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America risks 'new authoritarianism' by copying Canada's aggressive censorship, lawmakers warned

A year after Twitter Files debut, Rep. Thomas Massie accuses VP Pence's homeland security adviser of falsely claiming feds were simply "advising and assisting" social media with combating misinformation.

Published: November 30, 2023 11:00pm

A Canadian "time traveler from a not-too-distant future" has a warning for the U.S. Congress: The "gradual suffocation of free expression … is draped in a cloak of niceness, inclusivity and justice," and America should fear treading the road of its "polite" northern neighbor.

Rupa Subramanya, a journalist for The Free Press, testified before a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee on Thursday to mark a year since the debut of the Twitter Files. 

The series, based on material shared with select journalists by new platform owner Elon Musk, reviewed the alternatively cooperative and adversarial discussions between federal officials and the company now known as X on which narratives to suppress.

"Our niceness made us susceptible to the new authoritarianism" promulgated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said Subramanya. Her media startup, founded by former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, was profiled by The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

She cited the "debanking" of hundreds of Canadians who dissented from Trudeau's policies, a practice Subramanya said is starting to migrate to Americans including missionaries, with financial institutions providing vague justifications.

Left-leaning Twitter Files journalists Michael Shellenberger and Matt Taibbi also shared their latest discoveries from a whistleblower who allegedly took part in Department of Homeland Security-hosted meetings of the "Cyber Threat Intelligence League."

CTIL was founded by military contractors after President Trump's election to implement "cognitive security" in social media narratives, before similar public-private efforts to squelch purported COVID-19 and election misinformation.

As a veteran of progressive causes for 30 years, Shellenberger said reading the so-called CTIL Files "gave me the creeps." Pre-Musk Twitter had so many former FBI agents on the payroll they had their own "crib sheet," he said. 

Asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., whether these federal efforts constituted "election interference" in 2020, Shellenberger said "absolutely."

Taibbi was more cautious but said the "overt partisanship" of CTIL prompted the whistleblower to come forward.

The revelations continued Thursday morning with the Judiciary panel's release of the "YouTube Files." They show Google chafing at pressure from then-White House official Rob Flaherty to suppress YouTube content that doesn't violate its guidelines, while worrying about the chances for its broader policy agenda if it resists.

Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, released similarly embarrassing communications between the feds and Facebook four months earlier, which showed pressure to remove what Facebook called "true information about side effects" from COVID-19 vaccines and the platform changing its policies in response.

The committee subpoenaed Flaherty and former White House COVID adviser Andy Slavitt on Wednesday to sit for depositions on "the White House's demands to censor true information, memes, satire, and other constitutionally protected forms of expression."

Democrats on the panel, as usual, tried to steer the focus back to Trump's alleged ongoing threat to democratic norms, with ranking member Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett, claiming "experts" agree the 2024 GOP presidential frontrunner uses rhetoric "cribbed from [a] Nazi regime." 

They decried Thursday's hearing as redundant of March's hearing with Shellenberger and Taibbi and faulted Republicans for not inviting federal employees to testify. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., mocked the choice of a witness who calls herself "a time traveler from Canada." 

Plaskett accused the majority of withholding closed-door testimony from 29 witnesses who deny their collusion narrative, though GOP staff told Just the News they had "no idea" what she meant.

The American people are more concerned about economic issues, crime and their votes being "discounted" than the "theory" of social media censorship, Plaskett said.

Democrats invited Olivia Troye, former homeland security adviser to then-Vice President Pence, who accused the subcommittee of spending a year on a "politically motivated fantasy detached from reality" while ignoring Trump's weaponization of the government through manipulation of intelligence assessments and delaying of disaster aid to blue states. 

Trump "repeatedly raised the Insurrection Act as a potential to be used on protesters" during his administration, prompting "serious heated discussions" within his own cabinet and "significant concern" from law enforcement chiefs, Troye said.

Each party's choice of witnesses prompted Jordan to remark on an ideological "realignment" that confounds partisanship.

"I think I've invited more Democrat witnesses to testify in front of this committee than the Democrats have," he said, prompting chuckles.

Rep. Thomas Massie wasn't in a laughing mood when he accused Troye of giving false testimony by claiming the feds "strictly adhered to the First Amendment by advising and assisting" social media in combating misinformation.

The Kentucky Republican showed his tweet that was suppressed before Musk's purchase, according to Shellenberger's reporting. He had shared and quoted from an Israeli study that found natural immunity provides the same effectiveness as Pfizer's COVID vaccine.

Companies choose what to moderate and "it was flagged for a reason," Troye said. "Is there ever a good reason to censor a member of Congress?" Massie shot back. "This is my official account!"

Jordan noted the IRS made an unannounced visit to Taibbi's house the day he testified in March, which "everyone understands … to be intimidation from our federal government" for Taibbi's reporting. 

The chairman said that's par for the course with the Biden administration. The FTC demanded Musk identify the Twitter Files authors and "inundated the company with harassing requests for information," while Slavitt pressured Twitter to remove a COVID tweet by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. three days into the new administration, Jordan said.

He also fumed at the FBI asking Bank of America for all of its customers' purchases in the D.C. area shortly after the Jan. 6 riot and "any" weapons purchases going back six months. 

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., tried to trap Taibbi by asking whether social media platforms should let "rape and murder be live-streamed," as Hamas did during its recent terrorist attack on Israel. 

Such content presumably already violates their terms of service, Taibbi retorted. "If a homeland security official echoed your opinion, you would call it censorship?" Schultz asked without letting him answer.

Lawmakers pondered the extent of their authority to inhibit federal coercion of social media, with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wondering whether they could mandate the "instantaneous and transparent unveiling of any and all" federally tinged censorship, if technically possible.

Shellenberger recommended lawmakers make Section 230 liability protections for third-party content contingent on tech platforms letting adult users "moderate our own legal content through filters that we choose and whose algorithms are transparent to all of us." 

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., said he and Jordan were each working on legislation regarding Section 230 – part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that essentially provides immunity for online computer services regarding third-party content generated by users.

"It's clear to me that Congress must act and hold these government officials accountable" by enacting "transparency measures" on their behind-the-scenes pressure, he said.