How Intelligence Agencies Infiltrated Social Media Companies

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Michael Shellenberger is the best-selling author of “Apocalypse Never” and “San Fransicko." He is a journalist and founder of Public, a Substack publication. Michael is a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment and Green Book Award winner. He is also founder and president of Environmental Progress, a research organization that incubates ideas, leaders, and movements. michaelshellenberger.substack.com

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First of all, what was it like to get a hold of the Twitter files? What was that experience like? How did that go down? Exciting as hell, man. I mean, seriously, there's been a lot of misinformation about that itself, but Barry Weiss contacted me. She lives in LA and she got in and she's like, how soon can you get over here? And I was like, let me finish this interview I'm on and I'm over. And yeah, it was incredible. I'd never met Elon before. I met him at the coffee station, just making himself a cup of coffee. He had no idea who I was. And yeah, we just got into it. I was sort of the least known of the big three journalists that were there, it was Barry Weiss and Matt Taibbi who was on. And they'd already started thinking about what to go after. And Matt had done a story on the Hunter Biden laptop already. And then we were starting to look at January 6th because Trump gets de-platformed on January 8th. And so because I'm like the junior member of that threesome, so to speak, they gave me January 7th. So the first thing we, one of the first things we did was just to look at how they made a decision to get to pull Trump off the platform. And it turned out that the seventh was an important day because that was when they started to rationalize this decision to de-platform Trump, even though their own people inside had decided that he had not violated their terms of service. So they were sort of stuck making up a reason to de-platform him. And that was an important theme was that they just kept changing the rules basically to do what they wanted to do. And that was the same thing on the Hunter Biden laptop. The New York Post story that they censored also had not violated their terms of service. So I mean, look, it was crazy. I mean, it was, you know, people always ask questions about the files themselves, but you know, the experience was we would ask for these searches and we just get back huge amounts of data. It was lots of thousands and thousands of emails, thousands of internal messages on their Slack messaging system. And so, yeah, I mean, a lot of it was, you know, some of it was very boring because you have to just read tons and tons of stuff. But you know, I think the big theme was we start by seeing a real, you know, super progressive. It's like 99% of campaign contributions from Twitter staff are going to Democrats. You know, the head of safety at Twitter, this guy named Joel Roth, who, you know, said, you know, said there's actual Nazis in the White House when Trump came in. He was very progressive. But over time, we just kept finding like this weird, like FBI wants us to do this, you know, there's these other government agencies. Oh, you know, this, all these people used to work at the FBI. CIA shows up, Department of Homeland Security, and we're kind of like, what the hell is going on? This story quickly shifted from us sort of and I think what Elon thought, which was that it was just very progressive people being biased in their content moderation in their censoring to there is a huge operation by U.S. government officials, U.S. government contractors and all of these super sketchy NGOs getting money from who knows where basically demanding that Twitter start censoring people. And at that moment, the story shifted for all of us. And that was, I think, where Taibbi became particularly important and sort of the lead because he had had so much experience on sort of looking at how the U.S. government during the war on terror had waged disinformation campaigns, propaganda campaigns. And it became clear to us, you know, over time that the U.S. government had turned its propaganda and disinformation campaigns that had been waging abroad. It turned them against the American people. And that was where you just sort of get chills up your spine and you were like, this is something seriously sinister is going on. Do we know when this began? Like when did they infiltrate these organizations? Because I'm sure it's not just Twitter, right? I'm sure it's... Oh, no, absolutely not. That's part of what was so terrifying is that it was all of the social media companies, including Wikipedia, by the way, which we don't talk enough about, but also all of the mainstream news organizations are all being organized. So when does it start? You know, it really... What you're looking at is the apparatus that was created by the war on terror over the last 20 years, starting after 9-11. Then there was a battle against ISIS because ISIS was successfully recruiting on social media. So there was sort of a counter ISIS recruiting campaign that occurred. Then you get the big event is Brexit 2016, Trump's election in 2016, and the establishment just freaks out, absolutely freaks out. There's a lot of different motivations here. So one of the motivations is just to blame Facebook, blame social media for Trump's victory. It was never true. I don't really think anybody really believed it. There's just... You know, there was just... For a variety of reasons we can talk about, there was never any good evidence that whatever Russians did had much of any influence, any measurable influence on the outcome of the campaign. But they started to scapegoat the social media companies as a way to get control over them. And so then they started... Then in 2017 they set up... Well, two things happen, or many things happen. The Department of Homeland Security just declares election infrastructure to be part of their mission of protecting election infrastructure, and that meant protecting the media environment, protecting... Protect. Put it that in quotes. You know? It's creepy. It's patronizing. It's not a move. So that's the first thing that happens. They create something called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security to supposedly protect the media environment from foreign influence. They create something called the Foreign Influence Task Force with the FBI to basically start policing domestic speech on these platforms. They start organizing all the social media companies to participate in these meetings. So you had Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, in here, and he says to you, there's this critical moment where you ask about the Hunter Biden laptop, and he goes, well, yeah, in the summer of 2020, all these FBI guys come to us saying there's gonna be a hack and leak operation involving Hunter Biden, which is super suspicious because, as everybody now knows, the FBI had Hunter Biden's laptop in December 2019. It freaked me out. And I was, I had, so by the way, I was a victim of the Hunter Biden laptop disinformation. I thought that, I voted for Biden. I thought that it was, I thought that that laptop was Russian disinformation. I just bought the whole thing. And this is from somebody who, you're a journalist. I'm supposedly a journalist, right? So-called journalist. I bought, you know, I'm still a big liberal in so many ways, and everybody I knew was like, oh, you know, besides Trump, it was just, he's so, for all the reasons that progressives bought that the laptop was fake, I bought that it was fake. So then when you realize that it was real and that everything in the New York Post story on October 14th, 2020 was accurate, I started seeing stuff in the emails. The thing that really freaked me out was this thing that Aspen Institute, it's called tabletop exercise, and it was actually a Zoom call to role play how to deal with a Russian hack and leak around Hunter Biden. This is like in June of 2020. So this is like months before the New York, before, months before Rudy Giuliani gets that laptop, before Rudy Giuliani gives the laptop to New York Post, why in the hell is Aspen Institute holding a tabletop exercise to pre-bunk basically their training or brainwashing all these journalists? I mean, it's CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Wikimedia Foundation, the Wikipedia folks. The networks, all of the social media companies all coming together to be like, okay, well, if something is leaked, then we should not cover it in the way that journalists have traditionally covered it. Meanwhile, Stanford University a few months earlier had put out a report saying reporters should no longer follow the Pentagon Papers principle. Well, the Pentagon Papers, of course, is this famous episode. It was Steven Spielberg made a whole movie about it where the Washington Post and New York Times published these internal Pentagon documents showing that the US government was losing the war in Vietnam. Right. This is Daniel Ellsberg and he just releases it. He steals these documents. He breaks the law, steals these documents, gives them to the newspapers. The newspapers publish them. It's this kind of incredible moment in American journalism where we are like the First Amendment gives these newspapers the right to publish hacked, so-called hacked, but leaked information. Here you have Stanford University Aspen Institute saying, oh, no, no, no, that's all. We should stop doing that. Journalists should no longer write about leaked information in that way. Instead, we should focus on the person who leaked it. It really sent chills at my spine. It was the creepiest thing I'd ever seen. This is, of course, you've got to remember Aspen Institute is funded by the US government. Stanford is funded by the US government. This is people go, oh, well, you're just one of the responses we've got. They go, oh, you're just talking about content moderation by private companies. No. We're talking about US government funded organizations. If the US government is censoring information, that's obviously a violation of the First Amendment, but if the US government is funding somebody else to censor information, that's also a violation of the First Amendment. You can't indirectly. It's still a violation if you're funding somebody to demand censorship. So that was quite a steeplechase, but there's a lot here. It's a lot of people, a lot of institutions, a lot to unpack, and that was part of the reason I wanted to reach out and be like, I need a Joe Rogan session to just kind of go through it all. Yeah. Well, I'm very happy to provide that. Here's the question. Obviously the laptop would harm, the Hunter Biden laptop would harm Joe Biden, obviously. If that story got out, who knows how many people would have voted the other way. Is this a direct result of the things that Trump said when he was in office that went against the intelligence community? How did they decide? I would always assume that the so-called deep state is essentially bipartisan, that they wouldn't necessarily side with the Democrats or the Republicans. They're just in charge of ... They're supposed to be gathering information to protect the country. They decide specifically to either stop information or propagate misinformation that would aid Joe Biden. Yeah. Yes, that is exactly the right question. I think the thing you have to understand is that Trump was viewed by the deep state, by CIA, FBI, Pentagon. NSA. All of the elites. Yes, and you're right. It's bipartisan in the sense that it's both never Trump Republicans and Democrats. What freaked them out the most about Trump is that he was threatening to pull the US out of NATO. I don't think that that was ... I just think that was bluster. That's insane. By the way, I should say, I actually support what we call the Western Alliance. I support providing military security for our allies in Asia and in Europe. There's parts of economic nationalism that I respect, but I'm also ... I don't think we should pull out of NATO. I think NATO has provided peace in the world and mostly been a good thing. It's obviously had some crazy abuses like Iraq. This whole experience has made me rethink my support for Ukraine, but I think it's important to understand that Trump terrified the deep state of the national security establishment. So did Brexit. There's this sense in which you had a guy on here named Peter Zion who wrote this book called ... this really apocalyptic book about how the world is going to fall apart. His whole argument, which I don't agree with, I think he's brilliant, but the book is ... I think the argument's wrong. His whole argument is based on the idea the United States is going to stop providing military security to our allies in Asia and Europe. It's all just based on this assumption that Trump is the beginning of some ... the US withdrawing from its traditional role since World War II. There's a bunch of people who, obviously their ideology, their livelihoods, their identity, just their whole way of life is tied up with providing ... the United States providing this protection for Europe and Asia. They view Trump as threatening that. I also think they just really hated the guy. They looked down on him. He was crude and all the things that people don't like about him. He spoke disparagingly about the intelligence community, which is crazy. Absolutely. He was against the war in Iraq. He was a different ... he was a nationalist Republican. What's so interesting is that if you read people on the left, like Noam Chomsky and others who have been critics of US, or Glenn Greenwald, who are critics of ... and I think Matt Taibbi, critics of US government military invasions around the world since World War II. We've overthrown many governments. Iran, Chile, Guatemala. What the pattern is, is that these are places where nationalists, sometimes socialists, but often just nationalists who are trying to control their economies and they didn't want foreign interference, were coming to power. The US government would see that as a threat to providing ... having this liberal global order as it's called. They saw Trump as an existential threat to this post-war liberal order and they viewed social media as the means to his power, which I think was exaggerated. On the one hand, they saw a threat. I think they also saw an opportunity. The war on terror we won. It's just a huge victory. It's shocking how successful it was in some ways. You have a bunch of people that suddenly need something to do. There's a lot of motivations there. Then you also have the guys that lost the Hillary campaign, John Podesta, who was the chair of her campaign. He runs the most powerful progressive, frankly, propaganda organization in the world, or at least in the United States, the Center for American Progress. They were looking also for some reason, someone to blame for their own failures, for the dislikeability of Hillary. There was just a lot of motivations to try to get control over social media platforms. They felt like they had lost control of them.