Michael Shellenberger belongs to a small group of independent journalists who, for the past three months, have been diligently reporting on the widespread government abuse of free speech as revealed by Elon Musk’s Twitter Files.

“Our findings are shocking,” Shellenberger concludes. “A highly-organized network of U.S. government agencies and government contractors has been creating blacklists and pressuring social media companies to censor Americans, often without them knowing it.”

On March 9th, at the invitation of the GOP majority, Shellenberger and his colleague Matt Taibbi testified before the House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The award-winning journalists revealed “the existence of a secret censorship-industrial complex in the United States.”

Democrats on the committee furiously tore into the witnesses as “conspiracy theorists.” Ranking member Stacey Plaskett, of the Virgin Islands, dismissed the pair as “so-called journalists” who “pose a direct threat.”

After the hearing, Die Weltwoche spoke to Shellenberger via Zoom.  The 51-year-old has recently switched his long-time party affiliation from Democrat to Independent.

Weltwoche: At your hearing in Congress, Democratic members of the committee attacked you and your colleague, Matt Taibbi, undermining your credibility as journalists and claiming you were only reporting on the Twitter files for cash and clout. Were you surprised by this harsh treatment?

Michael Shellenberger: This was the eighth time I've testified in front of Congress in the last three years. The second time I did so I was very harshly insulted by sitting members of Congress at the very end of the hearing. They ended the hearing without giving me a chance to respond.

So, this was not the first time I had seen what I consider to be grossly inappropriate behavior by elected officials who are violating basic historical standards that we would expect from our elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels. Traditionally, [a congressional hearing] has been viewed as a public service, one that comes with a great deal of respect.

Similarly, when experts, on their own money, fly to Washington DC from across the country and take a significant amount of time out of their schedules to testify in service of the people, under oath, that expert witness, which is what Matt Taibbi and I were in that hearing, is traditionally treated with respect.

To not be treated with respect shows the very deep trouble that the United States is in, that the U.S. Congress is in. It shows a lack of a proper commitment to democracy and to freedom of speech and to civility. When you change the subject in a way that they tried to change it — from the issues of censorship that we raised to somehow completely made up bogus questions of our own credibility — I think it reflected very poorly on the Democratic members of that committee.

Weltwoche: Why do you think that they are so eager to attack people who are revealing facts?

Shellenberger: The obvious answer is because the Democrats are, themselves, spreading misinformation and attempting to censor political opponents who tell the truth. We've now seen that in multiple cases. We came to Congress with evidence of the ways in which the United States government is both directly and indirectly in violation of the First Amendment, which is our most important freedom.

It's a fundamental freedom. It's a freedom that makes democracy possible. It's a freedom that makes capitalism possible so you can allow the free flow of information. The First Amendment protects your right to be wrong. It even protects your right, in most cases, to deceive, unless it's contributing to fraud. It even allows you to say very terrible things about other people.

It's important for Europeans, in particular, to understand that you can buy Mein Kampf in the United States. You can be a neo-Nazi in the United States. You can be a racist in the United States. Those are all horrible things to want to be and to do, but we protect that in the United States, and we've protected it since 1789. Really, before that, we've had a culture that was strenuously and radically in favor of free speech. I'm honestly a bit surprised that I even have to remind my fellow Americans of how fundamental that freedom is.

The Supreme Court, over the centuries, has put very modest restrictions on what forms of speech are allowed. So, to see the kinds of censorship that our government is engaging in is absolutely terrifying. They must be denounced by a wide spectrum of people. I should say, particularly given some of the things I've seen since our testimony, that Democrats are going to need to get on the right side of this issue and move away from their pro-censorship positions, which are absolutely catastrophic for them politically.

Weltwoche: Do you know why Elon Musk picked you and your colleagues for this very important task?

Shellenberger: Well, even this has been a subject of significant misinformation because I was not chosen by Elon Musk. The first time I met Elon Musk he said he did not know who I was. I was invited to participate in the Twitter Files by my friend Bari Weiss, who is one of the most important journalists in America, right now. She invited me in because of my abilities as a journalist, particularly to digest large quantities of information in a short period of time.

I should also point out that there is no American journalist who has been more critical of Elon Musk's core business, Tesla, than I have. I have been a major critic of solar panels being manufactured in China, and I'm one of the most prominent critics of electric car batteries, which are made from minerals drawn from the Congo and made by Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in China. Elon Musk and I, I think, demonstrate what it looks like to have agreement on the issue of freedom of speech and are capable of having disagreement on another issue.

Weltwoche: Much has been written to the effect that your research was not comprehensive and free. Elon Musk was “giving selected journalists access to some of the company’s internal communications,” the Associated Press wrote. And Wikipedia states: “Elon Musk gave a series of internal Twitter documents, such as screenshots, emails, and chat logs, to freelance journalists …”. Let me ask you directly: Did you get access to everything that you wanted to? Was there a limited number of documents or a pre-selected amount of documents that were given to you?

Shellenberger: I think it's important for people to understand that we have not had, so far, any search request denied. We have seen no evidence that any information was removed from the information searches, either from email or internal messages. That's not to say, of course, that we can prove that nothing was removed; that would be impossible. But it is to say that we have seen no evidence of removal.

I have to say, I think it would be difficult to remove pieces of information because there's so much cross-referencing, as you might imagine. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of documents and emails and messages. There was actually a significant number of journalists who were brought in. The most famous of the journalists were Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi and myself, but each of us had with us a number of colleagues who we brought in just to help us to process and read all of that information.

Weltwoche: In the course of your research on the Twitter Files, what did you find most shocking?

Shellenberger: There are two things that were particularly shocking. The first was the intense orchestrated and aggressive nature of U.S. government agency and U.S. government-funded organizations demanding censorship and de-platforming of social media users. We were shocked to see representatives of the FBI, which is our most important domestic police organization, the Department of Homeland Security, which is another very important domestic security organization, but also the involvement of the CIA, of the White House in demanding censorship.

The second and related was the creation of, basically, propaganda campaigns. Propaganda and censorship are two sides of the same coin, and they're frequently used in tandem by bad actors, including by U.S. government officials, by officials funded by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead people. There are several cases of this, now, that are spectacular and famous, and they're that way for good reason.

The first is on the Biden family business dealings. A laptop of the president's son came out before the elections. There was zero evidence that it involved any Russians and zero evidence that it involved any hacking. Yet, that was what many deeply irresponsible and unethical U.S. government officials and former government officials claimed about the laptop in order to support the election of President Biden.

We also saw a very aggressive influence operation conducted by Anthony Fauci [then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and Francis Collins [then-director of the National Institutes of Health]. We now have strong evidence that Fauci and Collins, the two men most important for responding to the Coronavirus pandemic, deliberately misled the public, the news media, and demanded repression of any discussion that the Coronavirus may have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. That hypothesis is now considered more likely than not by many in the U.S. government intelligence agencies, but that influence operation was carried out.

I think those two things that we basically see, on the one hand, a strong and aggressive effort to censor American citizens for expressing views that are absolutely in line with protections from the First Amendment. Then, the second are open propaganda campaigns or, I should say, secretive propaganda campaigns that are, today, referred to as “influence operations” aimed at deliberately deceiving people about issues of critical public importance.

Weltwoche: On Substack, you wrote that you could never have guessed that you would find yourself “defending the First Amendment from progressive Democrats who are, at this moment, trying to establish a national censorship system through our universities, liberal philanthropies, and social media companies.” Why is it specifically Democrats, a party that you have traditionally voted for, who are building such a wide-ranging censorship system? Who are the key players of the censorship? What is their intention?

Shellenberger: What's going on is that we've seen is a turning inward of the kind of propaganda efforts that the United States has carried out around the world for 100 years. This started during the war on terrorism. As the war on terrorism was won, effectively, as it became successful, you have a number of people that then start to look for new avenues for their propaganda and censorship campaigns.

The second phenomenon, of course, is the seismic upheavals of 2016 — first, with the Brexit election in Britain and, then, with the election of Donald Trump. That resulted in a consensus among American and most Western elites that social media, in particular, but internet platforms more broadly, needed to be constrained, restrained, and that Donald Trump's election was a consequence of Facebook and Twitter allowing him to communicate and allowing the spread of misinformation.

I don't believe that any of the senior officials actually believed that the Russians had much influence over the 2016 elections. I believe it was used as a pretext for engaging in these censorship and propaganda campaigns. This is all perfectly explained by a former CIA media analyst named Martin Gurri in his landmark book Revolt of the Public, where he argues that what we're seeing today in this demand for censorship, repression, and propaganda by governing elites is all a revolt of the elites against the populist uprising that was enabled by internet technologies, in general, and by social media in particular.

I should add that I support the NATO and the Western political alliance, and I support the Ukrainians in fighting against the Russians. I did not vote for Trump, and I am, in many ways, a global elite. I say these things as somebody who shares some sympathies with the populist backlash to the elites, particularly when they abuse their powers, as they have on this issue but also on issues relating to food and energy through shadowy organizations like the World Economic Forum. I think populism in those cases is perfectly appropriate.

I absolutely reject these efforts to restrict the First Amendment by elites who feel their own personal, political, and institutional power declining as democracy and freedom of speech has expanded with the internet. We're in a situation where we see elites effectively attempting to undermine freedoms and democracy in the name of saving them.

Weltwoche: Looking at the evidence you saw, were the efforts at censorship predominantly from the Democrats’ side? Or did both sides try to influence the public?

Shellenberger: Well, this is a very controversial issue. People wanted to know whether what we were reporting was reflective and representative of what we found in the Twitter Files. The short version is: it is. We did report, to mention my colleague Matt Taibbi, cases of Republicans, in general, and Trump, in particular, demanding censorship or de-platforming. They were a very small number of cases compared to the much larger number of cases of Democrats doing so, particularly when Biden came into power. It is definitely more one-sided. There's no question that it has mostly gone in one direction.

That being said, I think it's more of an elite reaction. In other words, many of the advocates of censorship and propaganda are “Never-Trump” Republicans — a kind of Republican who said that they hated Trump and would never support Trump. Those tend to be more Cold War, hawkish on foreign policy type folks who were concerned about Trump's promises to reduce support, or even withdraw, from NATO.

I think that many of the people who we see in leadership positions driving forward the demands for greater censorship and more propaganda are people who we would have referred to as “Cold War” liberals, a few years ago. They tend to be more hawkish. They tend to be elite in terms of where they went to college. These are a particular social class of people. They are also married into a kind of computer science, AI, and high-tech community.

Honestly, President Eisenhower got it right in his farewell address. He referred to this group of people as the “Military-Industrial Complex” because they're in the military, they're in the intelligence community, and they're also in elite universities, like Stanford University, like Harvard. They're in elite think tanks, like the Aspen Institute, like the Atlantic Council (which is both a U.S. and British enterprise).

We see, coming out of those institutions, something that is a combination of both an elite panic and, I think, a power grab and an abuse of power that is driven by a genuine fear of the masses becoming populist and destroying the Western alliance and, also, by seeing an opportunity to gain power for themselves, for their institutions, and for their political ideology.