Twitter is an American-owned social media platform with 237 million active daily users.
It was purchased by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in October 2022 and has undergone various changes since that time.
Most significantly, this includes the leak of numerous internal documents and communications known as the “Twitter Files” which Musk released via journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss starting earlier this month.
What’s in the Twitter Files?
So far three installments of the Twitter files have been released by Taibbi and Weiss.
These include screenshots, documents, internal memos and chats that demonstrate internal communications and decision-making which took place at Twitter, primarily in 2020 and 2021.
Taibbi first published the internal communications and allegations on December 2 of this year. They document and provide evidence regarding Twitter’s internal process around the October, 2020 decision to prevent the New York Post from running a story on Hunter Biden’s laptop and its contents.
Specifically, the piece was entitled: “Biden’s Secret Emails: Ukrainian exec thanked Hunter Biden for ‘opportunity to meet’ veep dad.” It came out only three weeks before election day in 2020.
The piece alleges conflicts of interests and other suspicious dealings and influence peddling involving current President Joe Biden and his son Hunter as well as foreign businessmen and interests. The report also included graphic video content featuring Hunter.
Taibbi provides evidence that Twitter leadership decided to suppress the story and ban it from the platform at that time, on the basis that they did not find it newsworthy and believed it could constitute willful misinformation in the 2020 election cycle.
Weiss released part two of the Twitter files on December 8, providing evidence of Twitter’s shadowbanning policies whereby users who were deemed “troll-like” were prevented from gaining access to a wider audience and being seen by many new accounts.
In the third tranche of the Twitter Files, Taibbi examined the internal process at Twitter which resulted in former President Donald Trump being kicked off Twitter following the riots at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Taibbi referred to this as an “erosion of standards,” saying it demonstrated how Twitter leadership broke its own rules due to political bias and a desire to see Trump gone from their platform.
Musk reinstated Trump’s account in late November of this year, saying he had not seen proof of any violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service (TOS) nor incitement to violence in Trump’s online behavior.
What are the wider allegations from Taibbi and Weiss?
The wider allegations from Taibbi and Weiss, and the main thrust of their reporting is alleging that Twitter eroded free speech rights, internal standards and any sense of consistency in their treatment of Trump, conservatives and accounts they disagreed with or found personally or ideologically reprehensible.
Speaking about the “landmark” decision to boot Trump off Twitter several days after January 6, for example, Taibbi notes that internal communications show Twitter employees knew the gravity of the situation.
At the time, conservatives pointed out that extreme figures like the theocratic leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained present on Twitter, referring to this as a clear double standard.
Supporters of the Trump ban argued that he was directly endangering democracy and using his platform to incite violence by casting doubt on the results of the 2020 election.
In his release Taibbi shows “high level execs,” including Yoel Roth of Twitter, debating about the decision and indicates that it was mainly a product of ideological bias. However, Taibbi also noted that internal staff also indicated a willingness to ban future world leaders and presidents if they deemed it necessary once crossing the Rubicon in banning Trump.
Taibbi’s wider allegations become more vague, as he indicates that pressure to remove Trump may have come from “federal agencies” and that during the aftermath of January 6 executives at Twitter were “clearly liaising” with intelligence operatives and “federal enforcement” to make decisions regarding Trump and information moderation.
Taibbi points in particular to Roth’s reference to “very interesting” meetings with certain individuals and Roth’s joke that staff needed to come up with more “generic” ways to refer to them on their internal meeting calendar.
Internal communications including with head of policy Nick Pickles in which it becomes clear that Twitter is coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.
Internal tensions at Twitter?
Another important aspect of Taibbi and Weiss’ Twitter Files is indications of internal tension at Twitter between its Safety Operations department and high up executives who had a different vision for the company.
While Safety Operations applied the rules more consistently to remove threatening tweets, violent threats and graphic adult content, senior executives like Roth and content policy chief Vijaya Gadde were more hands-on.
Calling them a “high-speed Supreme Court of moderation,” Taibbi alleges that this “cadre” used their authority to pass down hasty rulings and moderate content, even on matters of national importance.
Weiss’ revelations have also showcased practices at Twitter including “teams” of employees tasked with making blacklists and actively intervening to stop certain tweets from spreading through trending.
This was done without letting Twitter users know and has reinforced criticisms from the right and some on the far left such as antifa that they were being actively suppressed on Twitter.
According to Weiss, Twitter employees were given power to act as censors and used that to “disproportionately” go after right-leaning and conservative voices on the social media platform.
She particularly highlights how a lot of shadowbanning and trend-blocking was down without telling anything to the user, keeping them in the dark about any potential policy violation as well as unaware they were being digitally sequestered and suppressed.
Important voices quieted and silenced?
Weiss and Taibbi both say that important voices were silenced from crucial debates in the United States and globally due to Twitter’s censorious actions and policy overreach.
Weiss points to Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University as one prime example of someone who was silenced. As an early critic of pandemic lockdowns and the effect, in particular, on minors, Bhattacharya was allegedly blacklisted and prevented from trending.
Weiss said she has seen internal evidence of this as well as direct quotes from an engineer at Twitter who said that controlling “visibility” and “amplification” was a key role of Twitter’s content moderation.
Specifically, Twitter’s Strategic Response Team – Global Escalation Team, or SRT-GET made these decisions of deciding which content was acceptable, processing several hundred items of contention per day to prevent or allow trending.
However at this basic level, decisions often got superseded by a higher level group of executives including Roth, Agrawal, Gadde and former chief Jack Dorsey. These individuals engaged in decisions which were largely unilateral and sometimes directly went against policy-based decisions made by SRT-GET.
Twitter’s former top execs respond
Elon Musk has been supportive of these leaks and assisted Taibbi and Weiss in uncovering the information and passing over the troves of data to the two freelancers.
Musk has said he will also be looking into a function on Twitter that will let people know if they were targeted in these previous policies and actions like shadowbanning or could still be negatively impacted by being on certain lists or filtering protocols to prevent trending and impact.
Former Twitter product chief Kayvon Beykpour is one of many from the former crew who says the claims made by Taibbi and Weiss are sensationalized. In particular, Beykpour said use of the term “shadowbanning” is inaccurate and that Twitter teams and execs’ decisions to “de-amplify” content and trending was not the same as banning or hiding anything.
Taibbi says this is not the extent of the wrongdoing and points to numerous requests for content moderation and fact-checking from right-leaning individuals and organizations that went internally unresponded to, as opposed to requests from left-leaning organizations and individuals.
Former CEO Dorsey has expressed remorse for the Hunter Biden story being suppressed and the New York Post having its account temporarily limited, saying it was a mistake to do so in hindsight.
Jokes, hoaxes and missteps
Further revelations show a series of missteps in Twitter as well as a focus on how jokes might cause “confusion.”
A joke by Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in October of 2020, for example, was debated to be removed because it joked about dead people voting for Democrats.
Although it ultimately was not removed, Twitter execs considered it on the “edge” of content that should be removable and concluded it still had a worrisome potential to “mislead” the public and cause unjustified suspicion in the electoral process.
Further internal communications reveal a series of missteps, including a Trump tweet about Ohio voting roll errors that had resulted in 50,000 ballots being sent out to the wrong people. Twitter moved to flag the tweet and take it down as misinformation before realizing it was a factually true story at the last minute and leaving it up.
Chat within Twitter and from Roth mocked conservative and free speech concerns over content restriction and filtering, with Roth calling these “wah wah censorship” silliness.
The smoking gun: James Baker
One of the top headlines that’s emerged from the Twitter files is the identity of a powerful individual who was involved in preventing sharing of the Hunter Biden laptop story prior to the election.
Weiss reports she was shocked to hear that this individual was, in fact, James (Jim) Baker, a member of the high-ranking diplomatic corps and former chief of staff in the George H.W. Bush administration who was deeply involved in the allegations against Trump regarding collusion with Russia during the leadup to the 2016 presidential election.
Baker was let go by Musk shortly after his identity in helping quash the Hunter laptop story was revealed.
As former head lawyer to the FB, Baker helped convince Twitter that Hunter’s laptop had been “hacked,” a claim later proven false and without grounds despite being repeated by 50 intelligence community officials including former DNI James Clapper.
Baker’s past work included liaising with Hillary Clinton’s lawyer Michael Sussman, who lied to Baker and said he was a free agent while actually working for Clinton to dig up dirt on Trump and fabricate the Russia scandal.
Sussman was recently acquitted of the charges against him for lying to federal authorities, and was also involved in illegally spying on Trump’s 2016 campaign aide Carter Page on the basis of the now-disproven Trump dossier provided on the basis of Russian disinformation supplied by former spy Christopher Steele.
Finding out that Baker was now back and helping push Twitter into steering the election away from Trump has shocked some observers and Congressman James Comer of Kentucky, for one, says that Gadde as well as Baker are likely going to be brought before the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in the next term of Congress to answer for what they appear to have done.
Baker has made no comment on these allegations, but Comer is threatening clearly that they will be held to account, saying that Baker and others involved need to think “very hard” about their real motivations and reasoning in “suppressing” the Hunter Biden laptop report.
Bottom line: what does this all mean?
The debate over the limit of free speech and online censorship is a heated one precisely because it touches on who has power and how they use it.
While this story may be interpreted quite differently by the left and the right, the issues it gets at go deeper into how information moves and is filtered in our modern, tech-savvy age.
Whether it’s authoritarian governments, large corporations or rogue individuals intervening, information suppression can have unintended effects and lead to a blowback effect.
For this reason alone, the Twitter files are important to look into from beyond a partisan lens and as a procedural and communication matter that propelled an issue into the national spotlight.
As our lives, politics and debates increasingly shift to the digital sphere, the question of who gets a hand in determining what we see and who sees us is more important than ever.