The Twitter Files show Twitter executives working closely with officials from the FBI, the White House, and other government agencies to censor, restrict, and promote specific content in potentially unconstitutional ways.
For some perspective, we reached out to former CIA analyst Martin Gurri. In 2018 Gurri published a major book, The Revolt of the Public, which argues that the Internet is disrupting modern society and politics as much as the printing press did in the 15th Century. The book influenced us so much that we named our Substack publication after it. (Above, you can see a video that one of us, Leighton, made about it.)
The Internet in general, and social media in particular, argues Gurri, mean that the elites can no longer control the public conversation as they once could. They struggle to “manufacture consent.” Anybody can start a Substack or Twitter account, and anybody can go viral. That technological revolution is resulting in political revolutions.
“What you’re seeing [in the Twitter Files] is a reaction to the revolt of the public,” said Gurri, who concludes that the United States needs a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to the one used in South Africa, to get to the bottom of what happened.
In the end, Gurri doesn’t believe we can return to the pre-Internet era of information control. But the Twitter Files, he notes, reveal just how hard they’ve been trying.
— Michael Shellenberger and Leighton Woodhouse
What did you think of the Twitter Files?
There’s no precedent for what’s going on unless you go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime censorship. Joe McCarthy would have loved to have that kind of control. At Twitter, things disappeared or were downranked or muffled so that few could see them. We knew that at Google and Facebook, you got results that were clearly skewed. The Twitter Files showed how it all worked, the bizarre mechanisms of control.
I come from Cuba. When did it happen that protecting democracy entails Chinese methods of handling information? What happens in China is what happens here. Somewhere a party hack comes to you and says, “That’s not the word to use,” or “The party doesn’t want that opinion.” And Twitter became an instrument of control for the state and the party in power.
I’ll try to put it in a bigger context. What you’re seeing is a reaction to the revolt of the public. This is the elites saying we want to return the information sphere to the front page of the New York Times to circa 1975. And that’s where it gets weird. You use moral shaming with BLM. You use medical panic with covid. And, last of all, you bully people. The FBI comes at you and says, “Can you take this down? And what about this and that and the other thing?”
What about the FBI’s behavior around the Hunter Biden laptop?
That was particularly vile. They lied. They lied to Twitter and then to us. And then their efforts [to discredit the Hunter Biden laptop] were blessed by 52 people who had retired from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. I don’t understand what happened in that regard. They are all looking at each other and thinking that the more proactive they are in endorsing this one-sided politics of identity and ecology and the whole cluster of pseudo ideology… they felt that’s how their careers are going to be made.
I can tell you this: it’s inconceivable that those things could have occurred at the CIA where I worked. It would have been way beyond the conceptual horizon of everyone, including the Director. It used to be that when they retired, they became namby-pamby politically on purpose because they didn’t want to be perceived as being ferocious partisans. They didn’t want there to be a political backlash. In office, they were powerful. Out of office, they became politically gray. And now you have these people on all one side and viewing Trump as the beast of the apocalypse.
For the FBI to have been involved in editorial media content moderation would have been inconceivable when I was there.
So you think the FBI could have been “pre-bunking” the laptop?
I don’t think there’s any other possibility. You have to remember who you’re talking to. I’m the most un-conspiracy person because I am from Cuba, and Cubans have the most conspiracy theories. I sometimes end up missing the conspiracies because I’m so anti-conspiracy theories.
People say it could have been a coincidence that the FBI people who warned Twitter and Facebook of a Russian hack-and-leak operation related to Hunter Biden didn’t know that the FBI had his laptop or that it was spying on Rudy Giuliani when he gave a copy of the laptop to The New York Post.
I don’t even know they were spying on Giuliani at the time. They knew about the laptop or must have known. And why did they say it was coming in October? They were seeding the ground to say, “You shouldn’t cover that.” It was such a perversion of the truth.
There were clearly people for whom higher truths held, and they blew by the old standards of work in the federal government, including compartmentalizing information and maintaining investigations as confidential.
If you are essentially a member of the church of identity, and you think that something bad might happen, like Trump getting an advantage from the laptop, then everything you do is oriented around saving the church. It’s a tight group of people that think alike across institutions and not just inside the government.
What did you think about the FBI’s response to the Twitter Files?
That FBI statement was unbelievable. They said, “We do this all the time to protect customers and companies.” When did that tradition begin? When did law enforcement engage with the private sector in that way? I didn’t know about this. Nobody knew about this. What’s this “protection” thing? If the public’s being protected then why is the information not being made public? The top-down approach is sowing distrust.
Then the FBI slandered you. And never said, “This is where you went wrong.” That’s a sign of corruption. Honest people give you details. They say, “I was here and did this.” People who are fraudulent speak in generalities. What the FBI gave us was a glittering generality. They didn’t respond to what you said; they gave you generalities.
What do you think of Twitter and Facebook trying to protect people from harmful misinformation?
There’s this idea that words cause harm. I keep seeing the word: “harm.” I have a funny story to tell you. I worked on the global media side of the CIA. Attached to that, for obvious reasons, was a translation shop. You could translate anything. We used to translate reams of stuff from communist countries — Pravda, Izvestia whatever — and put them out through something that was a kind of halfway house between the government and a public publication. As a result, American libraries all had Soviet propaganda given to them by the federal government! We didn’t think it would cause harm and convert people into communists. And the scholarly community loved it. And so the federal government used to translate and provide propaganda from the other side to the public without fear of what would happen!