What we've learned from the Twitter Files
Musk has allowed a glimpse of the true culture of social media - now we need full disclosure
(This post is a bit longer than usual because of the complexity and sensitivity of the Twitter story. It’s too long to voice over. I hope you think it’s worth reading. I think the Twitter Files is a bit of a slow burn and that people have been too quick to dismiss the revelations on the grounds that Elon Musk is, well, Elon Musk.)
“Shadowbanning”, “visibility filtering”, “de-amplification” – the Twitter Files released since Elon Musk took over have given us a new and sinister language of digital censorship. I am no fan of Musk's capricious self-promotion. His vanity appals me and his vindictive attacks on former Twitter employees are gross. However, I credit him with telling us more about the inner workings of social media's in two weeks than we learned in the last two decades.
As in a palace coup, there is often a moment of transparency before the next dictator takes over. Of course, the Twitter Files, have to be taken with a high degree of scepticism. They are partisan to the extent that Elon Musk sees himself as a crusader against what he calls the "woke mind virus”. However, I am puzzled that mainstream journalists have shown so little interest in what the files have revealed about the internal culture of a hugely influential medium.
Even those commentators most critical of Musk, and the files, have been forced to concede that there is clear evidence Twitter “enforced its terms of service in inconsistent and politically biased ways”. That is one way of putting it. The other is that this was arbitrary censorship by people who have lost the capacity to understand different points of view from their own.
Various devices were used to prevent wrong think gaining traction on Twitter. Some accounts were placed on a “trends blacklist” so that their tweets would not be seen even when they were securing thousands of engagements. Other individuals were shadowbanned by their tweets being blocked from appearing on followers' feeds or in search. There was a whole armoury of what Twitter executives call “visibility filtering” devices to suppress unacceptable opinions. This is William Gibson territory, or perhaps Black Mirror.
Twitter executives from Jack Dorsey down have long denied that shadowbanning existed and said all they did was remove Tweets that were illegal, threatening or racially abusive. This was clearly not the case. Twitter cancelled Trump-supporting talk show hosts, Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk, without such justification. They were systematically “de-amplified” essentially because they are fierce opponents of doctrines like “white privilege” and “critical race theory”, and were opposed to Covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates. The Stanford professor, Jay Bhattacharya, was censored because he backed the “Great Barrington Declaration” and promoted the theory of “herd immunity” – as did many UK government scientific advisers, at the start of the Covid pandemic.
Flip this over and ask yourself what the reaction would have been to the shadow banning of outspoken left-wing broadcasters and bloggers like the Guardian's Owen Jones or LBC's James O'Brien. The outcry would have reverberated for days. So they aren't American, you say. Well, what if the film maker Michael Moore or the left wing Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had been “de-amplified”.
The “deplatformed” right wing pundits did not break Twitter's own rules on hate speech, let alone any laws. They were banned because their views were uncongenial to the employees of Twitter, the vast majority of whom appear to be partisan Democrat supporters, at least according to their political donations.
Democrats have responded that the Twitter Files amount to little more than a right wing vendetta and that Musk has not revealed similar figures on the left who may have been shadowbanned. I agree. We need full disclosure of those accounts that were subjected to shadowbanning – especially voices to the left of the Democratic Party.
The integrity of the journalists reporting the files has been questioned. The former New York Times writer, Bari Weiss, is a free speech campaigner and therefor regarded by some as a right wing ideologue. If so she is an unusual one since she is both gay and jewish – not typical calling cards for the Republican Party. Matt Taibbi, another Twitter Files reporter is a former editor of “Rolling Stone”, the great journal of the 60's counter culture. Guilt by association is a classic McCarthyite technique.
There are two further criticisms, which have been used to dismiss the Twitter Files. First, that Jack Dorsey had already apologised for banning the New York Post story on Hunter Biden's lap top, so what's new? It was indeed wrong for Twitter to censor what is now regarded even by the New York Times as a legitmate story about how the son of the US President was being paid $50,000 a month by a Ukrainian energy company apparently to secure access to his father. The Twitter Files shed further light by exposing the intense discussions that took place within Twitter over its act of censorship during the 2020 Presidential election campaign, and the extent to which the Democratic Party appeared to have privileged access to the platform as it was deleting posts relating to the Hunter Biden scandal.
Other critics claim Musk is a hypocrite who engages in shadowbanning himself because he says that he believes in “freedom of speech not freedom of reach” and that on his watch “negative/hate tweets" will be deboosted. Well, quite. Now we have a partial window into Twitter it is important to look through it before it is closed again. I don't trust Elon Musk any more than his predecessor, but at least we know enough now to demand that there should some kind of democratic regulation of social media firms. These digital platforms have become immensely influential in public discourse and yet can be purchased by anyone with a few billions to spare.
It is no secret that Twitter's executives and Silicon Valley employees were intensely hostile to Donald Trump. Twitter's head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, openly called the Trump government “Nazis”. I am intensely hostile to Donald Trump's politics also, though to accuse him of being a National Socialist is historically illiterate. But my views are beside the point. Journalism and free speech are the point. It should not be for unelected and unaccountable tech bros to decide what which democratically elected national leaders are allowed to speak. How could a platform that supposedly upheld democratic values ban an elected leader who had just been supported by tens of millions of American voters?
Moreover, it is clear from the files that Donald Trump was given a lifetime ban even though he broke none of Twitter’s rules and that many of the content moderators did not believe they had adequate grounds to exclude him. Executives said that his tweet: “75,000,00 American Patriots....will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way shape or form!!!” did not breach Twitter terms of service and could not be construed as a call to arms. All he said in the second tweet that led to his banning was: “I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th”.
It took textual exegesis of extraordinay inventiveness to construe Trump's tweets as a “coded” message to his supporters to invade the Capitol. I remember myself puzzling over how these anodyne tweets could reasonably have led to a permanent ban. He clearly did not incite anyone to violence or invasion, still less declare a coup and propose to instal himself as dictator. One of his video tweets on January 6th called for an end to the rioting. “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt” said Trump "but you have to go home now, we have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”
The senior executives in charge of Twitter's armoury of censorship tools were also clearly of the opinion that Trump was not in “vio” to use the tech shorthand for in violation of their terms of service. It seems that there was finally a ground up campaign amongst Twitter's engineers to ban Trump. Yet, censoring the sitting President of the United States was a move with staggering political implications, as both the French President, Emmanuel Macron and the former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel have said. Imagine if a private company had censored the leader of a European country such as Georgia Meloni - who leads a party, Brothers of Italy, with genuinely far right origins.
Of course, Trump had promoted baseless claims of electoral irregularity, in the “stop the steal” campaign. But if every politician who claimed they had been unfairly defeated were banned from the airwaves there would be precious few left. Trump's intemperate language may be offensive, but Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei remained unbanned for tweeting “#lsrael is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated”.
Most coverage in the mainstream press of the Twitter Files has focussed, not on the issues, but on Elon Musk's employment practices, his verbal incontinence and his attack on “wokery”. Yet Musk says he supported Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and I have no reason not to believe him. Going for the man is a long standing political tactic to divert attention from what the man, or the woman is actually saying.
This is about who controls information in the digital age and the methods by which consent is managed. The reluctance to follow up the disclosures in the Twitter Files has sometimes felt like a kind of spontaneous “deamplification” by journalists who seem to think that because Elon Musk is a bad man then nothing that has been revealed by the Twitter files is worth investigating.
Yet, the recent revelations about the lack of security and data breaches have been astonishing . The files have now revealed just how many former members of the FBI and other US government agencies were embedded in Twitter. The head of safety, Yoel Roth, apparently had weekly meetings with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and others. That is strange behaviour for a journalistic organisation. I can't imagine the Guardian editors having weekly chats with Mi5, the police or GCHQ. If they were it would be a big story.
We need to see past Musk and examine the technology of content moderation and what it means for society. We need all the intelligence we can get on what goes on in Twitter, Meta, Google. These global platforms are the playthings of capricious billionaires and yet they have huge influence on the “legacy” media and have undermined journalistic objectivity and integrity.
Twitter will not deserve public trust unless it reveals all about visibility filtering. Until then, everything on it should come with a health warning. These sinister deplatforming techniques are available to all tech companies and ultimately to governments. China has been doing its own visibility filtering for years. It is chilling to discover that these practices have been deployed so recklessly the home of free speech and the First Amendment.
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