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The US deep state’s sway on public debate is disturbing

For more than a month now, Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, has been releasing the ‘Twitter Files’, each of them a series of tweets by independent journalists like Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Photo: Reuters)Premium
Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Photo: Reuters)

For more than a month now, Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, has been releasing the “Twitter Files", each of them a series of tweets by independent journalists like Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss. Based on the company’s internal documents, the files investigate what was going on behind the scenes at the social media platform, especially in its Trust and Safety department, which is in charge of content moderation. The findings are revelatory (bit.ly/3CqGpSN).

It appears that till Musk took over, matters like what tweets were deleted and which users banned were to a large extent decided by American security and intelligence agencies, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, which Donald Trump narrowly lost, the agencies had asked for the suspension of a staggering 250,000 user accounts. The reasons cited ranged from disinformation to accounts being secretly sponsored by governments of countries like China, Russia and Iran. Sometimes, no clear reason was even stated; Twitter was told bluntly to shut down accounts.

In the vast majority of cases, Twitter complied without much internal debate. Its only oft-repeated request appears to have been that its executives were getting overwhelmed with the number of demands coming from various agencies, so could they all be routed through one organization, the FBI?

A number of journalists and media outlets were also targeted. In the most infamous case, under instructions from the FBI, Twitter suspended the account of New York Post, one of the country’s top-selling newspapers, after the Post broke a story about a laptop that Hunter Biden, son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, had misplaced. The data on the computer seemed to indicate that Hunter had misused his father’s name and position to earn millions of dollars from Chinese and Ukrainian energy firms.

This news would have almost certainly affected Biden senior’s election prospects. The FBI told Twitter that this was Russian disinformation intended to help Trump win a second term. The platform scrubbed off all references to the story from its feeds. It is today believed by many that the Post’s report was accurate. Musk has accused Twitter of “interfering with elections".

Thousands of tweets were deleted and users suspended for suggesting that the covid pandemic may have been triggered by a leak at the Chinese government’s virus research laboratory at Wuhan. The platform also tried to suppress the information that the US government’s National Institute of Health had given a grant to the Wuhan laboratory to pursue gain-of-function research, or how to create deadlier viruses for study.

What is interesting in all this is that the FBI and other agencies seem to have been working to subvert Donald Trump, then the country’s president. After all, the Hunter Biden story, if it was widely disseminated, would have helped him. Regarding covid, Trump had been ranting from day one that it was a lab leak at Wuhan, and had insisted on referring to it on every forum as the “Chinese virus", a term that Twitter banned. And he certainly had no love lost for Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious diseases bureaucrat who had led the country’s pandemic response, and who had also approved the US grant to the Wuhan institute.

Trump had won the 2016 presidential election due to a number of factors, but one key reason was that he had positioned himself as an outsider to the cosy Washington network of career politicians, entrenched bureaucrats, shadowy intelligence agencies, big business, lobbyists and power brokers. Trump had promised to “drain the swamp". It now seems that the swamp made sure it could not be drained, in part by controlling the flow of information to the public through social media.

The Twitter Files reveal that requests from the agency to Twitter for banning user accounts rose exponentially in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. And in the four years leading up to Musk’s takeover, more than a dozen senior FBI agents, analysts and lawyers joined Twitter’s top ranks.

The company was fertile ground for those whose behaviour suggests they were out to get Trump. Till Musk took charge and fired 70% of the staff, Twitter’s staff was famously left-liberal and anti-Trump. According to US Federal Election Commission data, 99% of all political contributions made by Twitter employees in 2021 went to the Democratic Party. That’s a sharp skew, to put it mildly.

However, Twitter, with about 450 million monthly active users, may only be the tip of the iceberg. After all, other platforms like Facebook (2.85 billion users) and Instagram (more than two billion) have far greater reach. Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that Facebook was approached by the FBI to suppress the Hunter Biden story, and the platform obeyed. We are getting to know about Twitter’s nexus with US intelligence agencies only because a billionaire with an apparent devil-may-care attitude bought the company. The full extent of the agencies’ filtering of information through Big Tech will perhaps never be known.

It is extremely difficult to feel much sympathy for Trump, who was often foul-mouthed, with erratic behaviour that showed signs of megalomania. And since his defeat in 2020, all these traits appear to have only got worse. Yet, the power that the US deep state can wield on the global public discourse cannot fail to disturb. Musk has promised to release “The Fauci Files" soon.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

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Updated: 09 Jan 2023, 11:35 PM IST
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