The FBI and Twitter
how did we get here?
We now have clear evidence that agencies like the FBI and the DHS are in the business of mass-analyzing social media activity — your tweets and mine, down to the smallest users with the least engagement — and are, themselves, mass-marking posts to be labeled, “bounced,” deleted or “visibility filtered” by firms like Twitter. The technical and personnel infrastructure for this effort is growing. As noted in the thread, the FBI’s social media-focused task force now has at least 80 agents, and is in constant contact with Twitter for all sorts of reasons.
In an interview with, Congressman Ro Khanna (D, Ca.) says,
Let’s stipulate that 60% of the country may not care about the Twitter Files. But if 40% of the country thinks they don’t have a fair shake on a modern platform, don’t you think you should listen?
It’s like you're doubly censoring. You’re censoring in the first place. And then you're censoring the emotion of being upset about being censored. I think until we start to have a conversation where we're understanding where each other are coming from there's no hope for stitching the country together.
I think that the connection between Twitter and the FBI is news. It raises issues about violations of the First Amendment. It raises issues about the FBI as an institution. It also raises issues about the big tech companies, but for me those are secondary at the moment. Stipulating that the orgy of Whataboutism directed at Elon is deserved, the issue for this essay is not Twitter.
I am old enough to remember when there was broad support for trying to put limits on the FBI. In the 1970s, there was a crusade against abuses of power by intelligence agencies. President Nixon was impeached and forced out of office. The Church Committee produced dramatic revelations and led to important reforms. The mainstream press was leading the charge in those days.
Today, the mainstream reaction to the Twitter Files story is to chant “nothingburger.” These people caterwaul about the threats to “our democracy,” and here is a threat to democracy in plain sight, and now it’s “nothing to see here, move along.”
For me, the big concern is lack of accountability within the government intelligence agencies. In the aftermath of 9/11, I wrote an essay that I called “The Constitution of Surveillance.” I wrote that we were headed toward a world in which intelligence agencies would be given more power, because of the perceived threat of terrorism.
I understood from reading David Brin’s The Transparent Society that it would be futile to try to stop the agencies from using new surveillance tools, but I rejected Brin’s optimistic solution that ordinary individuals doing their own surveillance of the agencies would be sufficient to deter abuse. I argued that we needed to stand up a strong audit agency to make sure that those tools were used prudently and in limited ways. Yes, this anticipated my more recent essay on Designing a Better Regulatory State. And yes, if the audit agency were to suffer regulatory capture at the hands of the intelligence agencies, it would not work.
Without any agency to act as a check against the FBI or other intelligence organizations, there is nothing to prevent mission creep. When the question of what constitutes a “threat” is left to the agencies themselves, they will gravitate toward the broadest possible answer. And when the question arises concerning what methods are legitimate to employ, they will decide on the minimal possible constraints.
To me, it seems obvious that we need a 1970s-style crusade to rein in the intelligence agencies. That is what I conclude from the story of the Twitter files.