrue. The people from the three agencies couldn’t answer him and just sort of took a pass on the question.

Sen. Kelly would clarify that on the Zoom call:

 I said, ‘Hey, our foreign adversaries out there may have an interest in trying to undermine our banking system. Have we put in any protections, have we reached out to social media companies to see if this is something they’re thinking about?’ So that’s the question I asked.

Accounts suggest Senator Kelly’s “ask” was more prescriptive.

Either way, in another time such a proposition might have been inconceivable. Rumor and innuendo have proliferated in financial markets – as in every other area of human life concerning contentious and substantive issues, particularly those involving power and influence – since time immemorial.

But we are living in no ordinary time. Sen. Kelly’s position is consistent with the zeitgeist – with what is fast becoming our censorious new normal in which anything and everything that could be perceived to be “harmful” is ripe for silencing.

That new normal was on display just days earlier, when Shellenberger and fellow disaffected liberal journalist Matt Taibbi delivered bombshell testimony before the Republican-led House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government concerning the “Twitter Files.”

The Twitter Files have brought into stark relief one of the great scandals in American history: that America’s Ruling Class erected a mass public-private censorship regime to wage war on dissenters from its orthodoxy, part and parcel of a broader domestic War on Wrongthink.

Central to the censorship regime is what Shellenberger and Taibbi term the “Censorship Industrial Complex.” The focus of their testimony, a new installment of the Twitter Files released alongside it, and much that we have learned from prior installments and court cases demonstrates that for years now we have been operating in an information environment rife with government interference – interference in our elections and concerning our basic functioning as a society given the pervasive Chinese coronavirus-related interventions.

To save “our democracy,” the national security apparatus and its administrative state partners, alongside Big Tech, corporate media, and a coterie of research organizations, “fact-checkers,” and NGOs – themselves often times government-funded and staffed with ex-government officials – have conspired to suppress ideas that challenge their own and silence the individuals who dare to espouse them.

Like all good tyrannies, this one claims to do so for the benefit of its victims – to maintain public health and public safety, “defending democracy” by perversely adopting the authoritarian tactic of quashing free and open discourse.

As a subsequent Twitter File release would reveal, our betters in fact went so far as to quash free and open discourse on accepted truths regarding the Chinese coronavirus when those truths undermined their favored narratives.

If we are to ultimately overcome this censorship regime – an imperative if we are to live as a free people, as Americans qua Americans – it is critical to understand salient points about why it arose and how it has been institutionalized.

The notion of fighting “mis-, dis-, and mal-information” (MDM) as a pretext to stifle all that is politically incorrect, and therefore maintain a monopoly on narrative and ultimately power, is borne of the ideology of the campus, and perceived political necessity. It has been foisted upon us with great sophistry.

An anti-free speech ethos has taken firm hold within the academy in recent decades, under which speech that runs afoul of the prevailing orthodoxy therein constitutes violence and therefore must be snuffed out.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, that view graduated from campus and came to consume virtually every influential political and cultural institution in American life. Trump’s victory was simply a cataclysmic blow to such institutions, seen as a total repudiation of all that they held dear, and a threat to their collective livelihood.

The public got it wrong, they believed – dangerously wrong, from the perspective of their own self-interest, but which they recast as dangerous to “norms” and “institutions.” Challenging their power by holding to a different view was now a threat to “our democracy,” just as challenging Dr. Fauci was a threat to “The Science.” This gave their cause a noble veneer – as those who took it up proceeded to run roughshod over liberty and justice in pursuing their political foes.

They rebelled, endeavoring to never let something like 2016 happen again, machinations illustrated well in Molly Ball’s infamous Time Magazine exposé on “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.”

Critical to that rebellion was the moral panic elites created over “mis-, dis-, and mal-information,” which was used both to discredit their political opponents, and to target them.

Key to stoking the moral panic – and similarly used to discredit political opponents and target them – were false claims of Trump-Russia collusion, and related wildly overstated claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Preposterous as it is, by casting Trump and his supporters as potential traitors, and given that some of the purportedly treasonous activity involved social media propaganda, this was pretext enough to make combatting such foreign interference on social media via “content moderation” – a euphemism for censorship – a matter of national security.

But the foreign quickly became the domestic – after all, what if domestic actors were aping foreign memes; in the case of the Hunter Biden laptop story, what if what domestic actors were reporting on had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation?”

In the run-up to the 2020 election, and following the collapse of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative that itself constitutes one of the most consequential and devious disinformation campaigns ever foisted on the American people, principals in the censorship industrial complex would make clear that even more dangerous to America than Russia was MAGA. The January 6 Capitol breach would of course only further accelerate this effort, as would Americans’ resistance to draconian Chinese coronavirus policies.

The FBI’s “Foreign Interference Task Force” would play a key role in the complex, as the Twitter Files would show, its 80-strong members using allegations of “foreign interference” as a cover to pursue domestic wrongthink through their coordination with Twitter to fight “election interference” – flagging tweets and accounts for suppression and deplatforming.

As would the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA), part of the Department of Homeland Security. CISA has not only transitioned its focus from foreign to domestic, but it has radically expanded its mandate to justify it. Its evolution should be seen as illustrative of our federal government’s.

Founded in 2018, CISA’s stated purpose was to protect critical infrastructure – like, say, the electric grid, or federal networks, from attack. Quickly however, it used its mandate to protect critical national infrastructure, including around elections, to justify speech policing.

As I detailed in the Epoch Times, as with the FBI, during the 2020 presidential election:

 a CISA subsidiary, the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, “aided in the reporting process and in implementing resilience efforts to counter election misinformation,” according to the Election Integrity Partnership [a third-party consortium to which federal agencies flagged thousands of social media items for suppression, which conveyed such content to affected platforms for censorship] with which it coordinated such reporting.

CISA undertook tasks such as developing a “rumor control” page to dispel purported mis- and disinformation around the election and, per The Intercept, participated in “weekly teleconferences to coordinate Intelligence Community activities to counter election-related disinformation.” Those chats have reportedly continued biweekly.

In January 2021, the incoming Biden administration transitioned CISA’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force to a broader MDM—mis-, dis-, and malinformation—team, countering “all types of disinformation, to be responsive to current events,” according to a CISA official (pdf).

The foreign focus had expanded to a domestic one, just as an agency tasked with protecting critical national infrastructure had expanded that definition to encompass the minds of Americans…all as part of a DHS that was created to fight the global war on terror.

Today, according to a leaked copy of the Biden administration’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, DHS also plans to target “inaccurate information” on “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

A raft of other DHS subagencies have all reportedly expanded their missions to include rooting out “disinformation.”

As CISA’s director Jen Easterly put it in November 2021: “One could argue we’re in the business of critical infrastructure, and the most critical infrastructure is our cognitive infrastructure, so building that resilience to misinformation and disinformation, I think, is incredibly important.”

And America’s cognitive infrastructure is under perilous threat according to the Easterlys among us – creating purported real-world threats to life and limb.

Their logic is now all too familiar: If you raise questions about the integrity of mail-in elections, you are an insurrectionist; the safety and efficacy of vaccines, a murderer; America’s involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian War, a Putin puppet; teaching Critical Race Theory in schools, a bigot, if not a domestic terrorist.

Such threats, are rooted in MDM.

To ameliorate the threats, our betters must silence those espousing the unauthorized, MDM-based opinions.

The Biden administration codified this view via its first-of-its-kind National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, published in June 2021.

The document suggests that “domestic violent extremists” pose a dire threat to the homeland; that the direst threat among DVEs comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” or “anti-government or anti-authority” extremists, views the apparatus of course conflates with mainstream conservatism; and that it is therefore vital to combat the threatening ideas that animate these actors.

The strategy calls for confronting “long-term contributors to domestic terror.” A key related priority is “enhancing faith in government and addressing…extreme polarization, fueled by a crisis of disinformation and misinformation often channeled through social media platforms.” To do so, it calls for “accelerating work to contend with an information environment that challenges healthy democratic discourse” and, working to “counter the influence and impact of dangerous conspiracy theories” that it claims lead to terrorist violence.

It should be blatantly obvious how slippery the administration’s logic is – and has been in practice.

Returning to Sen. Kelly’s remarks, as Mike Benz, a former State Department Cyber Officer now serving as the Executive Director of the Foundation for Freedom Online has flagged, CISA’s advisory committee produced a report in June 2022 noting that “The spread of false and misleading information poses a significant risk to critical functions like elections, public health, [and] financial services.”

Among its recommendations were that CISA should focus on “risks undermining critical functions of American society,” including mis- and dis-information “that undermines…the financial system.”

The subcommittee making those recommendations was led by those who played a major role in 2020 DHS-tied censorship efforts, including Vijaya Gadde, the now-fired Twitter executive who led up its censorship coordination with the feds, and Kate Starbird, chair of the subcommittee who helped run some of the cutouts the feds used as a conduit to pass on their censorship request/demands to the likes of Twitter.

So the concept of censoring to prevent bank runs is already out there. One can imagine there is almost no perceived ill government officials now will not call for censorship on.

Benz reports that CISA recently took to scrubbing its website all of reference to domestic censorship work.

But the genie is out of the bottle, and just because there is no Disinformation Governance Board today and the government is shielding its domestic “disinformation” wet work does not mean it does not continue apace.

Our government has used the purported threat of foreign actors to target domestic Wrongthinkers; it re-characterized its duty to defend “infrastructure” to dramatically expand the associated censorship regime; now it is threatening those exposing the censorship regime, openly calling for still further censorship, and even threatening to punish people for literal thought crimes.

Following a request by the Federal Trade Commission for all communications between Twitter’s interactions with those journalists like Shellenberger and Taibbi who helped release the Twitter Files, in their recent Weaponization Committee hearing, Democrats demanded that they reveal their sources.

When not making such chilling demands, Ranking Member Stacey Plaskett contemptuously and characteristically referring to the award-winning authors as “so-called journalists.” For they were both traitors to their class, as liberals willing to expose the depredations of Democrats, and they threaten the entire censorship regime they have helped build.

As do the whistleblowers reporting to the Weaponization Committee who Democrats have similarly attacked, and the purportedly dangerous conspiracy theorists the FBI referred to when forced to respond to allegations of their role in the censorship regime as revealed by the Twitter Files.

Perhaps more egregiously, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently called on Fox News to throw Tucker Carlson off the air for releasing January 6 footage.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice threatens to literally criminalize speech in its pursuit of memester Douglass Mackey over what else, but “election interference stemming from [a] voter disinformation campaign” on social media.

What is to be done?

A Weaponization Committee that exposes government assaults on free speech is a necessary but insufficient step to ultimately combatting a much deeper and graver problem.

It should show the way towards defunding the agencies, and cutting off the government funding, to those groups engaged in such acts.

It ought to make criminal referrals or at minimum make the case for litigation to punish those engaged in First Amendment-violating conduct, as well as using whatever other political remedies it can to sanction Biden administration officials engaging in or promoting such conduct.

It must craft legislation ensuring not only that there be no domestic interference in speech by our national security apparatus, public health authorities, and officials across other agencies, but imposing crippling criminal penalties for anyone in the federal government who would dare consider doing so.

But ultimately, we must rekindle our belief in free speech.

That an eminent federal judge will get shouted down at Stanford Law School, including being harangued by an administrator, tells you everything you need to know about what our future holds absent a massive course correction in our education system, and in our culture.

Our institutions reflect the people who comprise them.

Ultimately, there is simply no way to preserve the fundamental rights on which all others rely if we do not cultivate a public that cherishes them.

Ben Weingarten is editor-at-large at RealClearInvestigations, senior contributor at The Federalist, and columnist at Newsweek and The Epoch Times. He is the author of American Ingrate: Ilhan Omar and the Progressive-Islamist Takeover of the Democratic Party (Bombardier Books, 2020), and Fellow of the Claremont Institute. In 2019, Ben was selected by The Fund for American Studies as a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, under which he wrote extensively on U.S.-China policy under the Trump administration. He is a 2010 graduate of Columbia University where he majored in Economics and Political Science.

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