Free Speech

Democrats Deride the Twitter Files Reporters as 'So-Called Journalists'

Members of Congress showed their true colors at a Thursday hearing.


The House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government held a hearing Thursday on the Twitter Files, giving independent journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger the opportunity to present their reporting to Congress.

The Twitter Files, which show that multiple arms of the federal government—including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department, and the White House under both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden—pressured social media companies to restrict speech, are of some concern to Republican lawmakers; it was Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) who invited Taibbi and Shellenberger to attend. Since government action is at the core of this insidious push for censorship—which is also present at Facebook, as Reason's investigation has shown—it is appropriate for Congress to probe, and hopefully, to limit, the federal bureaucracy's ability to shape the rules of online discourse.

Frustratingly, the Democrats who participated in the hearing on Thursday could not have cared less about the federal government's role in promoting social media censorship. Indeed, the Democratic representatives involved in the proceedings turned their fire on Taibbi and Shellenberger, not bothering to hold back their disdain for the pair.

Del. Stacey Plaskett (D–V.I.) got the ball rolling by referring to Taibbi and Shellenberger as "so-called journalists." (Taibbi responded by pointing out that he has won multiple journalism awards, including the National Magazine Award.) Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D–Texas) seized upon the idea that perhaps the pair—she actually referred to them as part of a "threesome" with journalist Bari Weiss—had perhaps been paid to provide such testimony. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D–Fla.) took this line of inquiry a bit further, ludicrously suggesting that somehow Taibbi's reporting was suspect because he had grown his own Twitter following and Substack readership because of it. She really seemed to think that it was unethical for good journalism to reap financial rewards for the author.

But it wasn't just tone-deaf personal attacks. The Democrats also expressed a profound disinterest in social media censorship, bordering on furtive support. Rep. Dan Goldman (D–N.Y.) asserted that the Twitter Files had not produced a single genuine example of government censoring lawful speech. Jordan cut in and provided just such an example: the White House flagging a tweet from Robert Kennedy Jr. about vaccines for deletion. Goldman troublingly suggested—without actually reading the tweet in question—that perhaps it wasn't lawful.

Rep. Colin Allred (D–Texas) similarly implied that there might be justification for censorship in the name of preventing hate speech. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies are of course free to implement policies designed to curb harassment and hateful conduct; the question is whether a vast and self-serving federal bureaucracy that intervenes incessantly to limit speech it disfavors has effectively violated the First Amendment.

Taibbi and Shellenberger clashed repeatedly with members of Congress over the nature of misinformation and disinformation. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D–Mass.) thought he'd scored a hit when he prompted Shellenberger to concede that the release of Hillary Clinton's emails—and widespread distribution on social media—was the result of a successful hacking operation. But as Taibbi swiftly pointed out, just because the information was illicitly or illegally obtained does not make it misinformation. The content of the emails was authentic.

Too many Democrats, national security experts, and mainstream journalists have found themselves in the position of implicitly arguing that various tweets could be spreading disinformation—and thus undermining American democracy—even if the speech contained therein is truthful. Indeed, the entire countering-disinformation industry is operating off of a largely false assumption that Russian influence on social media corrupted the 2016 election and led to Trump's victory.

Yet this industry is awash in public funding. The State Department has backed a British nonprofit that discourages advertisers from working with "risky" U.S. news websites, including Reason. This is the danger of the U.S. government's ham-fisted, constitutionally suspect effort to curb disfavored speech.

It is disappointing that congressional Democrats are taking little interest in the weaponization of the federal government against Americans' speech rights; on the contrary, they think the weapon needs sharpening.