“The foreign policy establishment has seized jurisdiction over all things domestic,” Mike Benz says. “Whoever controls the Department of Dirty Tricks can remove all opposition on the political, social, and cultural side.”
In a recent comprehensive interview on “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek spoke with Mike Benz about today’s censorship regime and how tactics once used abroad were deployed to target Americans and so-called election delegitimization or COVID-19 “misinformation” online. Benz is the executive director of the Foundation for Freedom Online and a former State Department diplomat under the Trump administration.
Jan Jekielek: Mike, you have a mission of fostering a free and open internet. Where are we now?
Mike Benz: We’re far removed from what I consider the golden age of the internet between 2006 and 2016, when you had a mature social media where people could share information. The political turbulence of 2016 instituted a revenge of the gatekeepers, a regimented system of censorship.
Mr. Jekielek: How did that change?
Mr. Benz: In June 2016, Brexit wasn’t just a domestic issue within the UK but was viewed as a threat to the integrity of the European Union. The EU would come undone, NATO would fall apart, and the rules-based international order would collapse.
And then, in quick succession, you had a candidate for president who at the time was an almost 20–1 underdog in The New York Times. It was thought that he couldn’t win, and yet he did. And both events were viewed as internet elections, if you will.
Nigel Farage developed the popularity of Brexit through his viral YouTube speeches to the European Parliament. Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups were responsible for Donald Trump’s popularity with his base. So you had an organized effort to contain this populism by containing the means through which populists could mobilize and distribute their messaging.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve described this as a “whole of society” effort. What does that mean?
Mr. Benz: “Whole of society” is the terminology of every mainstream censorship industry professional. It means four categories of institutions are working together toward the common goal of censorship: the government, the private sector, civil society, and the news media.
You’ve got the DHS (Department of Homeland Security), FBI, DOD (Department of Defense), the State Department, the National Science Foundation, the CIA, and the National Endowment for Democracy. On issues like COVID-19 censorship, you’ve got HHS (Department of Health and Human Services), NIH [National Institutes of Health], CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) all playing various roles at the government level.
Then you’ve got the private sector, the tech platforms where the censorship occurs. That’s where the button gets pressed, where the algorithms play out.
Then you’ve got corporate social responsibility and the universities, [nongovernmental organizations], activists, nonprofits, and foundations.
Finally, you’ve got the politically like-minded media that can manage public narratives and amplify pressure for censorship.
When they have disinformation conferences, representatives from all four institutions will talk with each other about doing favors for favors. They’ll work out common problems.
In late 2016, when I first came across literature around the deployment of artificial intelligence for purposes of content moderation, I became fixated on the threat this posed. But nobody took my concern seriously. Now the infrastructure is consolidated and much harder to stop.
Mr. Jekielek: The Twitter files revealed that this censorship is happening, this ability to shape perceptions by excluding information. But you’ve said the Twitter files are just the tip of the iceberg?
Mr. Benz: A tiny tip. My foundation, the Foundation for Freedom Online, had already covered a lot of the things that came out in the Twitter files. What the Twitter files really revealed was the presence of censorship operatives at virtually every national security-related institution in the government, as well as in the public health spheres.
There were Twitter files for the FBI, the DHS, the DOD, and the State Department. These files tended to focus on one-off requests for censorship takedowns. For example, the FBI would contact the Twitter Trust and Safety Team saying, “Here’s a batch of six or seven tweets we don’t like. They violate your terms of service, so you may want to take them down.” But that only captures the tiniest fraction of censorship in each of the major geopolitical events in the past few years.
Consider these six or seven takedowns in the context of something like the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which formerly had a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to operate as their designated disinformation flagger. Twenty-two million tweets were categorized as misinformation for purposes of takedowns or throttling through the EIP.
Compare that to the six or seven tweets highlighted in a Twitter files dump, and it’s not even in the same ballpark. It wasn’t just about individual takedown requests; it was about government pressure to coerce the tech companies to create whole new categories of censorship and then arming them with the artificial intelligence to scan and ban the new thought violations.
The EIP, using the DHS’s clout and pressure on the back end, coerced the tech companies to create a category of censorship called delegitimization, which was anything in the 2020 election that delegitimized public confidence in mail-in ballots, early voting drop boxes, or ballot tabulation issues on election day; 100 percent of their targets were Trump voters and right-wing populist groups.
Mr. Jekielek: Are these tools being used in the same way when it comes to COVID-19 information?
Mr. Benz: When the 2020 election ended, EIP had censored 22 million tweets. They had 120 staffers censoring Trump supporters for the 2020 election for the DHS. There was no more election cycle until 2022, when they came back and partnered with DHS again for the midterms.
But in between, they rebranded themselves as a new entity, VP, the Virality Project. But instead of doing election censorship, they did COVID-19 censorship, with the exact same ticketing system. They had the same relationships with Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, and the 15 different platforms they monitored. They then began censoring opposition to COVID-19 origins, vaccine efficacy, mask mandates, or narratives about Bill Gates or Anthony Fauci.
Let me add that COVID-19 started at the end of 2019, before the 2020 election, and actually the COVID-19 censorship consortium began immediately. Graphika, for example, is one of the four component entities of the EIP censorship consortium that the DHS partnered with. It’s a U.S. Department of Defense-funded censorship consortium initially funded to do social media counterinsurgency work in conflict zones for the U.S. military. Then, it was redeployed domestically to monitor social media discourse about COVID-19, COVID-19 conspiracies, or other issues.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re reminding me of something I read, which is the foreign-to-domestic disinformation switcheroo.
Mr. Benz: Before 2016, the idea of domestic censorship in the United States wasn’t just rare and isolated—it was an attack on everything American. Censorship distinguished the United States from every other country on the planet. No other Western democracies have a First Amendment.
Now, we’re going directly from that into this system of mass domestic censorship, where if you challenge mail-in ballots in a Twitter post, the Department of Homeland Security will categorize you as conducting a cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, because you’ve undermined public faith in the elections.
They did that in the censorship industry through the creation of a Russian boogeyman that was said to have hacked the 2016 election and to have created these bot farms, troll farms, and Facebook pages that magically disappeared right before the 2020 election.
It was a hoax from the start, but it was a useful one, because it allowed the handoff of the censorship infrastructure on the foreign side to be grafted onto the domestic side.
Mr. Jekielek: Having these systems that traditionally target foreign threats turned inward domestically means that the whole system has been upended. Is that what you’re saying?
Mr. Benz: It means that the foreign policy establishment has seized jurisdiction over all things domestic. Whoever controls the Department of Dirty Tricks can remove all opposition on the political, social, and cultural side.
Mr. Jekielek: So where do things need to go?
Mr. Benz: Just as a whole-of-society approach was done on the censorship side, it’s a network attack, and it requires a network defense. People who believe in freedom need to merge elements of government, private sector, civil society, and news media into a common effort to restore a free and open internet.
It’s a hard road to fight for freedom. There’s no lobby for the American people. Those who stand for freedom and the people are on their own, and every person who goes through that journey experiences isolation. But you make a lot of friends along the way, and being proud and brave in this fight can actually cure the isolation and helplessness that comes from accepting things as they are.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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