Looking for PART ONE of this interview? Watch it here.[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] "The single most—I would say—significant whole-of-society initiative carried out by the counter-disinformation enterprise was the 2020 Election Integrity Partnership."
In part two of my interview with Jacob Siegel, senior editor at Tablet Magazine, we dive deeper into technocratic information control, exploring how the Election Integrity Partnership and U.S. agencies colluded with media and Big Tech to socially engineer the populace—using anti-democratic means.
"We need to permanently end the relationship between the federal government and the technology sector as it exists now," says Mr. Siegel, who argues that the censorship enterprise is operating on the China model, having adopted the Chinese Communist Party's methods of surveillance and social control.
"The danger is that in competing with China, we’d become like China. And that's what has been happening so far," says Mr. Siegel.
If you enjoyed this episode, check out Mike Benz (Part 1): The West’s Burgeoning Censorship Industry and the Government Funds Pouring In–From DHS to DARPA to National Science Foundation
FULL TRANSCRIPTJacob Siegel: There is something totalizing inherent in the aim of information control. The transition from policing electoral infrastructure to defend against foreign disinformation attacks by hostile foreign governments like Russia to policing epidemiologists, to censoring true accurate reports about the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing transmission or criticism of lockdowns or investigations into the origins of the coronavirus may seem like a stretch.
It may seem like a leap across a chasm, but in fact, there's much more continuity than there is discontinuity. As evidence of that, I would point to the fact that the single, most significant whole of society initiative carried out by the counter-disinformation enterprise was the 2020 Election Integrity Partnership.
This was a consortium of organizations put together with the backing and through the official perimeter of CISA [Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency], and that is through the government itself. This included Stanford University, a company called Graphika that was founded as a Defense Department initiative as part of its counter-Jihadist, counter-Islamist messaging, the University of Washington, and the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab. These four groups got together in this Election Integrity Partnership to carry out what internal government documents disclosed were censoring functions that the government knew it was better off outsourcing to non-governmental third parties.
This has all now been disclosed either through lawsuits or the Twitter Files. We know that the government counter-disinformation agencies were looking to offload their censorship duties because of the obvious constitutional problems. Indeed, the head of the Election Integrity Partnership, Alex Stamos, says in an internal briefing at one point that gets released to the public later that, "We're here to do things that the government can't do for legal reasons."
Alex Stamos: This is not because CISA didn't care about disinformation, but at the time they lacked both the funding and the legal authorizations to go do the kinds of work that would be necessary to truly understand how election disinformation was operating.
Mr. Siegel: It's a very offhanded admission of their role as a powerful governmental entity, that is to say, they're not a private civic organization. They exist to carry out the responsibilities of government and those responsibilities are not legal. It's an admission of both of those things. That's the Election Integrity Partnership, which censors something like 22 million pieces of content.
They say that they only flagged them. But of course flagging content was a way of marking what was supposed to be censored, because it was later censored by the social media companies. Through all of these steps and through all of this outsourcing, you break the chain of accountability. "We only flagged them, we didn't censor them." That's the Election Integrity Partnership.
After the 2020 election, rather than disappearing, as you might expect for an organization that was created to deal with election integrity, that partnership instead rebranded itself as the Virality Project with a mission to censor, flag, monitor disinformation, misinformation, and what is soon to be called malformation. Malformation refers to things that are factually true but have been contextualized in ways that are somehow untrue, meaning essentially that they're counter to the official narrative. That's what malformation is—a way of saying, “True, but inconvenient.” Basically, it’s a fancy term for that. It becomes the Virality Project.
I bring this up because there's no great re-imagining necessary. There is no institutional remissioning. It's not a big effort. It just transitions from one to the other, because in the end, technocratic information control is technocratic information control.
Whatever its supposed aim is, whether it's being carried out because it's going to protect the public from national security threats or from public health-related threats, in the end, it's about defending power. In the end, it's about removing the sovereignty of individual actors in a political system, and investing it into an unaccountable technocratic system. That's what underlies it, whatever it claims to be doing.
Jan Jekielek: I want to talk about the Election Integrity Partnership before it morphed, so to speak. In its effort to secure elections, do you view it as having actually interfered with elections?
Mr. Siegel: What the Election Integrity Partnership did was gross interference in the election. Mass censorship is utterly antithetical to and incompatible with the holding of free elections. It's antithetical to self-government, and it's unconstitutional. It is impossible to say precisely what effect it had and how many votes were swayed, but we don't have to know that precisely. In fact, it's irrelevant what precise statistical impact it had. What's important is that it represented a complete break with the principle and procedure of democratic self-government.
It was carried out with the approval of the highest levels of government, the Democratic Party, buy-in from top universities, and the gleeful consent of much of the media in the United States. It really was the avatar for an entire ruling class effort that treated democracy with open contempt. It seems to me that it is just incontestable. As a matter of fact, I'm happy to debate with people how it got to that point, and what the ultimate result was. There is no such thing as a mass censorship that is not also hostile to democracy and to free and fair elections. Indeed, we're capable of recognizing that in every context but this one. The people who defend it would never defend similar actions being carried out in China or in Russia. They would know exactly what it was there.
But somehow, because of what is taken to be the exceptional threat posed by Donald Trump and white nationalism or Covid denial or climate denial or transgender rights denial or whatever the human rights and political emergency that's being cited at the moment is, there's a total break with the capacity for reasoning that would tell us that this sort of effort in any other context is nakedly authoritarian.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to dwell on this for a moment longer. You mentioned in your piece the Time Magazine article that came out in February of 2021, which I thought was one of the most astonishing things I had ever read, because it said, "Here's how we did it." People don't seem to remember this article. When I read it I was thinking, "Isn't this actually election interference?" But I wonder if a lot of the people involved didn't view it that way. I wonder if they didn't actually believe that when they were doing some of these things in that article and that we just discussed, they were actually safeguarding democracy.
Mr. Siegel: I totally agree with that. I think that most of those people, the clear majority, thought that they were safeguarding democracy. But the way that occurs, and here some classic Marxist class-based analysis can be very helpful, is that their ideology is a projection of their class interests. To them, democracy means that they stay in power. That's what democracy means to them. Democracy means a political system that benefits them.
How do you reconcile that seemingly obvious contradiction? It is because the meaning and the literal definition of democracy is ultimately far less important than the kind of political connotation given to it. These are people, the ones engaged in these democracy-suppressing efforts, who view themselves as good people, and they view themselves as politically progressive. Of course, they're not going to be on the side of anti-democratic and authoritarian measures.
Beginning with the premise that they're good people, they then assign meanings to their actions that concord with that. It seems that the majority of them fall into that group. But now there is another significant minority, and that's an intellectual minority going back to even before Donald Trump, going back to the late period of Obama's presidency who became openly hostile to democracy as a majoritarian mobocracy.
You can see this in some of the critiques that emerge of majoritarianism and of the ways in which democracy can abet white supremacy. Therefore, we need to have strict anti-democratic measures to prevent a racist white majority from imposing racist policies on the rest of the country.
There's a creeping anti-democratic sentiment, which to be clear has a very long history in America. You can find plenty of anti-democratic sentiment on the Left among elite progressives at the turn of the century and in the early 20th century. It has recrudescence in the late Obama period that starts with this anti-majoritarianism and then evolves into a full-on attack on freedom of speech, because freedom of speech is seen to benefit the rabble and the deplorables.
In the language of the defenders of democracy, they make the argument that we can't allow too much freedom of speech, especially online, because it will be abused by these racists and these trolls. You see this in movements like the reaction to Gamergate, for instance. You see it in the calls for more regulation and censorship online.
That is an important minority as well that is seeding an explicitly anti-democratic rationale that's diluting itself by the mental contortion, but is really actually making an argument for why democracy itself is dangerous. That's important to grasp because it creates the intellectual rhetorical framework for elevating a class of information regulators above the public.
It creates the intellectual and indeed even a legalistic framework for saying the people can't be trusted with unrestricted free speech because Russia could poison public discourse or because racists could poison public discourse or because vaccine skeptics could poison public discourse. Therefore, we need a more tightly regulated internet overseen by experts who can control what is being said to protect people from the dangers of mis and disinformation. That's an argument that's made by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all the way down to junior staffers and nonprofits.
Mr. Jekielek: Maybe they think that with his highly effective social media campaign in 2016, President Trump stole that power and his operation stole that power, and that can never be allowed to happen again. Through the internet, through social media, and also through the ability to deamplify certain voices and amplify others, you can really create a very powerful perception of consensus, which we are very susceptible to. How do we deal with that?
Mr. Siegel: I agree. I think that's right. Much of the intensity of the reaction to Trump at the upper levels was not just about Trump himself, but a deeper fear that this ultimately powerful weapon had fallen to the hands of the bad guy. Social media and the internet was the most powerful tool ever invented for managing and molding public perception and somehow it had fallen into the hands of the enemy, as it were, in Donald Trump.
You also have to add to that that such a close relationship had been cultivated between the Democratic Party or what you might call more broadly the neoliberal, neoconservative, centrist uniparty of the United States and the social media companies. Let's not forget that Obama led the Facebook campaign and was bragging about the role of social media in getting himself elected.
He was the data politician. His administration was harnessing big data for progressive great society ends. Hillary Clinton and the State Department led the internet freedom agenda and was closely identified with the democratizing power of social media as a revolutionary force in the world. They were decrying the authoritarian measures carried out by governments that censored the internet.
This was the consensus worldview, that the internet is ours. It was ours in the sense that the internet is somehow inherently allied with politically progressive forces. That was a deeply internalized worldview. There were always reasons to recognize that was absurd. But of course, with the wind at your back, you sometimes don't see the obvious reality in front of you. That was the thing that was also betrayed.
When Donald Trump seemed to commandeer social media, when he seemed to take control over Twitter and Facebook, of course he didn't take control in any meaningful sense. It was just that absent the direct intervention of regulators and gatekeepers, the opposition to neoliberal consensus was able to express itself. Clinton was actually the candidate of oligarchic neoliberal consensus.
First of all, Trump's success on Facebook and Twitter really demonstrated his singular talent as a communicator, which is true. Regardless of your normative judgments about his politics, he was an extraordinary communicator. It also showed that there was as much resistance to a candidate like Clinton as there would've been to a candidate like Jeb Bush.
When in the end the social media companies didn't directly intervene in the election in 2016, whatever the euphemism might be when they didn't reduce visibility and amplification of Donald Trump and his supporters, the Democratic party’s officialdom, Hillary Clinton and her campaign, but also the people around Obama, they viewed that as a betrayal of their alliance with Big Tech.
That launched this campaign to blame Facebook for the election of Donald Trump, which was an incredibly effective weapon in bringing Facebook to heal and forcing Facebook to really go along with the commands of the Democratic Party machine and of the larger uniparty machine from that point forward.
Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg would have preferred to stay more neutral. They didn't want to alienate either side as long as they could play both of them. They're out for profit, of course, as is Twitter. But they were forced into becoming more politically active by this coordinated effort to blame them for the results of the 2016 election, an effort that also had the support of Facebook and Twitter employees who viewed the election of Donald Trump as a betrayal.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to go back to this idea of counterinsurgency, which I really haven't thought of until you brought it to my attention. If we accept the premise that this is a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign, it reminds me of Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency vision was central to what was actually happening there. Are we in a situation where there is this perpetual attempt at getting the so-called natives to have the correct view of the world?
Mr. Siegel: I'm afraid we are, and that has two components. One is political and one is technological, and I'll hit the political first. At a certain point there was a change, or you might say a consolidation of a certain anti-democratic attitude in the American ruling class. We can date that back to before Donald Trump. We can look at the deep roots of it in the liberal and progressive traditions, which have always had both democratic and anti-democratic elements just as the American Right has both democratic and anti-democratic elements.
Whatever led to it, the anti-democratic element has won out among the liberal establishment in the United States. The evidence that this has won out is their unwillingness to accept a whole range of opinions which clearly fall not only outside the realm of constitutionally and legally protected speech, but which fall outside the range of common sense, frankly.
The unwillingness to tolerate dissent on masking, on school shutdowns, the attempts to police out of existence whole fields and topics of conversation, from Hunter Biden's laptops to gender affirmation for children, this attempt at information control springs from or is motivated by the idea that only certain ideas are correct and acceptable. Ideas that fall outside the pale are not simply wrong or tragically mistaken, but are outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.
What exists outside of politics? What is that thing out over there across the horizon on the other side of politics? War. That's the thing, and in much of the world, war is an organizing principle. In America thankfully, we've mostly lived without that.
We've mostly lived within a democratic compromise where differences of opinion, even strenuous vehement differences of opinion, could be adjudicated peacefully. We simply have a big enough country that we could sort of shuffle off into different parts of it and live in a kind of tolerant dismissal of one another. Is our best better than that? But that's not so bad if that’s the worst—tolerant dismissal.
But that has broken down. The reasons why that has broken down are multiple and would take a whole other episode to fully explain them. That's one part of it. We've entered a realm in which the motivating assumptions of the counterinsurgent is that the opposition is illegitimate, exists outside the realm of acceptable politics, and must be dealt with by a concerted, coercive effort. That has become normative.
It's normative across a whole range of political and societal issues. We see it playing out in different ways with different topics. The approach to Hunter Biden's laptop obviously is different than the approach that was taken to lockdowns, but they share in common the idea that there is an elite class that has not only the ability, but also the right to determine what information can enter public discourse and what information falls outside of it. That elite class also takes as its right the ability to punish people who fall afoul of those distinctions that it draws.
Mr. Jekielek: I just might add, that information is true.
Mr. Siegel: Absolutely. But I would argue that the principle of free speech demands that we tolerate it even if it's not true. The democratic principle demands that people be allowed to be wrong. The recourse of the technocratic authoritarian is always going to be that they are defending what is correct on the grounds of public safety or some kind of emergency. If you can prove one time after another after another that they've been wrong about what is correct, they will then say, "Yes, but science gets it wrong sometimes and it evolves." They'll weasel out of accountability in that way.
The principle demands that as fallible human beings, we cannot exercise our freedom without the right to be wrong, and without the right to be wildly wrong. The legal limits around our rights to be wrong need to be very specific, very limited, and very narrow. If you're not endangering somebody else, you can have the most odious opinions in the world, and the most incorrect opinions in the world. That's an expression of your freedom. Without that, you're an automaton.
Mr. Jekielek: You said wildly wrong, but you also have a right to be loudly wrong.
Mr. Siegel: Yes, absolutely. Wrong in public, and not only in your home.
Mr. Jekielek: Loud in public is where more than one person hears it, but there is the ability to algorithmically dial back inconvenient topics. We're in a brave new world here.
Mr. Siegel: We are indeed in a brave new world here. The other part of this that relates to counterinsurgency is, again, a topic for another day, but the invention of the internet in the United States, which grew out of a number of different military projects that converged. Some of them were dealing with how to automate radar systems.
A problem that emerged out of World War II was to have effective anti-aircraft systems. The old analog system had it so that when radar pinged the location of an enemy aircraft, there were human beings who transcribed that location, marked the grid coordinates, and then had to continually update that to keep track of where all these different aircraft were in the sky so that they could then be targeted. The effort to automate that radar system is one of the precursors of the internet.
Another precursor was an effort to create a decentralized communications network that would survive nuclear war. Finally, and crucially, in a history that's largely been lost or buried, there was a counterinsurgency dimension really beginning in the Vietnam War that fueled the creation of the internet and was absolutely present and explicit from the beginning. You can get this in books like, The Pentagon's Brain, by Annie Jacobsen, which is a history of DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], and in a book called, Surveillance Valley, by journalist Yasha Levine, that excavates some of this history.
Counterinsurgency is an approach to warfare that attempts to manage human populations toward a political goal of some sort. In doing so, it presumes that the key to victory is ultimate knowledge of a form, and that ultimate information control and ultimate knowledge yields ultimate control.
That's quite different from conventional views of warfare which typically see the destruction of the enemy or the seizure of a particular piece of land as the path to victory. But counterinsurgency is not like that. Counterinsurgency attempts to understand a population to win over hearts and minds, to bend them toward the will of the counterinsurgency. The internet automated that function and it automated a grand project of social engineering. Counterinsurgency and social engineering are essentially two sides of the same coin.
The effort at information control and the effort at big data-driven governance are two sides of the same coin as well. I fear that what is occurring now is that as we enter the next stage of the information war, the big attention-getting, headline-grabbing incidents like the suppression of Hunter Biden's laptop are going to quickly become relics of a bygone age.
We won't even have the brazen violations of the Constitution to contend with. Instead, we'll have a far more cryptic effort and information suppression and control that is embedded in the infrastructural layer of the internet through artificial intelligence algorithms that are constantly tweaking and recalibrating the information that is reaching us.
Who's to say that outward messages can't be censored before they reach their intended recipients? That kind of all-pervasive, much more subtle, but ultimately, perhaps far more destructive information system, is the one that we're entering.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the few ways you could deal with this is to figure out how to inoculate oneself. It's hard to deal with the censorship, but at least you could figure out a way to inoculate yourself from the information manipulation, from the persuasion, or even algorithmic persuasion somehow. What are your thoughts on that? How does an average person deal with this?
Mr. Siegel: At the risk of putting us out of business, one of the ways to inoculate oneself is to consume less news. Much of the national news is just a hair off from being hysterical propaganda or pure entertainment. Much of what fills the national news cycle is essentially emotional manipulation of one form or another.
I'm not suggesting that people should cultivate ignorance. But the total immersion in news as a primary form of identity seems pretty unhealthy and directly lends itself to manipulation and to making oneself susceptible to these wild swings in the news. I take very seriously the warnings from the American historian Daniel Boorstin about the manufacture of what he called pseudo-events.
There are a lot of pseudo-events these days. There's a temptation to try and get to the bottom of every pseudo-event and expose the truth of this or that hoax. Maybe there are cases where that's critical. Obviously, I think there are. I just wrote this long piece exposing the hoax of disinformation.
But in many cases, you would be better off just detaching and going to shoot a game of pool or taking a walk with a friend or whatever suits your fancy, but not attempting to delve ever deeper into the mystery and the puzzle to unlock the ultimate secret. There is a false hope in that, and the ultimate secret is never to be found in the news.
The ultimate secret is to be found in our own lives, our families, and the people we love. I have a lot of respect for reporters who do the real job of reporting, but they are not the people who you love, nor do they love you. Part of it is to break that cycle.
The other part of it is that we need to permanently end the relationship between the federal government and the technology sector as it now exists. The injunction on July 4th to ban the Biden administration from directly communicating with the social media companies is a good start, but it is only the first shot in what needs to be a much longer, more comprehensive effort to break this relationship, to break the alliance between the tech companies and the federal government.
Ultimately, that will require a restructuring of both the government and the tech sector. The restructuring of the government is going to have to deal with the out of control power of both the intelligence agencies, which have, to my mind, forfeited their jurisdiction and authority based on their actions over the last six years, these federal agencies created to be the thought police for Americans.
CISA [Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency] doesn't need to exist. This is an organization that was founded on a lie and on a hoax about the threat to infrastructure from disinformation. It doesn't need to exist. There are enough federal security agencies.
On the other side, the way in which the tech companies could be so easily co-opted is not only just a function of certain political sympathies among tech executives for the anti-Trump resistance or the neoliberal establishment. It also has to do with the fact that they are operating private surveillance firms. These companies collect information that would put most military surveillance operations throughout the world to shame.
The only way we're going to effectively deal with that is to grant property rights for data. In the same way that we understand property rights to be essential to the American conception of liberty, we need to extend that to data. Until people have real rights over their own data and some proprietary relationship to their data, it's always going to be possible for companies to rip it off of them and use it against them.
Mr. Jekielek: We have the Chinese Communist Party across the Pacific Ocean pursuing incredibly effective infiltration operations here in the U.S. and Canada and the West. They very much have a whole of society approach and an extensive social credit system. It's a very real, serious threat to this nation and the free world. I imagine, again, that the folks that are in the American ruling class are looking at that and saying, "We need something. We need to have some kind of consensus on our end to face that." We do have to face that somehow.
Mr. Siegel: Absolutely, we have to face it. I'll tell you what the danger is and then I'll tell you what we ought to do. The danger is that in competing with China, we become like China. That's what has been happening so far. Everything that I have just described could be simply placed in a single basket that says, “America is becoming more like China.”
The approach to the internet from the American ruling class, which was to enforce an official uniparty ideology over the whole country to demand that corporations obey that party ideology to break down the barriers between war and peace, and between public and private, all of that is operating on the Chinese model.
It doesn't matter whether we become more like China because we're competing with China or because we're explicitly emulating China. If we're becoming more like China, we're doing something wrong. If the result of that competition is that we are adopting the Chinese methods of governance and social control, it would be better off not competing with China in that way.
This is only going to become more of a challenge as Chinese advances in artificial intelligence pull ahead, as it seems likely that they're going to do. China is taking AI more seriously than the U.S. is in some ways. There will become even more of a temptation to emulate the Chinese model.
You get quotes from people like the head of CISA, Jen Easterly, who famously talked about policing the cognitive infrastructure of the U.S., how the Chinese have already sort of shaped their internet to their national priorities, and that we need to do the same. There is an explicit model for the emulation of China along these lines that will only become more powerful as the AI competition gets more intense, which is going to happen.
I'm not a policy expert, and I don't even do it as a hobby. I am much more interested in describing the reality in front of me than in making recommendations. Insofar as I have a recommendation to offer, it's that America should go the American way. The nation's strength lies in its uniqueness and in its innovative spirit, in its independence, in its ability to absorb different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas and synthesize new things out of that, out that new world mentality.
If the Chinese pursue a uniform, industrial, nationalized approach to AI, for instance, there will be people here who say, "We need to do the same, but even better." But the thing we need to do is to run in the other direction, not to not develop our own AI, but to develop it in the American way, which is through American gumption and ingenuity and freedom, and to trust in that. The American people still trust in that. America's leaders have to regain their trust in the American way.
Mr. Jekielek: Jacob Siegel, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mr. Siegel: Jan, thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Jacob Siegel and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.