Below is my column in the Hill on the recent disclosure of efforts by Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Cal.) to pressure Twitter to censor critics, including a columnist. This effort occurred shortly after Schiff’s office objected to one of my columns accusing him of pressuring social media companies to censor those with opposing views. While publicly denying that he supports censorship, Schiff was secretly pressuring Twitter to censor an array of critics.
Here is the column:
“We don’t do this.” That response from Twitter to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is a singular indictment, coming at the height of Twitter’s censorship operations. Apparently, there were some things that even Twitter’s censors refused to do.
One of those things was silencing critics of Schiff and his House committee.
In the latest tranche of “Twitter Files,” journalist Matt Taibbi revealed that Twitter balked at Schiff’s demand that Twitter suspend an array of posters or label their content as “misinformation” and “reduce the visibility” of them. Among those who Schiff secretly tried to censor was New York Post columnist Paul Sperry.
Sperry drew Schiff’s ire by writing about a conversation allegedly overheard by one of his sources. Sperry’s article, which appeared in RealClearInvestigations, cited two sources as overhearing two White House staffers discussing how to remove newly-elected President Trump from office. The article raised the possibility of bias on the part of an alleged key player in launching the first Trump impeachment, CIA analyst Eric Ciaramella. The sources reportedly said that Ciaramella was in a conversation with Sean Misko, a holdover from the Obama administration who later joined Schiff’s staff. The conversation — in Sperry’s words — showed that “just days after [Trump] was sworn in they were already trying to get rid of him.”
Rather than simply refute the allegation, Schiff wanted Sperry and other critics silenced. His office reportedly laid out steps to cleanse Twitter of their criticism, including an instruction to “remove any and all content about Mr. Misko and other Committee staff from its service — to include quotes, retweets, and reactions to that content.”
The date of Schiff’s non-public letter in November 2020 is notable: Earlier that year, I wrote a column for The Hill criticizing Schiff for pushing for censorship of misinformation in a letter that he sent to social media companies. His office promptly objected to the very suggestion that Schiff supported censorship.
We now know Schiff was actively seeking to censor specific critics on social media. These likely were viewed as more than “requests” since Schiff was sending public letters threatening possible legislative action against these same companies. He wanted his critics silenced on social media. After all, criticizing his investigations or staff must, by definition, be misinformation — right?
His office seems to have indicated they knew Twitter was using shadow-banning or other techniques to suppress certain disfavored writers. In the letter, his staff asked Twitter to “label and reduce the visibility of any content.”
Twitter, however, drew the line with Schiff; one of its employees simply wrote, “no, this isn’t feasible/we don’t do this.”
The “this” referred to in this case was raw political censorship. And even a company that maintained one of the largest censorship programs in history could not bring itself to do what Schiff was demanding — but the demand itself is telling.
Not only does it show how dishonest some politicians have been in denying censorship while secretly demanding it, it also shows the insatiable appetite created by censorship. The article in question, written by Sperry, is a good example. Sperry has denied ever supporting QAnon conspiracy theories, as Schiff’s office charged. Yet even if Sperry’s account about Schiff’s staffer was wildly untrue, that should make it easier to rebut publicly.
The move by Schiff to ban Sperry and others on Twitter — and to remove content — is highly ironic. Schiff has been criticized repeatedly for promoting “misinformation” and for relying on unidentified “sources” for his claims of Trump’s criminality. For example, Schiff pushed the false claim that the infamous Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation; he also was criticized for pushing false narratives of Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election.
Nevertheless, I would equally oppose any effort to ban Schiff from social media, although that is hardly likely given the demonstrated political bias of past censorship efforts.
Schiff is unlikely to be deterred by the release of these communications. He recently sent a letter to Facebook, warning it not to relax its censorship efforts. His letter, written with Reps. André Carson (D-Ind.), Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), reminded Facebook that some lawmakers are watching the company “as part of our ongoing oversight efforts” — and suggested they may be forced to exercise that oversight into any move by Facebook to “alter or rollback certain misinformation policies.”
Schiff’s actions embody the slippery slope of censorship. By labeling his critics as QAnon supporters or purveyors of “misinformation,” he sought to have allies in social media “disappear” critics like Sperry — yet he found that even those allies could not stomach his demands. Given Twitter’s censorship of even satirical sites, it was akin to being turned down by a Kanye West podcast as being too extreme.
With the disclosure of apparent FBI involvement in Twitter’s censorship program, the release of the Schiff files is another rare insight into how government officials attempted to enlist social media companies for censorship by surrogate or proxy. That is precisely why many in the media, political and business establishments have mobilized against Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter who has released these compromising files.
In a recent tweet, Schiff chastised Musk and demanded more answers from the Twitter CEO. While insisting that “I don’t support censorship,” Schiff asked Musk if he would “commit to providing the public with actual answers and data, not just tweets?” Well, Musk just did precisely that.
The “actual answer” is that Schiff has long sought to silence his critics, and Musk has exposed the underbelly of censorship — which is where we found Adam Schiff.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.