Matt Taibbi’s analysis of FBI-related internal Twitter documents and the Missouri Attorney General’s release of the deposition transcript of FBI censor Elvis Chan have revealed shocking interference by the bureau in the most sensitive political debates leading up to elections.
As many suspected, Taibbi just confirmed the FBI meddled extensively in election-related speech on Twitter in 2020. Separately, Chan confirmed that the FBI’s election interference extended to Google and Facebook. Using a huge team of 80 agents, the joint task force of censors from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI flagged multiple posts for censorship. Taibbi offered few examples of the types of materials the FBI sought to censor. But some of the examples included obvious jokes, such as one about adding votes to the Democrats’ total in retaliation for posting negative comments on a thread.
Were these rogue agents operating in violation of the FBI’s long-standing policy against interfering in elections? It now appears that the FBI’s censorship of American citizens enjoyed the approval and ratification of FBI Director Christopher Wray himself as the FBI responded to the scandal with this dismissive remark:
The FBI regularly engages with private sector entities to provide information specific to identified foreign malign influence actors’ subversive, undeclared, covert, or criminal activities. Private sector entities independently make decisions about what, if any, action they take on their platforms and for their customers after the FBI has notified them.
Stop for a moment to parse this bureaucratic-speak. Under what authority does the FBI censor non-U.S. citizens in our domestic forums? Censorship injures the rights of the listeners as much as the speakers. Can the FBI legally prevent citizens access to Britain’s Daily Mail or the Russian media outlet RT just because they originate from a foreign source? Legal precedent suggests that the First Amendment includes guarantees of citizen’s access to foreign-based speech. This has become increasingly important because accessing foreign press is sometimes the only way to find reporting on issues that the FBI-influenced domestic media would rather not cover. Don’t we need to know what foreigners are saying about America in order to make informed election decisions?
The permanent domestic security apparatus, led by the FBI, is not terribly concerned about whether information it sought to suppress might be true. Indeed, the call to prevent a repeat of 2016-style “hack and dump,” implicitly seeks the suppression of truthful information that hurts Democrats. The Wikileaks DNC emails accurately depicted Clinton campaign collusion with the press and a pay-for-influence operation run from the Clinton family charity. If it weren’t true, there would be no need for censorship.
The government calls this, “malinformation,” or sometimes, “disinformation.” The former, includes “information that is based on fact but used out of context,” while disinformation includes “information that is deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate.” Truth is not a defense. Mind you, left-wing sources can call conservatives racists and Nazis all day long. But if a dissident offers information that might “harm” Democrats or “manipulate” voters into not voting in the manner approved by the FBI, then the government needs to act to “protect” the election. This is exactly why the Hunter Biden laptop story was censored. It didn’t matter whether it came from the Russians or Santa Claus. The government acted to impose an election result on the American people. Everyone knows that.
Chan all but spelled out exactly that in his deposition.
I remember that the FBI warned—that I or someone from the FBI warned the social media companies about the potential for a 2016-style DNC hack-and-dump operation . . . .
Chan saw the FBI’s role as countering the influence of such information.
Q. And I think you—in your thesis you talk about how in 2016 they had high, high levels of success, right, because there were essentially no countermeasures taken by social media platforms?
That is correct.
The FBI’s “countermeasures”? Directly intervening to flag and encourage censorship to protect the Democratic candidate from a leak like 2016. They called it, “information sharing,” but the tech companies read the creepy euphemism exactly as intended—encouraging censorship. If the FBI “shared” the identity of objectionable speech on a social media platform, social media complied and censored.
Back to Chan’s deposition.
Q. So—so specifically your thesis focuses on information sharing between the FBI and basically Facebook, Google and Twitter, right?
That is correct.
Second, missing from the FBI’s statement is any acknowledgement that it bothered to consider the constitutional rights of Americans seeking to inform themselves before elections. We so often hear members of the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, tell us they have taken a sworn oath to protect the Constitution. It’s usually a response to legitimate oversight or questions about the FBI’s abuse of secrecy. But they never mean what they say or they would have a much better record on protecting free speech.
Third, the FBI did not limit its censorship efforts to foreigners (not that censoring speech originating from foreign sources is acceptable). As Taibbi notes, the censorship included posts which joked about election integrity. Are these crimes? The FBI is supposed to be a law enforcement agency, not a speech moderation (i.e. censorship) agency.
Overlooked by much of the reporting on the Chan deposition is this bombshell: The FBI appears to have also started a secret lobbying campaign to influence legislation.
Among the approximately 140 objections Justice Department attorney Indraneel Sur made during the deposition of FBI censor Elvis Chan was one that involved a particularly disturbing secret communication channel between the FBI and congressional staffers. When Chan was asked “what kind of legislation?” the FBI had made recommendations about to congressional staffers, Sur claimed the FBI had a legal right to keep secret the FBI’s legislative interference. “I am going to object,” Sur said. “The deliberative process privilege extends not just to the executive branch, but all sorts of executive communications within the government.”
Did the FBI’s legislative lobbying “relate to Section 230 of the Communications Act?” Sur refused to let Chan answer. “I stand by the same objection on the grounds of deliberative process privilege,” Sur said. “So I will continue to assert and ask that the witness not answer the question on the grounds of the deliberative process privilege.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Congress just signed on to an omnibus spending bill without any attempt to rein in the FBI’s election meddling. Once again, Congress lavishes billions on the FBI with no effort to subordinate it to the constitution’s protections against intrusive law enforcement.
We also learned from Chan’s deposition that the FBI was aware that its censorship recommendations were applied to categorically similar users not identified by the FBI. How did the FBI ensure that its recommendations didn’t quash legitimate political speech? It didn’t, instead relying on Twitter to ensure the accuracy of its account takedowns.
Q. Right. OK. But it sounds like sometimes your reports lead to more takedowns than the accounts you have—you flagged, fair to say?
That is correct.
How confident are you that they are not, you know, kind of making mistakes in taking down real user accounts?
So this is just my personal opinion, obviously not based on being able to see any of their data. In my experience, they take account takedowns very seriously because this affects their bottom line. . . . in my opinion, they take it very seriously. And I would say that to the best of their ability, they are very careful before doing account takedowns.
In other words, the FBI would notify social media companies of content it found objectionable. The companies would occasionally apply the FBI’s recommendations to additional accounts that, while not flagged by the FBI, had the same characteristics that the FBI found objectionable. The only safeguard against social media overzealously applying the FBI’s censorship request is whatever miniscule loss of revenue the social media might experience from the overly broad censorship.
In many cases the FBI sought censorship of supposedly foreign-originating posts after significant engagement. In one example, highlighted in the deposition, users reacted 793 times before Twitter deleted the account that originated the post to which the FBI objected.
Q. And then those comments are people who presumably said something, whether they agree or disagree or just want to say something about this kind of political ad, fair to say?
Yeah. I don’t know what the nature of the comments are, but your characterization is probable.
The accounts—I suppose you have talked about account takedowns earlier. If this account that posted this ad is taken down, do all those comments get taken down with it?
I don’t know.
Oh, so you think that the comments may stay up with the account gone?
I—to be honest with you, I do not use any social media.
Incredibly, Chan failed to inform himself, or even care, whether censoring a supposedly foreign-originating post would also delete the many comments and reactions by legitimate Americans expressing protected political speech. This one remark reveals volumes about the FBI’s disregard for the First Amendment.
The FBI should not be involved in “moderating” political speech. But when the FBI does violate this principle, it should be seen for what it is: a deprivation of an essential constitutional right without due process. The FBI should be required to notify the target of the censorship and provide an opportunity to that individual to contest this state action before a neutral third party.
The FBI’s censorship “recommendations” should be reported to Congress and the public. If the target of the FBI’s censorship prevails, he or she should be entitled to damages and attorneys’ fees for the loss of civic participation rights that can never be restored. Without a substantial remedy for the injured, the FBI will continue to meddle in our public speech forums to manipulate elections.
We seem to have reached a point at which the Justice Department has seized so much power that it no longer feels the need to lie about its Chinese-style censorship regime. As I’ve previously noted, international election standards require equal access to a media independent of government censorship. Without that, you can’t have a fair election. No foreign adversary could have so effectively harmed the constitutionally protected interplay between free speech and elections.
The FBI has become what it says it’s trying to prevent. It is, above all rivals and adversaries, the greatest single threat to free and fair elections.