On the surface, this is not a partisan story: The Intercept is a left-wing publication, and the current version of the D.H.S. anti-disinformation effort got started in the Trump administration.
But everyone understands those efforts’ current ideological valence. The war on disinformation is a crucial Democratic cause, the key lawsuit filed against the Biden administration on these issues comes from Republican attorneys general (joined by doctors critical of the public-health establishment), and the most famous flashpoint remains the social-media censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story, which Fang and Klippenstein suggest followed from what one could reasonably call a deep-state pressure campaign.
Meanwhile, according to a draft report from the D.H.S. obtained by The Intercept, the list of online subject areas that the department is particularly concerned about includes “the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine” — mostly areas where, whether in wisdom or in folly, the populist right is more likely to dissent from the establishment position.
And for the future of Twitter, in particular, it’s notable that the Intercept story first points out that a committee advising DHS on disinformation policy included Twitter’s then-head of legal policy, trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde, and then notes that Gadde was one of the first people fired by Musk. It’s a tacit nod to the left-right switch: Under Musk the social-media giant is widely seen as moving “rightward,” but that could mean becoming less entangled with an arm of what was once George W. Bush’s national security state.
The point of emphasizing this reversal isn’t to suggest that either side is likely to flip back. The evolving attitudes of right and left reflect their evolving positions in American society, with cultural liberalism much more dominant in elite institutions than it was a generation ago and conservatism increasingly disreputable, representing downscale constituencies and outsider ideas.
But a stronger awareness of the flip might be helpful in tempering the temptations that afflict both sides. For progressives, that could mean acknowledging that the Department of Homeland Security’s disinformation wars, its attempted hand-in-glove with the great powers of Silicon Valley, would have been regarded as a dystopian scenario on their side not so long ago. So is it really any less dystopian if the targets are Trumpistas and Anthony Fauci critics instead of Iraq War protesters? And if it is a little creepy and censorious and un-American, doesn’t that make some of the paranoia evident on the right these days a little less unfathomable and fascist seeming, even a little more relatable?
Then the Fox Mulder right might benefit from recalling the thing that conservatives — or this conservative, at least — used to find most insufferable about the anti-establishment left, which was not its skepticism but its credulity, not the eagerness to question official narratives but the speed with which implausible alternatives took root. (If parts of Oliver Stone’s “J.F.K.” make you understand where conspiracy theories come from, the part where the conspiracy gets “explained” should make you a Nixon Republican.)