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In Response to the Twitter Files, Establishment Media Rushes to Defend the FBI
The Hunter Biden laptop story shows the extent to which the corporate media has become the propaganda arm of the state
Last week, the FBI responded to the revelations exhumed from the Twitter Files in the most predictable way imaginable: by calling the journalists who reported on them “conspiracy theorists.” A decade ago, an attack like this on the free press by the federal government’s top law enforcement agency might have united journalists in indignant outrage. No longer. If the Twitter Files showed the extent to which the intelligence agencies are in bed with the social media platforms, the story’s reception by the mainstream press has only shown how eager the establishment media is to jump into the sheets with them. It’s not just that the corporate media has abandoned the kind of adversarial journalism exemplified by the reporting on the Twitter Files; it has taken on the role of defending the state against those who continue to practice it.
A few days after my friend and colleague Michael Shellenberger dropped Part 7 of the Twitter Files, CNN reporters Evan Perez, Donnie Sullivan and Brian Fung published a big story, also featured on the news channel, expressly aimed at refuting its findings. The central claim of the story was that the FBI had never “ordered” Twitter to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story. That claim is true: the FBI, indeed, had never issued a direct order to Twitter that they had no legal authority to issue. But neither Shellenberger nor any other Twitter Files reporter had ever made that allegation in the first place. Elon Musk had, in a tweet posted two and a half weeks prior to Shellenberger’s thread, in a discussion of an earlier Twitter Files installment written by a different reporter.
And CNN’s conclusion was correct: Musk, who is famous for his reckless tweets, had spoken inaccurately. But so what? Musk carelessly hyping a tweet thread with the hyperbolic claim that the FBI “ordered” suppression of a story does nothing to undermine the actual claim in the reporting, which is that the FBI used its influence improperly to discredit a true but politically inconvenient story. Seizing on Musk’s sloppy editorializing is a classic motte and bailey that CNN is using to tarnish a story that it cannot in fact factually refute.
What the Twitter Files do show is that the FBI ran what appears to be a disinformation campaign to persuade social media platforms to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story — a story they knew to be true. That last part bears repeating, as it is crucial to understanding the gravity of the FBI’s alleged impropriety: the FBI knew from the start that the story was authentic. FBI agents knew that Hunter Biden had personally dropped off his laptop at a computer repair shop in Delaware in 2019 and then abandoned it, that the computer repairman had viewed its contents and then contacted Rudy Giuliani to inform him of the sensitive information stored on the machine, and that the New York Post was writing a story on it. The FBI knew all of this because in 2019, the computer repairman had, via his father, contacted the FBI himself to tell them about it. FBI agents had visited him at his home, and the agency had then taken physical possession of the laptop. The FBI was also spying on Giuliani, which is how they were aware that the New York Post had an article coming. Knowing all of these facts, the FBI nevertheless went on to represent the Hunter Biden laptop story as “Russian disinformation” to social media executives.
We don’t know what the exact words were that FBI agents used in their meetings with Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in the run-up to the election in 2020. But they apparently weren’t subtle. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s then-head of Site Integrity, said that he was warned in the weeks leading up to the election that “state actors” were likely to hack into accounts of “individuals associated with political campaigns,” and that the hacked material would be spread over social media platforms like Twitter. More to the point, Roth was informed of “rumors” that the “hack-and-leak” operation would involve Hunter Biden specifically. So when, less than three weeks before Election Day, a story appeared in the New York Post claiming that scandalous information on Hunter Biden was recovered from a laptop computer, what other conclusion could Roth, with the FBI’s ominous warnings ringing in his ears, have possibly drawn?
To his credit, in spite of his FBI-stoked suspicions, Roth resisted suppressing the story on Twitter, since there was no clear evidence it was fraudulent. But this is where the second part of the FBI’s influence campaign came into play: the bureau was able to override Roth’s resistance because it had colonized the upper ranks of Twitter. As Shellenberger reported, “As of 2020, there were so many former FBI employees — ‘Bu alumni’ — working at Twitter that they had created their own private Slack channel and a crib sheet to onboard new FBI arrivals.”
The most prominent of those was Jim Baker, the former general counsel to the FBI. Baker, who at this point was deputy general counsel at Twitter, prodded Twitter’s leadership to take action on the article, claiming without evidence that there was reason to believe the emails on the computer were “a complete fabrication” and that “the materials may have been hacked.” As Shellenberger pointed out, it strains credulity that Baker truly believed this. The New York Post story had shown a receipt for the laptop signed by Hunter Biden and a copy of the FBI subpoena from the agents who took possession of it. (CNN inexplicably claimed that Twitter did not know at the time that it censored the New York Post story that the FBI had subpoenaed the laptop, even though the story itself includes a photograph of that exact subpoena.)
In the end, Baker’s view somehow prevailed and Twitter suppressed the article, censoring links to it and locking the New York Post’s Twitter account for two weeks. Between the actions of Twitter and Facebook, which also throttled posts about the article, alongside the mainstream media’s blackout of the story, the public was left with the impression that the Hunter Biden laptop story was grossly fraudulent, when it was, in reality, entirely accurate and legitimate.
CNN’s reporters disputed none of this. Instead, they resorted to another motte and bailey, focusing on two fairly minor details from Shellenberger’s thread that they could feasibly cast some doubt on. The first is that on the day before Twitter suppressed the story, an FBI agent sent Roth ten documents via “Teleporter,” a direct communications channel between the bureau and top Twitter management. CNN made a big deal out of claiming that none of those documents had anything to do with Hunter Biden’s laptop. Their evidence? The assertion of an FBI official who CNN wouldn’t even name. The second is that the FBI paid Twitter $3.4 million to compensate the company for the time its employees spent reviewing the bureau’s countless flagged tweets, a detail that was in the 46th tweet of a 49-tweet thread. CNN hand waves this finding away by explaining that the FBI is legally obligated to compensate companies for the costs they incur by doing the bureau’s bidding, which is a bit like saying that if I pay someone to mow my lawn, that isn’t really the same as paying someone to mow my lawn, because by law, I have to pay people who I hire to mow my lawn.
CNN’s reporters then lay out a counter narrative to Shellenberger’s story, describing a social media industry so traumatized by Russian meddling in 2016 that it eagerly sought to coordinate closely with federal law enforcement, hiring executives out of the intelligence agencies and pushing the government for more information to assist in its surveillance efforts. CNN describes one scene in which a government lawyer was forced to lecture tech executives on the First Amendment, presumably to rein in the companies’ voracious appetite for Americans’ personal data.
Having read thousands of emails and Slack messages in the Twitter Files myself, I can assure you that this is not the picture the direct evidence paints, at least at Twitter during the run-up to the 2020 election. To the contrary, numerous missives by Twitter employees express exhaustion at the pace and volume of the FBI’s constant demands for reviews of tweets, and head scratching over the FBI’s conviction that the platform was inundated by shadowy foreign influence accounts when the company’s internal data showed no such thing. But then, CNN’s version of events does a better job that the actual documentary evidence does at exonerating the FBI, which appears to be precisely the reporters’ objective.
When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporting on the Watergate scandal in 1972 and 1973, The Washington Post and The New York Times competed fiercely for the scoops. Today, the establishment media, after having maligned the laptop story when it came out in 2020, is stubbornly ignoring evidence of a potential FBI conspiracy to influence an election. When they do bother to cover it, it’s to obfuscate and discredit the story. It’s tempting to chalk up this sea change to the increasingly leftward tilt and Democratic partisanship of the media; after all, the media was pathologically hostile to the Trump administration and concocted elaborate Russiagate conspiracy theories practically out of whole cloth, before it did a precise about-face as soon as a Democratic president took office.
But in my opinion, the left-right divide is insufficient to explain how the media has come to function as an adjunct to the state. Rather, the line of division is between insiders and outsiders, not liberals and conservatives. Recall that two decades ago, the media showed the same allegiance to a conservative Republican agenda, when outlets like the New York Times were slavish in their devotion to George W. Bush’s rush to war, and often treated left-wing antiwar activists with practically the level of disdain and condescension with which it now regards Trump voters. And in the case of the Trump administration, while the media came out in full force against the President and the White House for four years, it was hardly an exercise in left-wing subversion. Rather, it was in vociferous defense of the FBI, the CIA, and the federal bureaucracy as a whole. Trump may have been the President, but to the establishment — in particular the legacy media — he was an invader, and journalists assumed the same posture they’re assuming today: that of guardian to the established order.
Like the intelligence agencies, the media is oriented not by ideology but by power. As a creature of what Martin Gurri calls “the Center,” it is, by instinct, deeply distrustful of the public and jealously protective of the institutions of the establishment, which is why reporters have been advocating for years for the tech platforms to partner with the government to surveil and police the unruly world of online discourse. The Twitter Files challenged that regime. So the mainstream media has done what comes most naturally to it: upholding the legitimacy of the established order by obscuring the mechanics of its power from public view.