In a congressional hearing Thursday, Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart said the FBI violated Americans’ First Amendment rights by asking Twitter to censor speech.
The House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government held a hearing featuring testimony from independent investigative journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger who were involved in the “Twitter Files,” a series of articles on how government agencies and lawmakers interacted with the social media company over content moderation.
Stewart said the FBI’s actions were analogous to the federal government contracting with a private company to assassinate a foreign leader, which is illegal. He said when the FBI asked Twitter to censor Americans, the agency violated their First Amendment rights.
“They said, well, we can’t do this ourselves. We’ll contract it out. We’ll launder this effort through another company,” Stewart said, before asking Shellenberger if he thought his analogy was accurate in depicting the seriousness of the allegations.
“I think that’s absolutely correct,” Shellenberger said. “What we’ve seen here is the federal government putting extraordinary amounts of pressure on both Twitter and Facebook.”
Shellenburger further testified that his team found evidence of government contractors “demanding” social media companies take down “accurate information” to “advance a narrative.”
What are the ‘Twitter Files?’
Soon after billionaire Elon Musk finalized his purchase of Twitter last year, Taibbi, Shellenberger and other independent journalists began publishing Twitter threads and articles that contained internal emails and other communications between government figures and Twitter executives.
“The ‘Twitter Files’ tell an incredible story from inside one of the world’s largest and most influential social media platforms. It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer,” Taibbi tweeted in his first of many reports.
His first report chronicled Twitter’s controversial 2020 decision to suppress the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop weeks before the presidential election. But last month former Twitter executives said they had not blocked the Post’s story at the direction of any federal government agency.
In later reports, Taibbi and others alleged the FBI used its relationship with Twitter to enforce censorship of Americans by proxy by identifying accounts that may have violated the social media companies terms of service.
“The #TwitterFiles are revealing more every day about how the government collects, analyzes, and flags your social media content. Twitter’s contact with the FBI was constant and pervasive, as if it were a subsidiary,” he tweeted last December.
2. The #TwitterFiles are revealing more every day about how the government collects, analyzes, and flags your social media content.
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) December 16, 2022
Request to reveal sources causes hearing to erupt
During the hearing, Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas appeared to attempt to get Taibbi to divulge his sources.
“I can’t give it to you, unfortunately, because this is a question of sourcing, and I’m a journalist. I don’t reveal my sources,” Taibbi said.
Garcia and Taibbi went back and forth about what the definition of sourcing is before she asked, “So you’re not going to tell us when Musk first approached you?”
Taibbi didn’t budge saying, “Again, congresswoman, you’re asking a journalist to reveal a source.”
Multiple committee members attempted to talk over each other after Garcia said Musk must be the source.
Committee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, interjected by speaking over Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., the ranking member, saying, “He’s not going to reveal his source and the fact that Democrats are pressuring him to do that is such a violation of the First Amendment.”
Plaskett said Democrats were not trying to get Taibbi and Shellenberger to reveal their sources, but were simply asking the witnesses who gave them access to internal Twitter communications.
What is the ‘censorship-industrial complex’?
Stewart concluded his questioning by restating part of Taibbi’s testimony, where he said conservative thought was censored by a factor of 10 to 1 after social media companies fulfilled government requests.
“The federal government cannot contract out suppression of free expression,” the Utah Republican said.
In his testimony, Taibbi said Twitter, Facebook, Google and others “developed a formal system for taking in moderation ‘requests’ from every corner of government: the FBI, DHS, HHS, DOD, the Global Engagement Center at State, even the CIA.”
He said a number of “quasi-private entities,” some funded partially with taxpayer funds, were part of a censorship network that made “lists of people whose opinions, beliefs, associations, or sympathies are deemed to be misinformation, disinformation or malinformation,” he said. The latter term Taibbi claimed is a euphemism the network used for “true information but inconvenient.”
Shellenberger called this network the “censorship-industrial complex.”
Taibbi said after reviewing the network’s relationships he believes that the “bright line” that should exist between government agencies and private companies was “illusory.”