Authored by Matt Taibbi via Racket News,
Years ago, when I first began to have doubts about the Trump-Russia story, I struggled to come up with a word to articulate my suspicions.
If the story was wrong, and Trump wasn’t a Russian spy, there wasn’t a word for what was being perpetrated. This was a system-wide effort to re-frame reality itself, which was both too intellectually ambitious to fit in a word like “hoax,” but also probably not against any one law, either. New language would have to be invented just to define the wrongdoing, which not only meant whatever this was would likely go unpunished, but that it could be years before the public was ready to talk about it.
Around that same time, writer Jacob Siegel — a former army infantry and intelligence officer who edits Tablet’s afternoon digest, The Scroll — was beginning the job of putting key concepts on paper. As far back as 2019, he sketched out the core ideas for a sprawling, illuminating 13,000-word piece that just came out this week. Called “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century: Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation,” Siegel’s Tablet article is the enterprise effort at describing the whole anti-disinformation elephant I’ve been hoping for years someone in journalism would take on.
It will escape no one’s notice that Siegel’s lede recounts the Hamilton 68 story from the Twitter Files. Siegel says the internal dialogues of Twitter executives about the infamous Russia-tracking “dashboard” helped him frame the piece he’d been working on for so long. Which is great, I’m glad about that, but he goes far deeper into the topic than I have, and in a way that has a real chance to be accessible to all political audiences.
Siegel threads together all the disparate strands of a very complex story, in which the sheer quantity of themes is daunting: the roots in counter-terrorism strategy, Russiagate as a first great test case, the rise of a public-private “counter-disinformation complex” nurturing an “NGO Borg,” the importance of Trump and “domestic extremism” as organizing targets, the development of a new uniparty politics anointing itself “protector” of things like elections, amid many other things.
He concludes with an escalating string of anxiety-provoking propositions. One is that our first windows into this new censorship system, like Stanford’s Election Integrity Partnership, might also be our last, as AI and machine learning appear ready to step in to do the job at scale. The National Science Foundation just announced it was “building a set of use cases” to enable ChatGPT to “further automate” the propaganda mechanism, as Siegel puts it. The messy process people like me got to see, just barely, in the outlines of Twitter emails made public by a one-in-a-million lucky strike, may not appear in recorded human conversations going forward. “Future battles fought through AI technologies,” says Siegel, “will be harder to see.”
More unnerving is the portion near the end describing how seemingly smart people are fast constructing an ideology of mass surrender. Siegel recounts the horrible New York Times Magazine article (how did I forget it?) written by Yale law graduate Emily Bazelon just before the 2020 election, whose URL is titled “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation.” Shorter Bazelon could have been Fox Nazis Censorship Derp: the article the Times really ran was insanely long and ended with flourishes like, “It’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.”
Both the actors in the Twitter Files and the multitudinous papers produced by groups like the Aspen Institute and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center are perpetually concerned with re-thinking the “problem” of the First Amendment, which of course is not popularly thought of as a problem. It’s notable that the Anti-Disinformation machine, a clear sequel to the Military-Industrial Complex, doesn’t trumpet the virtues of the “free world” but rather the “rules-based international order,” within which (as Siegel points out) people like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich talk about digital deletion as “necessary to protect American democracy.” This idea of pruning fingers off democracy to save it is increasingly popular; we await the arrival of the Jerzy Kozinski character who’ll propound this political gardening metaphor to the smart set.
I asked Siegel a few questions about his mammoth publication, which happily he plans to expand to a book. The following is edited for length:
Matt Taibbi: How did you end up in Army intelligence?
Jacob Siegel: 9/11 is the short version of the story. I enlisted right after 9/11 and intelligence was probably a mistake (laughs). I ended up switching over into the infantry. So, I started in intelligence and then finished off in the infantry.
Matt Taibbi: Did you know anyone in intelligence who made the transition to anti-disinformation?
Jacob Siegel: Not in the intelligence world directly. But I was at the Daily Beast right when I got back from Afghanistan, and I quickly started covering digital culture, protest politics, weird internet ideology, and national security. I was writing about ISIS’s social media campaigns and talking to Clint Watts and talking to J.M. Berger, and taking what they were saying quite seriously at the time. I was watching that transition gradually into a rubric for understanding domestic politics in a way that – frankly – I wasn’t fully aware of what I was watching until probably a few years later. I would say I saw more of that counterterrorism-to-disinformation pipeline as a journalist than I did as an army officer.
Matt Taibbi: What gave you the idea to do this? It’s such a huge project.
Jacob Siegel: There are whole sections from this piece that come from a draft that I started working on in 2019. I think I submitted the first version of this in late 2020. So I’ve been working on this for a long time. I moved to Israel, my son was born, shit happens, you know… I just couldn’t quite bring it all together in the original version.
I wasn’t an immediate Russiagate skeptic. I didn’t see it and immediately think, “This is bullshit.” I saw it and thought to myself, “This is exaggerated… Adam Schiff is exaggerating, but he can’t be just lying like that (laughs) in public.” Really on a very fundamental level, in terms of my unquestioned premises, I was not capable of believing that an American national elected official could lie that brazenly, or that the intelligence agencies, which I knew to be corrupt and inefficient in a billion different ways, could be involved in a grand sort of conspiracy. It seemed too farfetched.
Adam Schiff is a weird guy to be responsible for lifting the veil, because he’s such a schmuck. But realizing that he just kept lying over and over, something clicked for me. Probably the next big turning point was the Russian bounty story. I wrote a piece on that for Tablet at the time, and there was no going back from that.
Matt Taibbi: What’s the reaction been to the new piece so far?
Jacob Siegel: I would say overall very positive, but also somewhat siloed. Broadly speaking, it’s gotten a great response, but it certainly hasn’t penetrated the liberal intelligentsia yet. It hasn’t penetrated the liberal mainstream at all. Maybe I have a somewhat blinkered view of that, but I had hoped that it would.
I don’t want to hang everything on the liberal gatekeepers, and politically, I’m not really clearly identified ideologically. I’m sometimes capable of slipping pieces through that get good receptions with various audiences over the years. And so I hope that would be the case here.
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