* …online conspiracists began claiming that Starbird and other researchers at the Election Integrity Partnership had colluded with the Department of Homeland Security to censor twenty-two million tweets during the 2020 election. This was, Starbird told me, “a literal misreading” of the group’s findings. But the conspiracy theory had all the key elements to spread widely, starting with the fact that it was politically useful. “People wanted to believe it,” she said.
Allegations began to appear on fringe news outlets, such as the Gateway Pundit. On August 27, 2022, Mike Benz, an ex-Trump appointee who runs an organization called the Foundation for Freedom Online, wrote that his exposé of D.H.S. would provide “the basis for a full-scale bipartisan Congressional committee armed with subpoena power.” The story soon reached Breitbart and Steve Bannon’s podcast. On Twitter, Trump supporters told Starbird to lawyer up.
* Of all the partisans spreading attacks against the researchers, the most significant was initially one of the most obscure. “I don’t think it’s possible to have spent more hours a day on this,” Mike Benz, of the Foundation for Freedom Online, has said. “My wife calls it the man in the box because my whole life has just been listening to this whole network, day and night, and chronicling and archiving and explaining.”
Benz, a lawyer by training, describes himself on his organization’s Web site as “a former State Department diplomat responsible for formulating and negotiating US foreign policy on international communications and information technology matters.” But a recent investigation by NBC News found that several years ago he maintained an online persona under which he posted explosively antisemitic and racist content. In one post, from 2017, he wrote, “If I, a Jew, a member of the Tribe, Hebrew Schooled, can read Mein Kampf and think ‘holy shit, Hitler actually had some decent points.’ Then NO ONE is safe from hating you once they find out who is behind the White genocide happening all over the world.” His inspiration, whom he credited with “putting the puzzle together,” was the alt-right influencer Milo Yiannopoulos. A year later, Benz stopped posting under his white-nationalist pseudonym and entered the federal government, taking a speechwriting job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He joined the State Department in November, 2020, but left a couple of months later, at the start of the Biden Administration.
Since then, as the executive director of the Foundation for Freedom Online, where he appears to be the sole employee, he has focused much of his attention on Renée DiResta, the research director of Stanford’s Internet Observatory and one of Starbird’s co-authors on the Election Integrity Partnership’s final report. DiResta has a number of associations that are easy to misrepresent. As an undergraduate, she interned at the C.I.A. Before joining Stanford, she served as the research director of a controversial cybersecurity firm called New Knowledge. In 2017, during Roy Moore’s Alabama Senate race, New Knowledge experimented with a small-scale disinformation campaign of its own. According to the Times, the effort included creating a Facebook account meant to draw in conservative voters. (DiResta was not working for the company at the time.) The next year, she testified before the Senate on Russian interference in the 2016 election; a team she led then wrote up a report for the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the Web site of the Foundation for Freedom Online, Benz outlined what he called DiResta’s “censorship industry career arc” and wrote that “the prominent role Renee DiResta plays in EIP—a government-partnered Internet censorship consortium—is particularly worrisome and disturbing.”
* On March 2nd of this year, in a Twitter Spaces conversation attended by some thirty-nine thousand users, Benz made contact with Taibbi. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you for a long time because I believe I have all of the missing pieces of the puzzle,” he told Taibbi, according to a recording of the conversation. “You’re someone who can actually communicate the story to a large platform. I can tell you literally everything.” The E.I.P., Benz said, was “the deputized disinformation flagger for D.H.S.” He went on, “Basically, they gave this private group—E.I.P.—D.H.S.-F.B.I. powers to talk directly to the key content-moderation liaisons.” Taibbi responded, “I’m very anxious to talk to you.”
A week later, at Jordan’s invitation, Taibbi and another journalist involved in the Twitter Files, Michael Shellenberger, gave public testimony before the weaponization subcommittee. While they addressed the members, Benz, dressed in a dark suit, sat in the row behind them. Both Taibbi and Shellenberger cited the E.I.P. and the twenty-two million censored tweets, though that figure never appeared in the materials they’d published in the Twitter Files. Afterward, they acknowledged that Benz had helped them with their testimony. Evidently, it was his influence that led Shellenberger to call the E.I.P. “the seed of the censorship-industrial complex.”
* They weren’t alone in relying on Benz. By then, he claimed to have given eight congressional briefings, spoken regularly with congressmen and senators, and addressed members of the House Oversight, Homeland Security, and Judiciary Committees. On March 10th, Jordan sent letters to Starbird, DiResta, and Alex Stamos, the head of Stanford’s Internet Observatory, demanding access to e-mails and other communications with both the government and the tech platforms dating back to January, 2015.
Within days, Taibbi posted another thread in the Twitter Files about the “Great Covid-19 Lie Machine: Stanford, the Virality Project, and the Censorship of ‘True Stories.’ ” After the 2020 election, many of the researchers involved in the Election Integrity Partnership had regrouped and launched the Virality Project, making its mission the tracking of online misinformation surrounding covid vaccines. This time, the mechanics of the operation were simpler. D.H.S. was not involved. Researchers posted their findings online each week and sent them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Surgeon General. Taibbi’s thread, which received more than forty million views, rearranged information that Stanford had already been making available. “Even though all of our work is public, they reframed it as a secret cabal,” DiResta told me. “I study rumors and propaganda, but that doesn’t mean we can do anything to stop them when we become the subject. It’s a problem for the field. What can you do when it happens?”
* When Starbird and I spoke in July, she was about to fly across the country again, this time at the request of the House Homeland Security Committee. Bishop chairs its oversight subcommittee, and he had some more questions. According to multiple Republican and Democratic staffers, Bishop and Jordan were sometimes at odds. Bishop felt that Jordan could be doing more to push the investigation. When I asked one of the staffers what that meant, I was told, “Jordan only pursues most of Mike Benz’s theories. Bishop wants to run down all of them.”
* He described the end goal of Jordan, Benz, and others as the turning of social media into “nato for maga: keep the liberals out, the voters down, keep us in power.”