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Michael Tracey: How The Censors Won

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Authored by Michael Tracey via mtracey.substack.com

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Thomas Rid testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017

On March 30, 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee convened one of what would become an endless series of exhaustive hearings on “Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Media, cultural, and political elites — bewildered and angry — were desperate to get to the bottom of how a former beauty pageant proprietor and reality TV show host could have possibly just won the presidency.

Understandably dissatisfied with explanations that would require any kind of reckoning with their own seismic faults, politicians and journalists poured an enormous amount of resources into directing blame for the ascendance of Donald Trump at nefarious external actors, with Russia and its devious online trolling initiatives suddenly catapulted to public enemy no. 1. 

The star witness in that 2017 hearing, appearing right alongside former National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander, was Thomas Rid. Impressively presented by C-SPAN as a “War Studies Professor” at King’s College London, Rid made a passionate case that the US body politic had been woefully unprepared to contend with an onslaught of what he called “the dark art of disinformation.” Rid’s mission was to alert the Senate and the Nation as a whole to just how dire a threat this new breed of “disinformation” posed. 

Rid placed particular emphasis on the problem of “unwitting agents” getting duped into advancing the geopolitical objectives of hostile foreign states, in this case Russia, by aiding in the propagation of their “disinformation” offensives. “Three types of unwitting agents stand out,” he intoned, remarking on the various culprits for the polluted political atmosphere which purportedly enabled Trump’s rise. “WikiLeaks, Twitter, […] and over-eager journalists aggressively covering the political leaks while neglecting or ignoring their provenance,” he charged.

Later, in his scarily-titled book Active Measures, Rid would elaborate at length on the Journalists Doing Russia’s Bidding theme — lamenting that in the heady days of the 2016 presidential campaign, “reporters, worn down by breakneck news cycles, became more receptive to covering leaked, compromising material of questionable provenance.” Taken for granted by Rid was that the allegedly “questionable provenance” of these materials ought to have been journalists’ paramount consideration, as opposed to whether the materials were 1) authentic (which they were) and 2) shed light on the secret behavior of the country’s most powerful political factions (which they did).

In any event, the three entities that Rid singled out for condemnation in the testimony — WikiLeaks, Twitter, and “over-eager journalists” — either capitulated to varying degrees in the ensuing years to his demands, or were otherwise neutralized. The founder of WikiLeaks was prosecuted by the US government and currently languishes in UK prison, which removed one of the central threats that so troubled Rid. Twitter, whose founder once espoused a relatively maximalist conception of free speech (at least compared to other social media companies) drastically changed its philosophy on such issues — embarking on repeat banning sprees, suppressing newsworthy materials falsely classified as “Russian disinformation” just weeks before the 2020 election, and eventually purging the sitting president from the platform.

Even more excitingly for Rid, elite journalists’ attitude toward the alleged menace of “disinformation” became increasingly indistinguishable from his own. In the years since that 2017 testimony, it was more and more the journalists themselves who led the charge in demanding censorship to curtail supposed “disinformation,” especially if they could somehow speciously link such “disinformation” to “harassment” and/or “violence.”

And the “over-eagerness” of journalists to report newsworthy information that Rid had condemned was replaced by journalists instead harboring extreme paranoia about being accused of aiding scary foreign influence campaigns — and thereby turning into “unwitting agents” of those scary foreigners. That created a new industry-wide taboo against doing anything which may be perceived as assisting in the dissemination of unjustly “hacked” materials, even if those materials are authentic and expose the malfeasant conduct of powerful officials. Thus, in the years since Rid’s testimony, journalists converted into the most vocal advocates for the suppression of online political speech and the constriction of the bounds of acceptable political discourse — in large part to counteract the claimed threat of “disinformation.” Rid had gotten exactly what he wanted.

So he was perfectly justified in expressing pleasure this week upon the publication of the latest Intelligence Community Assessment regarding “foreign threats” during the 2020 election. Rid gushingly proclaimed the document “remarkable” and indicated how “impressed” he was by it, with his pleasure extending to heaping praise on Facebook for having been “particularly proactive” in purging Extremely Dangerous political content from the internet. “Twitter also delivered,” Rid added.

The most telling part of the “Intelligence Community Assessment” was its contention that a key tactic of Russia is “exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.” Variations on this Rid-adjacent theme have frequently percolated in elite discussions of the horrors of “Russian interference” since 2016: the idea that Russia seeks to gain world domination by inflaming domestic divisions in the US and undermining confidence in US institutions, and so journalism which unduly inflames domestic divisions and/or undermines confidence in institutions ipso facto helps Russia. But weirdly, you’ll notice, this decree never seems to apply to by far the most inflammatory purveyors of division in the country, that being mainline corporate media. It’s their foundational business model. Also left out of the equation is whether these vaunted institutions deserve confidence in the first place, or if lacking confidence in them is in fact the only rational response to their deceptions and corruptions.

Those who are expelled from social media platforms tend to be political actors who operate outside the ambit of hegemonic left/liberal corporate consensus, rendering them susceptible to marginalization per the framework popularized by Rid and the Intelligence Community he holds in such high esteem. Which demonstrates the ultimate function this framework: to limit and constrict the range of acceptable political opinion in the US, because deviation from the acceptable range invites accusations that one is “furthering the cause of Russia” (as Rid put it in the 2017 testimony). And during the Trump years, “furthering the cause of Russia” was seen as tantamount to abetting Trump and thereby fascism, which as you might imagine is not the greatest thing for journalists’ career prospects.

After the publication of the Assessment this week, there were momentary flutters of an attempt by corporate media acolytes to hype a zombie Russiagate revival — it was alleged in the Assessment that Russia had technically “interfered” again — but this attempt quickly fizzled. Even journalists groping for a titillating storyline to fill the Trump-sized hole in the media landscape can evidently recognize that this sequel was never going to be as good as the original. And either way, why bother focusing too much on whatever “interference” may or may not have occurred during the 2020 election, if it ultimately did not impede the achievement of the outcome that cultural and political elites so viscerally craved — the removal of Trump.

The comparatively muted reaction to the Assessment provides further evidence that “disinformation” and “interference” are only regarded as existentially dangerous by political and media elites if it can be causally tied to what they regard as a bad political outcome — such as the election of Trump. Imagine if just 42,918 votes in three states had been shifted from Joe Biden to Trump in the 2020 election, and Trump had won Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin and thus another term in the White House. Does anyone with basic memory-recall facilities of the past several years doubt for one second that even the slightest indications of “Russian interference” would’ve been frantically hyped again as a causal explanation for Trump’s victory? But with Trump out of the picture, the narrative has ceased to perform the function it served during the 2016-2020 period. So the narrative propagators can just claim victory and move on.

In other words, Rid is entitled to celebrate his role in fostering what is now a far more stringently regulated and policed online information ecosystem. He — the censor — won.

POSTSCRIPT: There’s thematic continuity between Rid’s successful crusade to bludgeon US political and media culture into submission, and the latest round of anti-Substack hysteria that is now reaching a fever pitch among embittered and resentful journalists. Though Rid isn’t expressly calling for the destruction of Substack like so many others are, he was a critical figure in inculcating the key premises that underly this escalating drive for censorship — excessively obtrusive “content moderation,” de-platforming, and other speech-suppression initiatives in the name of combatting “disinformation.” For those interested, I was on Tucker Carlson’s show last night discussing the rage-fueled journalist-led drive to destroy Substack.