Twitter was staffed by craven functionaries eager to please contacts and former colleagues in the national security state...
Readers will, I hope, forgive me for visiting a topic two weeks in a row. But perhaps they’ll agree that the so-called Twitter Files remain the most important news story out there. Not, as already mentioned, because we've learned something new from them, but rather because they confirm what you and I—dissidents, whether you wanted to be or not—already knew. We have been, so to speak, repeatedly asked, “Who are you going to trust, us bureaucrats, or your own lying eyes?” And it is not only nice, but fundamental to rational self-rule that we know it was them, the bureaucrats, and not our eyes that were lying.
The latest two installments of the files, from Michael Shellenberger and Lee Fang, might be the most shocking so far, but let us differentiate between shock and surprise. It is indeed shocking, in a democratic republic, to have confirmed for us that our national secret police were working closely with a corporate entity to manipulate our de facto town square and affect the outcomes of an election; the FBI prompted Yoel Roth to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story. It is indeed shocking, in a country committed to civilian rule, that our military would run influence campaigns on the de facto American soil of an American social media platform; the Pentagon ran psychological-warfare operations on Twitter with Twitter’s help. But it should not be a surprise, even as we are so proud of our representative federal system, to have any of this confirmed. On the one hand, the FBI has a well established track record of shady political interference, too long to detail here—the left used to talk about this, along with the paleoconservative and libertarian right. On the other hand, Twitter represents the intersection of technology and journalism, and there are few parts of American society more bound up with the national security state than those.
The media are, as the Fourth Estate, central players in the information sphere, which is the area of concern to our and others’ security services. Mass participatory politics is built on consensus formation of various kinds, and the First Amendment represents an attempt to create and protect a shared sphere for that meaning-making apart from the state itself. At this point in our moment of acceleration it is almost passé to interrogate the concept of a neutral public square, and I simply assert it has never existed. But we should realize that the mythology of the neutral public square, and in particular the mythology of a free and independent press that Americans remain acculturated in, is an artifact of the Cold War and the triumph of the American security state.
This mythology was constructed, manufactured by an American establishment that at the time really was effective and in certain ways elite. The efforts of total war and the growth of technology, especially in communications, had centralized tools of command and control and consensus-manufacturing more than ever before. Mass mobilization and a war economy in the Second World War, Allied propaganda efforts and the new secular articulation of liberal Western values at Nuremberg, plus the sustained Cold War effort, all contributed to the formation of a genuine mass society with a strong cultural establishment. And, to put it really baldly, National Review and other respectable conservative publications of the time acted as controlled opposition within a shared liberal consensus, protecting its rightward edge.
The internet was widely supposed to herald a new age of decentralization that would make the mythic neutral public square real. Indeed, some people still think this might happen. Digital communication is supposed to remove, to some degree, the points of centralization, the editors and publishers and thus the editorial lines. Of course, we have seen some of that, as everything from email chain letters to blogs to news sites have given what had been semi-successfully suppressed as fringe views a larger reach and much more prominent place in public discourse. But both in public and supposedly private spheres, the internet ecosystem is also centralized, necessarily. This is true structurally, if we think about servers and cables and increasingly monopolistic platforms. It is also true historically, considering the origins of the internet as we know it in the national security state, both in its initial development as a DARPA command-and-control technology that could survive a nuclear war, and in later major investments in Silicon Valley.
All of this is to say that as shocking as they might be, the Twitter Files should not surprise us. Our media ecosystem is as much a product of America’s national security history as anything else in this country, and probably more so. The popular unreflective view of political media is that it is about politics; a reporter reports on what is happening in some special other public sphere called “politics” that sits apart from the public square we all occupy. But in a mass democratic society, no such independent political sphere exists, and at least since Watergate, if not the World Wars, the path to prestige in the media has been not to report on political conflict but to participate in it, wittingly or unwittingly. In being staffed by craven functionaries eager to please contacts and former colleagues in the national security state, Twitter before Elon Musk, it turns out, was not so different from the Washington Post, the New York Times, or CNN.