Journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger testified on the “Twitter Files” to the House’s Weaponization of Government subcommittee March 9, days after Republicans on the committee released a report claiming the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has harrassed Elon Musk over the reporting.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.) asserted Taibbi and Shellenberger “pose a direct threat to people who oppose them.”
To substantiate this, she played a recording of former Twitter trust and safety head Yoel Roth at a previous House hearing, in which he described harassment he said he’d received in connection with the “Twitter Files.”
Subcommittee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pushed back against that language from his counterpart.
He described the two as “brave individuals” for coming before the House, particularly after the FTC mentioned them and other journalists in a Dec. 2022 letter to Twitter–not its first-ever communication with Twitter, but the first after Taibbi kicked off the “Twitter Files” releases less than ten days beforehand.
“There is no reason the FTC needs to know every journalist with whom Twitter was engaging,” the Republican March 7 subcommittee report on the FTC and Twitter states (pdf).
Jordan presented a narrative of clear coordination between the government, nonprofits that receive government funding, and Twitter in the runup to the 2020 election story, with a general focus on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
In October 2020, the social media platform took down a New York Post story on the laptop–a choice for which Jordan said they’d been “primed.”
“Our government built a cozy relationship with Big Tech,” Jordan said.
Plaskett denied the premise that the government had worked with Twitter, referencing the February hearing with former Twitter executives where Roth spoke.
“Real evidence showed that there wasn’t coordination between Twitter and the federal government, as they’d like the American people to believe,” she said.
“All the so-called ‘Twitter Files’ really showed was a discussion on content moderation,” she added.
“We’re engaging in false narratives here,” he said, describing Taibbi and Shellenberger as “so-called journalists.”
“Ranking Member Plaskett, I’m not a so-called journalist–I’ve won the National Magazine Award, the I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, and I’ve written ten books,” Taibbi responded in his own opening statement.
Shellenberger called what had been uncovered a “censorship-industrial complex,” likening it to the military-industrial complex former President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell speech.
Citing communications between the FBI and Twitter, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) claimed the social media company “was basically an FBI subsidiary before Elon Musk took it over.”
Taibbi told Johnson that the “Twitter Files” were “by far the most serious thing” he has covered, outranking his past work on the 2008 financial crisis.
In more tumultuous questioning, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) asked about Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election by releasing materials about the Clinton campaign, including emails involving her campaign manager, John Podesta.
“That material was true. That is not a legitimate predicate for censorship,” Taibbi jumped in to say at one point, before Lynch told him he was out of order.
Both Shellenberger and Taibbi agreed that Russia was a bad actor seeking to subvert the United States when probed on that point by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)
Taibbi said that a report (pdf) from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), “Russia’s Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda,” had blurred the distinction between state propaganda emanating from that state and other forms of media.
“Part of this report is what you would call traditional, hard-core intelligence gathering, where they made a reasoned, evidence-based case that certain sites were linked to Russian influence, or linked to the Russian government,” he said.
“In addition to that, however, they also said that sites that ‘generate their own momentum’ and have opinions that are in line with those accounts are part of a ‘propaganda ecosystem.’ Now, this is just another word for guilt by association,” he continued.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) rejected that narrative and presented her own, telling Taibbi that Elon Musk had “spoon-fed” certain journalists “cherry-picked information.”
She repeatedly asked him whether he had profited as a result of the Twitter files.
“It’s probably a wash,” Taibbi responded.
Wasserman Schultz went on to say that “social media companies are not biased against conservatives.”
Bishop Promises More on Stengel’s Ties to Hamilton 68
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) delved into the files’ coverage of Hamilton 68.
Created by a former GEC contractor, J.M. Berger, Hamilton 68 claimed that it tracked “Russian disinformation.”
Yet, its list “was largely made up of Americans,” as reported by Taibbi on Twitter.
Bishop played a recording of the GEC’s founder, Richard Stengel, at a Council on Foreign Relations panel in 2018. Stengel said that people “joked” he was “Chief Propagandist” for the United States in that job.
“I’m not against propaganda. Every country does it, and they have to do it to their own population, and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful,” Stengel said. He noted he had previously served as editor of Time Magazine, a publication historically connected to the CIA.
Bishop claimed that Stengel himself had close ties not just to the GEC but to Hamilton 68 itself.
“That’ll come out,” he told Taibbi.
“I’d be anxious to hear that,” Taibbi answered.