Elon Musk, who owns Twitter, says he is lifting the veil on how the social network has made important decisions about content moderation, such as banning then-President Donald Trump after his supporters attacked U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Over the past two weeks, Musk has been giving internal documents to a small group of journalists, who are digging through them and posting excerpts on Twitter.
Musk and his supporters use these tweet threads, which they call the “Twitter Files,” as “bombshell” proof that Twitter silenced conservatives on purpose because of their political beliefs.
This is something Republicans have been saying for a long time, even though there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. For example, Twitter’s own researchers have found that its algorithms favor political content that leans to the right.
But many tech journalists, social media experts, and former Twitter employees say Musk’s claims are exaggerated since the documents shared so far mostly confirm what is already known about how hard it is to police a large social network.
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“What really stands out to me in the Twitter Files is that people are dealing with high-stakes, unexpected events and trying to figure out what policies apply and how,” said Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who studies how stories spread on social networks.
What are Twitter Files?
They are a collection of emails and Slack chats between Twitter employees in which they talk about company policies and difficult moderation calls.
So far, they have talked about the decision to ban Trump, Twitter’s short-lived decision to block a news story in October 2020 that used information from Hunter Biden’s laptop, and how the company limits the reach of accounts that break its rules, including some well-known right-wing users.
Musk has given a small group of independent journalists, like Matt Taibbi, who used to write for Rolling Stone, and Bari Weiss, who used to write for the New York Times, exclusive access to some documents, but they have to tweet about them first.
“The Twitter Files” so far has proven exactly what right-wingers have claimed. The matter of shadow banning and the suppression of accounts for political reasons. The former employees were clearly run by ideas of megalomania and there was little to no pushback. #TheTwitterFiles
— Jan Peter Osorio (@JanPeterOsorio) December 14, 2022
The choice of Taibbi and Weiss has caused controversy because they agree with Musk’s criticisms of the mainstream media and what they see as progressive censorship.
Other news outlets haven’t been given access to the original documents. Instead, they’ve only seen screenshots and excerpts of the documents in long threads of tweets, which often don’t make sense on their own.
What do the documents say?
The Twitter Files might not be the bombshell that Musk hinted at with popcorn emojis, but they do give an interesting look at how content moderation works. They show Twitter executives and regular employees struggling with hard choices, questioning the company’s rules and how they should be used, and sometimes getting things wrong.
Take Twitter’s decision right before the 2020 presidential election to temporarily stop people from sharing a story from the New York Post that said Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, had done some shady business in Ukraine.
The article was based on files from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which the Post said it got from Trump’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether or not that information was real.
After Russia hacked and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016, tech companies were worried that it could happen again, so Twitter decided to limit the Post story.
The company showed a warning to anyone who tried to post a link to the article, saying it was “potentially harmful,” because it was against its rules to share hacked material with private information. It also stopped the New York Post’s Twitter account until it deleted its tweets about the story.
Twitter’s aggressive stance caused a huge backlash right away from people of all political stripes. People criticized the company for taking a strong stance on a controversial story that was being covered by a major news outlet and for not giving a good reason for its choice.
Within a few days, Twitter took back the ban and changed its rules about hacked content. Soon after, the company’s CEO at the time, Jack Dorsey, said that they had made a mistake.
— The Quiet American (@illdoitagain) December 13, 2022
All of that has been widely known and talked about in the news for the past two years. The information Musk shared gives a clearer picture of how Twitter tried to figure out what to do, but it doesn’t change the big picture.
And it doesn’t show any proof, despite what Musk and others have said, that the government was behind the move to stop the New York Post story. On Tuesday, Dorsey spoke out about the Twitter Files. He said that the company had made mistakes in how it moderated content.
“I continue to believe there was no ill intent or hidden agendas, and everyone acted according to the best information we had at the time,” he wrote. “Of course mistakes were made.”
He said that he wished the internal files had been made public “like Wikileaks,” so that many more people could look at them and give their opinions. He added: “There’s nothing to hide … only a lot to learn from.”
What are the Twitter Files missing?
DiResta said that there are good reasons to want to know more about how social media companies work. “Often these decisions are quite inscrutable,” she said. “These are platforms that shape public opinion, and so the question of how they’re moderated and how they’re designed is impactful.”
But she said that for outsiders to get the full picture, they need more than the “anecdotes” that Musk’s chosen journalists share, which so far have only been about highly charged, partisan American political dramas.
“Twitter is a global platform. Twitter’s moderation policies have to apply at a global level,” she said. She said that discussions about the accounts of other world leaders who haven’t been banned would help people understand why Trump’s account was banned.
“There’s value in what’s been revealed to the public, but at the same time, it is primarily reinforcing a perception in large part based on your pre-existing opinions as partisan individuals within the United States,” DiResta said.
How does Musk’s audience see his claims?
For many conservatives and Musk fans, the fact that these conversations are happening is a smoking gun in and of itself. The fact that many mainstream news outlets don’t cover the Twitter Files without a lot of scepticism only makes people more angry.
A research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, Mike Caulfield, said that framing the leaks as secret information works well on Twitter.
“This very cinematic world-building activity has become part of everyday culture on Twitter for certain groups of people,” he said. Musk’s attempts to make people believe in conspiracies have quickly turned ugly.
He is using a project that is supposed to be about transparency to discredit Twitter’s former leadership and harass people with whom he disagrees. That makes it easy for his 120 million Twitter followers to find him.
Again, not even a matter of the Twitter Files.
This here is a significant risk in any scenario where user data is managed. Again, anyone who looks at this and goes “Lol, but Musk is a joke” needs to just take a break from the internet until they can think rationally again. https://t.co/eH22O0FIZy
— BunBox (@BunBoxMomo) December 15, 2022
Musk made homophobic comments about Twitter’s former head of safety, Yoel Roth, who is a big part of the documents, over the weekend. These comments are common in anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories. He also attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci with a tweet that added to a conspiracy theory about the COVID-19 pandemic. Musk says Fauci will be in later parts of the Twitter files.
Both men were threatened with harm because of his tweets. A person who knows about the situation says that Roth and his family have been forced to leave their home.
“The current attacks on my former colleagues could be dangerous and doesn’t solve anything,” Dorsey wrote on Tuesday. “If you want to blame, direct it at me and my actions, or lack thereof.”
What is Musk doing to moderate content?
Musk’s continued interest in conspiracies and far-right ideologies is making people worry about how he will run Twitter. He has cut the company’s trust and safety staff by a lot, including teams that work on languages other than English and state-backed propaganda.
This week, Twitter got rid of its outside Trust and Safety Council, whose members had been attacked online after Musk said bad things about them.
One Trust and Safety Council member, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said that the CEO’s willingness to go after people who work to keep the platform’s users safe, including through the Twitter Files releases, has a “chilling effect.”
Musk has backed some of Twitter’s tools for moderation that the Twitter Files say are a form of censorship. For example, he has supported Twitter’s long-standing, public policy of hiding tweets and accounts that break its rules. Last month, he wrote on Twitter, “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”
At the same time, he has brought back thousands of accounts that had been banned for breaking the rules. This includes Trump, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and people who promoted QAnon. However, he won’t let conspiracy theorist Alex Jones or anti-Semitic Kanye West tweet.
It’s not clear how this fits with the idea that Musk supports free speech. But Musk has taken over the conversation with his steady stream of Twitter Files releases and gleeful tweets about the company’s former employees.
“It is being processed as punitive and sort of owning the last regime, as opposed to saying, ‘Here are things that we can see in these files and here is how it’s going to be done differently under our watch,'” DiResta said.
“Ultimately, transparency is key,” she added. “And it can’t be transparency as a cudgel.” Follow us only on Lee Daily for more news like this.