Behind the curtain

Matt Taibbi’s speech at American Experiment’s Fall Briefing warns about government censorship.

Matt Taibbi has been a journalist for over 30 years in addition to having grown up in a family of reporters. Despite his experience and covering countless stories, the “Twitter Files” was still “an entirely new ball game” to him. In the opening of his speech given at American Experiment’s 2023 Fall Briefing, Taibbi expressed his ongoing disbelief with a chuckle and halfhearted smile saying, “If you see a look of amazement come over my face from time to time, it’s because I’m still not over the fact that I’ve lived long enough to see free speech become controversial.”

What followed was an hour of revelations of the censorship coalition that has been formed between social media companies, media members, and U.S. government agencies. With his exposé of the full-throated attempt by the U.S. government and its allies to subvert the freedoms and self-governance of the American people, Taibbi has not only sounded the alarm, but has given those who oppose these draconian actions the necessary impetus to fight against their continuation.

The purchase of X (previously known as Twitter) by Elon Musk will go down in history as one of the most consequential pro-free speech acts in American history. A major byproduct of this unprecedented acquisition was the invitation sent to Taibbi and other independent journalists, such as Michael Shellenberger and Bari Weiss, to investigate the history of Twitter’s heavy-handed censorship and shadow banning of conservatives.

What the group uncovered was a web of actors conspiring to usurp the normal function of American representative democracy through censorship and deplatforming. Taibbi laid out the details of this expansive censorship coalition — from direct payments made to the FBI by Twitter to thousands of content moderation requests from federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and even the Treasury Department.

Taibbi questioned how Americans had gone from enjoying a society where everyone believed in values such as freedom of expression and self-determination to one in which the government and Big Tech were actively working against such values. Twitter’s internal communications contained the “unconcealed dialogues and plans of [this] second more depressing version of America.” Those involved were revealed as a “self-appointed oligarchy of highly pessimistic anti-democratic elitists” who believed power flows “from them down to the population.”

This oligarchy included media reporters who were included on requests to remove accounts like “an inter-office email.” How could the media, instead of exposing government corruption, take part in such a scandal? Taibbi points out that they believed that President Trump and the “prospect of fully unregulated online debate” were such an existential threat to democracy that a “shared endeavor” must be created to regulate the population and any possible populist uprising.

Most worryingly, Taibbi found that intelligence agencies, both foreign and domestic, had participated in this surveillance, turning their focus from threats like ISIS to American social media users. He was bewildered to learn of the existence of a state department effort called the Global Engagement Center that was set up to monitor social media communications. Another eye-opening example came from discovered communications between two Twitter lawyers, one being former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker, jokingly discussing how “the entire Baltimore field office of the FBI appeared to be doing nothing but searching for terms of service violations on Twitter.” “Much more unnerving than a censorship regime,” Taibbi clarifies, “this was an unregulated global surveillance mechanism of unprecedented scale.” Agreeing with American Experiment president John Hinderaker, Taibbi believes this censorship coalition has “achieved more success in undermining American democracy than any other movement of its type in our history.”

This stark turn of American surveillance capabilities against the American people is enabled through the overwhelming amount of data available to government agencies and the existing infrastructure set up in the aftermath of 9/11. According to Taibbi, “the U.S. government and its allies … now have access to more data about individual citizens in their own countries than even the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the past.” Additionally, military and intelligence services were created and used for monitoring and tracking foreign terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Now used against Americans and their speech, these services had gone from “counterterrorism to counterpopulism.”

Disturbingly, the knowledge of this new surveillance scheme has resulted in widespread self-censorship. Taibbi explains that “they are able to detect so quickly when people cross certain boundaries of thought or when they venture or express any interest in a forbidden idea that they’re able to essentially wipe out the instinct to rebel in people before it even appears.” Simply visiting a website that has “dangerous ideas” can garner being equated with the author of those ideas. Knowing they are being watched, people begin to “[move] their spiritual and political lives inward.” The prospect of being deplatformed from social media, refused banking services, and even being the target of a federal investigation is enough to deter people from seeking the truth.

But even true information can be regarded as harmful. Stanford University’s Virality Project, an example cited by Taibbi, suggested to social media platforms that they “may want to censor true content that promotes vaccine hesitancy.” To Taibbi, such a “disinformational fact” is “straight out of Orwell,” an example of “pure doublethink.” Taibbi rightly points out that “disinformation is a completely subjective concept, and it drifts more and more as they get more license to use these terms.”

Throughout Taibbi’s speech, there was a sense of disquiet in the audience. Conservatives have long suspected that Big Tech was censoring them. However, until the Twitter Files came out, the extent to which the federal government was fueling this abhorrent practice was not fully understood. Now exposed, these revelations are hard to fully comprehend. More maddening is the lack of consequences for those trampling on the First Amendment. Perhaps Americans have forgotten what it means to be free.

Taibbi ended his speech by saying, “If you forget what freedom is and why it’s important, you won’t know to complain in its absence.” Calling the audience to action, Taibbi said “we need to start wondering who’s going to teach the next generation to care enough to fight for itself.” The Twitter Files must become a rallying cry among freedom-loving Americans of all political stripes. Our government is instituted to serve the people, not censor and surveil them. If the memory of what it means to be a free people is fading in the minds of Americans, then the Twitter Files must become the fuel that will reignite the blaze for a new generation.

Caleb Larson Larson is a member of American Experiment’s Young Leaders Council.