By Ella Kietlinska and Jan Jekielek
Documents recently provided by a whistleblower reveal offensive tactics used by government and outside organizations to counter and preempt the spreading of undesirable information, said independent journalist Matt Taibbi.
Mr. Taibbi and journalists Michael Shellenberger and Alex Gutentag recently exposed a new set of documents from the Cyber Threat Intelligence League (CTIL), an “anti-disinformation” group that waged an aggressive information operation on the public.
The new documents, dubbed the “CTI files,” analyzed tactics used against foreign terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, that can now be applied domestically to prevent unwanted information from being published, Mr. Taibbi said in an interview for EpochTV’s “American Thought Leaders” program.
The CTI files referred to these tactics with the military term “left of boom action” and justified their usage by the danger posed by somebody like former President Donald Trump, the journalist said.
Mr. Taibbi previously investigated and disclosed some of the “Twitter Files” after tech billionaire Elon Musk acquired Twitter in October 2022 and allowed Mr. Taibbi and other designated journalists to query the company’s internal files.
The Twitter Files show how Twitter, a major social media platform for political speech, had been intertwined with the censorship industrial complex to suppress or remove under government pressure content on various subjects, including irregularities in the 2020 elections, mail-in voting issues, and various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government censorship apparatus partnering with academia, nongovernmental organizations, and private research institutions is often called the “censorship industrial complex.”
CTIL was supposed to be a volunteer organization with a goal to identify misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Taibbi said, but “in reality, you got under the hood—they were interested in basically any topic.”
CTIL described on its website its main goals, which included protecting the medical sector and life-saving organizations worldwide from cyberattacks and cyber threats—mainly related to the COVID-19 pandemic—and making them resilient to disinformation.
While the Twitter Files revealed that Twitter used defensive tactics to control the information posted on its platform, such as censorship and de-amplification, the CTI files show the organization resorted to offensive tactics like burner phones, creating sock puppet accounts, and infiltrating groups, Mr. Taibbi said.
The CTI files also revealed “a sort of a handbook manual on how to create false identities online,” he added.
Other tactics described in the CTI documents included putting financial pressure on disfavored groups through requests to cut off their banking services or even directly going to merchandising outlets to try to stop them from selling their wares, Mr. Taibbi explained.
Such tactics are “the offensive information operation,” he pointed out.
From ‘Counterterrorism to Counter-Populism’
In a report on Substack, Mr. Taibbi wrote that the CTI files exposed that in 2019, “U.S. and UK military and intelligence contractors led by a former UK defense researcher, Sara-Jayne ‘SJ’ Terp, developed the sweeping censorship framework. These contractors co-led CTIL.”
Officially established in March 2020, CTIL grew to more than 1,400 volunteers from almost 80 countries, according to the group’s inaugural report.
In April 2020, CTIL partnered with the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to stop malicious cyber activity related to COVID-19, the then-director of CISA announced on Twitter.
Mr. Taibbi said that the sudden emergence of “all of these anti-disinformation groups,” both in government and in civil society, did not occur by accident. He believes that their appearance coincides with the development of the internet and its huge democratizing force in the world that created “all sorts of political energy” that was uncontrollable and gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party, and the Arab Spring.
In 2015 and 2016, a series of events took place that the national security establishment considered very troubling, such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to a Labour Party leadership position in the United Kingdom, Mr. Taibbi said.
Both Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Sanders were left-wing populist politicians who gained popularity among young voters.
To the national security establishment, all these events were “illegitimate threats of the same type … that they had been dealing with overseas,” so it directed its efforts inward from counterterrorism to counter-populism, Mr. Taibbi explained.
The structures built to counter online activity overseas were effective to counter groups like Al-Qaeda, and ISIS, but once that massive structure is turned inward against the country’s own domestic population, it operates with no legal oversight and “it creates all kinds of questions that are kind of horrifying,” Mr. Taibbi said.
“And they’re not even in the same ballpark as the First Amendment.”
Media Competition Versus Shared Endeavor
The training materials included in the CTI files intended for people who are going to review domestic speech featured a quote from the joint chiefs of staff, “talking about how you have to use certain tactics to defeat your enemy,” Mr. Taibbi said. Thus, trainees learned to treat other Americans as the enemy, he added.
This is the mindset of people inside the political establishment in the West, which can be viewed as “a sort of loose confederation of institutions” like media platforms, government, and civil society organizations, he pointed out.
He cited Luke Harding, a journalist at The Guardian, who described such formation as “the shared endeavor” in his article reviewing a book about Bellingcat, a platform for online investigations
The author of the book believes that “rivalry between media titles is a thing of the past. The future is collaboration, the hunt for evidence a shared endeavor, the truth out there if we wish to discover it,” Mr. Harding wrote.
However, Mr, Taibbi argued that America’s founders “envisioned the press to be an adversarial institution, by its nature.” The concept of the shared endeavor is completely opposite of the founders’ view, he explained.
Americans view “the clash of institutions and the clash of ideas as a good thing,” the journalist said.
“We all think differently, we live differently, we have different faiths, but ultimately, we arrived at a good place together. That system has worked incredibly well in America for hundreds of years.”
Replacing this concept with the other idea, like a shared endeavor, is “authoritarian in nature and ultimately anti-democratic. And it begins with speech,” Mr. Taibbi pointed out.
“There’s a reason that speech is the first guarantee in the Constitution. Because without it, none of the other rights really work.”
Another shift in the information policy is to evaluate information “according to where it rests on the narrative, as opposed to whether it’s true or false,” Mr. Taibbi said.
It is a new concept that defines as disinformation anything that, for example, promotes COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, he said.
“A true story about somebody dying of myocarditis after getting a shot” could be categorized as a form of disinformation, even if that person might be pro-vaccine, because it might cause other people not to get the vaccine, he explained.
“It’s what they would call malinformation,” he said.