How Elon Musk’s Shocking Transparency Led to a Reporter’s Swift Education in the Censorship Industrial Complex

Michael Shellenberger's first brush with social-media censorship came in 2020 when he was censored by Facebook for sharing accurate information about climate change.

In the years since, Shellenberger has reported extensively on what he calls the "Censorship Industrial Complex," a network of government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, government contractors, and social-media platforms that conspired to censor ordinary Americans and elected officials for holding disfavored views.

Shellenberger was “shocked” by the internal Twitter documents that Elon Musk shared with him and a handful of other independent journalists, including Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, and Alex Berenson. The documents, which served as the basis for their Twitter Files reporting series, revealed examples of U.S. intelligence and security organizations, including the Department of Defense, working with the platform to censor information.

"I sort of knew that was happening, but I think I was shocked to see the involvement of so many government agencies," he said in an interview with National Review.

Among the most egregious examples: White House officials demanding that Facebook censor accurate information on vaccine side effects, the swift censorship of the Covid-19 lab-leak origin theory, and efforts to restrict users from sharing the New York Post‘s reporting on Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop, including in direct messages to other users.

Shellenberger recently testified before the House subcommittee investigating the weaponization of the federal government and said his most recent reporting has revealed that its "scope, power and lawbreaking" are even worse than he first realized.

Late last month, Shellenberger published a batch of internal files from the Cyber Threat Intelligence League showing U.S. and U.K. military contractors working in 2019 and 2020 to "both censor and turn sophisticated psychological operations and disinformation tactics developed abroad against the American people."

The whistleblower who gave Shellenberger and his colleagues the CTIL Files said its leader, a former British intelligence analyst, was “in the room at the Obama White House in 2017” when she received the instructions to create a counter-disinformation project to “stop a repeat of 2016.”

"The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) has been the center of gravity for much of the censorship with the National Science Foundation financing the development of censorship and disinformation tools and other federal government agencies playing a supportive role," Shellenberger testified.

CISA created the election integrity partnership (EIP) in 2020, which involved the Stanford Internet Observatory and other U.S. government contractors, emails show.

EIP urged Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to censor posts and reported a 75 percent response rate from the platforms. Thirty-five percent of URLS they reported were either removed, labeled, thrilled, or soft-blocked.

Shellenberger said social-media platforms and government agencies are "justifying censorship of accurate information in order to prevent people from coming to conclusions that they think are the wrong conclusions."

This was seen most dramatically with Covid vaccines, as social-media platforms censored information about vaccine side effects over concern the stories would create vaccine hesitancy. They also censored claims about Covid mortality and transmission rates that were later proven to be accurate, or at least closer to accurate than the numbers then being put forward by the CDC and World Health Organization.

“Here you have this drug that is basically being mandated in a variety of ways to the American people and when the American people experience side effects of it and want to share their stories, the government and the news media — which had taken large sums of money from the manufacturer of the drug — are [censoring],” he said. “That’s literally the definition of adding insult to injury.”

In October, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked a court-ordered ban on some communications between the Biden administration and social-media platforms after a federal appeals court found the administration likely violated the First Amendment by pressuring social-media platforms to censor posts about Covid-19 and elections.

The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling says that the White House likely "coerced the platforms to make their moderation decisions by way of intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences." The panel of three judges found that the administration "significantly encouraged the platforms' decisions by commandeering their decision-making processes, both in violation of the First Amendment."

A lower court previously placed restrictions on the Biden administration's communications with social-media platforms; those restrictions applied to a number of government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

After temporarily blocking the order, the Fifth Circuit judges then modified the order to apply only to the White House, the surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FBI.

The judges found that the agencies it has since exempted "were permissibly exercising government speech."

"That distinction is important because the state-action doctrine is vitally important to our Nation's operation — by distinguishing between the state and the People, it promotes 'a robust sphere of individual liberty,'" the judges wrote.

While the Biden White House and CDC allegedly pressured Facebook and YouTube to adopt specific policies around Covid-19 and vaccination-related information, the judges noted the FBI regularly met with tech companies ahead of the 2020 elections. The agency's activities were "not limited to purely foreign threats," as the FBI flagged posts that originated inside the U.S. as well, including those that contained incorrect poll hours or mail-in voting procedures.

Now, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case during its current term.

"The justices have a chance to truly understand what has happened on the social-media platforms and the inappropriate role the government has played in demanding the abridgment and limitation of speech, of legal speech on the platform," Shellenberger said.

Fortunately, Musk's takeover of Twitter — now called “X” — has in fact opened the platform to a wider range of views on Covid and much else, Shellenberger says.

While critics claim misinformation is now rampant on Musk’s app, Shellenberger believes the use of community notes to fact-check posts has kept false information under control on the app.

"I don't think there's any question the platform is a lot freer and really the issue has been that there's people that say there's not too much misinformation and hate speech on the platform and these are by people that want to control the platform," he said. "They want to have what they had before, which were basically politically biased senior staff working as censors inside of Twitter and increasingly working with law enforcement organizations to censor legal speech and that was inappropriate."

A growing share of Americans now support the prospect of technology companies and the government taking steps to restrict false information online, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in July.

The new poll found 55 percent of U.S. adults now believe the federal government should restrict false information, up from just 39 percent in 2018.

Sixty-five percent of Americans support tech companies stepping in to moderate false information, while 55 percent support the U.S. government’s involvement in suppressing disinformation.

Far more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents support the prospect of the U.S. government taking steps to restrict false information than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents: 70 percent to 39 percent. This despite there having been “virtually no difference” between the parties’ views on the issue in 2018.

Shellenberger's personal belief is that big-tech platforms should censor only illegal speech.

"We've already decided as a society it's illegal and that people can decide for themselves what they should have access to and that the government should not decide," he said, suggesting that adult users should decide what legal content they want to see by choosing from a drop-down menu in the same way that users can block and follow people.

He has called for the immediate defunding of the "Censorship Industrial Complex," and said at the very least, government officials should have to say when they're asking for censorship from social-media companies.

Shellenberger is now taking on a new role as the University of Austin's CBR chair in politics, censorship, and free speech at a time when he says universities have become “hotbeds of censorship and closed-mindedness and dogma.”

Journalist Bari Weiss founded the university in 2021 to offer a learning environment with a dedication to freedom of thought and discourse.

Shellenberger says he was inspired by the university's mission and knew he wanted to be associated with it from its founding. As chair, Shellenberger expects to teach a class on free speech beginning January of 2025.

"I think we're at a back to basics moment here,"  he said. "We are seeing across society and across the Western world, challenges to the pillars of civilization," including free speech, meritocracy, cheap energy, and law and order.

Heading into the 2024 election, he said American people need to look out for disinformation campaigns and censorship, which he says are two sides of the same coin.

“The censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop didn’t succeed in preventing Americans from learning about the story, but it did succeed in convincing people that there was something somehow, something wrong with the story, that somehow maybe the Russians were involved. And that is not true. And there’s no evidence that that’s true,” he said.

Americans need to be wary of people talking about hate speech and the need for controlling disinformation, “those are trigger words.”

“If somebody starts talking about countering misinformation, countering disinformation, they might be trying to pull one over on you and you should pay very close attention to what it is that they’re saying,” he said.

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How Elon Musk’s Shocking Transparency Led to a Reporter’s Swift Education in the Censorship Industrial Complex

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