Lots of Twitter Files and Nowhere to Go
The files are functioning exactly as expected, driving people into the ultimate political wasteland: the Culture Trench War.
Elon Musk’s Twitter Files keep popping up in my news feed. I’ve written a bit about them. But I’ll be honest. I’ve had a hard time working up the energy to care. Yet a lot of people are telling me that I really do need to care. Over at Jacobin Branko Marcetic was tisk-tisking the left (whatever the hell that is these days) not so long ago for not being sufficiently excited and fired up by it all.
I mean, the Twitter Files do interest me. I wrote Surveillance Valley, the first and still the only book that traces the involvement of America’s military and security state in the creation and development of the internet — from the start of the whole thing during the counterinsurgency of the Vietnam War to the end of the Obama Era. So the stuff that’s now being pushed out by Musk’s in-house influencers…I have been reading it from time to time. The information on Twitter’s dealings with the various appendages of America’s security apparatus does update and add detail to some of the basic history I outline in my book. And it does confirm something that pretty much anyone who had been watching our degraded political fights over foreign disinformation ever since the Trump years had assumed was going on behind the scenes.
So the stuff is interesting to me on some level. But how important is it as politics? Branko seems to think it’s really important. Why? Because it can be used to galvanize Americans into political action against their country’s repressive government apparatus — an apparatus that wants to decide to who to kick off Twitter and who to shadowban. I don’t know about that. I think Branko’s a bit too optimistic about the prospects of this country’s rotten politics.
Like I said before, the Twitter Files are producing information that’s useful to historians and people looking to better understand the specifics of the Silicon Valley-Security State relationship. And I guess there’s been political entertainment value in them for the part of the American population that’s hopelessly addicted to the Culture War and the News Cycle. But as for actual politics? I don’t see any beyond the opening of another lucrative front in our ongoing full-spectrum Culture War.
And even if there was some kind of coherent politics in the fight surrounding the Twitter Files, there’s still a bigger problem: More information doesn’t cause political change by itself — not if there isn’t a strong political organization that can turn this information into action and political empowerment. Wikileaks — Julian Assange’s project to change the world by letting state secrets flow — was a great example of this failure, despite his heroism. And so were Edward Snowden and his leaks.
Wikileaks changed nothing politically. Ed’s leaks didn’t change anything, either — they did little more than drive a bunch of people to “solutions” where there was money and organization: to Tor and other bullshit “privacy” apps that, on the backend, were being funded by the very same U.S. security apparatus that people were trying to escape.
I wrote about this the Baffler back in 2017:
“In America, the initial movement to take the anti-surveillance fight to Silicon Valley fizzled and turned into something else that was at once bizarre and pathetic: privacy activists working with Google and Facebook to fight the NSA with privacy technology. This made precisely as much sense as siding with Blackwater (or Xe or Acadami or whatever the Pentagon contractor calls itself now) against the U.S. Army. Yet this trend of politics-by-app went into overdrive after Donald Trump was elected president. You saw it everywhere: civil libertarians, privacy advocates, and demoralized liberals arose to proclaim that encryption—even the stuff rolled out by Silicon Valley surveillance giants—was the only thing that could protect us from a totalitarian Trump administration.”
In short: Ed’s leaks showed there was no accountability, no change. Information about bad things the government was doing changed nothing at all — nothing except maybe to boost the careers of a bunch of media people and activists connected to the privacy world.
Sure some people — a minority of the public that’s interested in this kind of thing — came out of it more informed. But I think even there it ultimately led to political cynicism on the issue of privacy and surveillance. If revelations that got talked about so much and made so much noise — a doc made about Edward Snowden won an Oscar — had no impact on anything whatsoever… What lesson can you draw from that? A very simple lesson: Why bother. Nothing will change.
And that’s basically right. Nothing will change without political organization. Information doesn’t have agency of its own.