The Twitter files: a bitter lesson on manipulation

As Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss with the group of other journalists gradually provided portions of documents on the alleged manipulation, the Twitter files have been in the screens for two months now. If you have not followed the news or were just lost in the hurricane of various sources and revelations coming every day, here comes a resume of the whole story. A story that involves, apart from Elon Musk and journalists who have leaked tons of screenshots and documents, Hunter Biden, Donald Trump, the FBI, and even Pentagon and its secret ‘PsyOp’ campaign. Put this in the context of the ongoing democracy crisis – and we get a variety of lessons. While the whole undertaking might seem a bit fishy and suspicious (in the end, it is a journalistic cooperation with Elon Musk, in whose interest is undermining the position of former Twitter employees) it shows us how social media platform manipulation can shape our modern agora. We get a glimpse of the future awaiting public debates – and we might be willing to ask some essential questions.

For several years, Twitter has assumed that it would limit certain problematic accounts’ visibility. The “Twitter files”, largely staged by Musk, are supposed to show, through the revelation of secret internal exchanges, the political censorship of the former management of the social network, and highlight, by contrast, the new “liberated” Twitter that the billionaire intends to behold. Those files were meant to put an end to this discussion. However, did they?  

The first portion of files was uploaded by Taibbi on 2 December. It was, of course, accompanied by days of teasing made by Musk, claiming it was going to be a massive bomb which would disclose the whole new framework of Twitter’s wrongdoing. He claimed that he would reveal “what really happened” for example when in 2020 Twitter decided to suppress a New York Post story about Hunter Biden and his laptop.  

But in the end Taibbi’s series of tweets proved what had already been known: that the team of Twitter was simply scared that the whole scoop might be a result of a Russian disinformation and hacking operation. All of Twitter’s legal, communication and policy teams debated and disagreed whether they should restrict the article or not. It took place weeks before the 2020 election, where, as we know, Biden, Hunter’s father ran against Trump.  

What is more, the format of all documents and stuff published by Taibbi still goes well with the side of the story presented by the leaders of Twitter. Some of the employees thought that the basis for the decision might seem to invite allegations of anti-republican bias. Others claimed that all things surrounding the case were unclear, and recommended, as everyone would do, caution. Then-CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey has stated also that the whole suppression was a mistake. Taibbi claims that he was not initially involved in the entire process.  

Deep state octopus  

The whole story seems in the end, at this point, consistent with what former site integrity director Yoel Roth told in the interview published couple days earlier. Roth stated there that he felt at the time that the Post reporting had the hallmarks of a Russian hack-and-leak operation. The other figure in the story is Democratic Representative from California Ro Khanna. His e-mails to former Twitter executive, Vijata Gadde were also part of the Taibbi publication. They were voicing concerns about the company restricting the above-mentioned New York Post article.  

In the comment for the Washington Post Khanna stated that: “I found out when I suddenly had 208 emails in my inbox. I said, ‘What’s going on?’” He also added that “he was “unbothered” by the disclosure, calling it a “minor inconvenience,” though he has since “taken provisions” to secure his email account. 

What is interesting here is that, as claimed by the Washington Post: “Khanna’s email to Twitter, which argued the company was violating “1st Amendment principles” by restricting access to the New York Post article, has since been celebrated online by conservatives critical of the company — and by Musk”.  

The whole case was also labeled as a proof of FBI’s and other secret agencies interventionism when it comes to covering Democrats and people from the circus of Joe Biden, so-called establishment end etc. The pro-Trump audience of course links that with Pizzagates and other conspiracy theories referring to the deep state. It is obvious that Taibbi did not find any proof for that. In the end, Trump was president at the time in question and it was him who had appointed the sitting FBI director.  

What is more Khanna said in the above-mentioned article that: “That’s the Biden campaign’s First Amendment right to flag tweets, and campaigns do that all the time, to flag things that they think are violating platform’s policies. … I have not seen anything that they were being unduly pressured by a government actor, the Biden campaign, in any way that would be inappropriate.” So there has not been also, from his part, any wrongdoing from the Biden team, another potential deep state representative.   

In all this, Musk, with his famous attitude tweeted during the Taibbi tweets thread publication that Twitter had acted “under orders from the government” in violation of the First Amendment. This line of narration was disputed by journalists and experts, going as far as David French from The Atlantic, who commented that Musk did not understand the First Amendment properly. As it was written before, Taibi reported no government involvement in the laptop story. To be honest, he also tweeted that

“Although several sources recalled hearing about a “general” warning from federal law enforcement that summer about possible foreign hacks, there is no evidence – that I have seen – of any government involvement in the laptop story”.  

Return of the files   

“The Twitter Files, Part Deux!” – Elon Musk tweeted on his social network in a message illustrated with two emojis symbolizing popcorn. So where does the story begin with the second portion of the files?  

This time it is no longer about the censorship of the Hunter Biden case but. It is about something much bigger, and interesting: a particular visibility given to (or taken from) certain accounts or topics at the discretion of the site’s moderators and managers.  

In a series of tweets, journalist Bari Weiss, who joined Taibbi in this endeavor, explains that “teams of Twitter employees create blacklists”, prevent topics or tweets from appearing “in trends”, and actively limit the visibility of “entire accounts”, “all in secret, without informing users”.  

In her twitter thread published 8 December she gave three Twitter figures affected by those measures. One of them is Charlie Kirk, an American conservative activist and radio talk show host. He founded Turning Point USA in 2012, which is a conservative nonprofit organization that advocates to identify, educate, train, and organize students to “promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”. It is primarily known for its Professor Watchlist. A site which claims to expose professors that Turning Point says: “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”. According to liberal media’s TPUSA attempts to influence student government elections to combat liberal leaning campuses. What is more, Charlie Kirk is also CEO of Students for Trump and Turning Point Action, which are sister organizations whose aim is to support Trump campaigns. Account of Charlie Kirk was meant to “not be featured”.  

The second one, this time on the “search blacklist”, is Dan Bongino, a former secret service agent and police officer. Right now, he works as a media influencer, author of books, in which, as he claims, he intends to show the truth about the American establishment. Bongino ran for Congress unsuccessfully as a Republican three times. He currently hosts the syndicated conservative talk radio show The Dan Bongino Show on Westwood One and Unfiltered with Dan Bongino on Fox News. Bongino and Kirk hold problematic views on COVID-19 mandates and vaccines, which might somehow tell us why they had ended up with restricted visibility on Twitter.  

The last one is Dr. Jay Bhattacharya (signatory of the controversial Great Barrington Declaration and co-author of a biased study on the value of containment, simply presented by Weiss as “having argued that contaminants would harm children”). During the COVID-19 pandemic Bhattacharya was an opponent of lockdown measures. In his case, it was about ending up on the “trending blacklist.”   

Shadow banning?  

Weiss treated those cases as examples of the so-called “shadow banning”, even though the social network has “denied doing such things”. Shadow banning, or restricting the visibility of certain accounts is clearly assumed to be part of the arsenal of Twitter’s moderators. It is also a tool used by other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.    

It is a practice that makes posts, comments, materials published by certain individuals or institutions much harder to find on the platform. It can happen on Instagram, when it is harder to find a person, an influencer or institution via searching tools, the same manner it takes when it comes to Twitter.

Twitter officials argue that it is not about banning someone, denying them the freedom of speech, but more like restricting some information or stuff from the mainstream flow. They say that: you are always able to see the tweets of the accounts you follow (even if you sometimes must make more effort to find them, like going directly to their profile). This practice does not make anyone undiscoverable. The aim of this is to maintain the health of public discourse.    

To specify and identify “the bad actors” Twitter employees take into account actions that specific people take on Twitter, for example, who you follow, who you retweet, how people interact with you, who follows you or retweets you, etc. When we look up the materials provided by Twitter about shadow banning, it is hard or impossible to find anything that fundamentally contradicts those statements in the material published by Weiss.  

The king and the hoax  

The third installment came just a day after Weiss’ revelations and was published once more by Taibbi. Substack writer detailed the correspondence referencing the ban of then current President Donald Trump after the January 6th Capitol storm.

“The Removal of Donald Trump,” or the third part of the saga contains 67 posts. It attempts to reveal “the erosion of standards within the company in months before J6, decisions by high-ranking executives to violate their own policies, and more, against the backdrop of ongoing, documented interaction with federal agencies”.  

Taibbi claims that during the weeks leading up to January the 6th, Twitter tried to curtail Trump’s campaign through its means of shadowbanning and by employing bots.

“The significance is that it shows that Twitter, in 2020 at least, was deploying a vast range of visible and invisible tools to rein in Trump’s engagement, long before J6 (..) “The ban will come after other avenues are exhausted” – Taibbi wrote.  

However, in the end, most of the information “revealed” by Taibbi had been already published by scholars or journalists, and had been known to the public for a long time. Even without these contents it is not a black magic to say that the former president did in fact incite a riot at the Capitol.   

On 22th of December, the new journalist joined the crusade of Taibbi and Weiss. Michael Shellenberger on Saturday night released the fourth installment of the “Twitter Files.” Shellenberger shared on Twitter through thread screenshots of a conversation on the January 7th between former Twitter Head of Trust & Safety Yoel Roth and an anonymous coworker where he asked to blacklist the terms “stopthesteal” and “kraken,” which propped up the conspiracy that Trump won the 2020 election.   

Next tweets revealed the same day showed that pressure from Twitter employees factored into former CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to distribute permanent bans after repeated violations of the community guidelines. On the same day Dorsey enforced a new measure called “repeat offender,” which would be an approach to Twitter’s “strikes” system, where a person who accrued five strikes would be permanently suspended.   

This thread also included some instances in which employees took actions against different Twitter accounts and users even without specific Twitter policy to back their choice.   

“Twitter employees use the term ‘one off’ frequently in their Slack discussions. (…) Its frequent use reveals significant employee discretion over when and whether to apply warning labels on tweets and ‘strikes’ on users.” – wrote Shellenberger, providing screenshots of different actions.  

After receiving five strikes as per the new policy, Trump’s personal Twitter account was permanently suspended on January 8.

The later installment, fifth one, released on December 12th by Bari Weiss, covered conflicts between employees referring to that decision. Sme of them include even repeated requests from FBI and other state agencies which were eager to determine if a particular tweet violated policies against election manipulation. According to Bari Weiss, documents leaked on Twitter show former head of Legal, Policy, and Trust Vijaya Gadde saying that the tweets violated the “glorification of violence” policy and that the term “American Patriots” Trump used in a tweet was code for the Capitol rioters. With other team members adding that Trump is a “leader of a terrorist group responsible for violence/deaths comparable to the Christchurch shooter or Hitler“. After a meeting of the team and other employees Trump’s account was suspended “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.  

The “Psyop” campaign and Pentagon’s long hands   

 “Despite promises to shut down covert state-run propaganda networks, Twitter docs show that the social media giant directly assisted the U.S. military’s influence operations,”

tweeted just before Christmas investigative journalist Lee Fang from The Intercept, introducing us to the last, sixth installment of the Twitter files.  

Fang showed how, according to him, Twitter worked hand in hand with the Pentagon despite claiming for years that they “make concerted efforts to detect & thwart gov-backed platform manipulation.”   

“But behind the scenes, Twitter gave approval & special protection to the U.S. military’s online psychological influence ops (…) Despite the knowledge that Pentagon propaganda accounts used covert identities, Twitter did not suspend many for around 2 years or more. Some remain active”.

Fang said Twitter worked with US Central Command (CENTCOM) to give the US military blue check verification status.  

“The CENTCOM accounts on the list tweeted frequently about U.S. military priorities in the Middle East, including promoting anti-Iran messages, promotion of the Saudi Arabia-U.S. backed war in Yemen, and ‘accurate’ U.S. drone strikes that claimed to only hit terrorists” – wrote Fang.   

“Still, many emails from throughout 2020 show that high-level Twitter executives were well aware of DoD’s vast network of fake accounts & covert propaganda and did not suspend the accounts” – tweeted Fang, referring to the Department of Defense. 

All of that came with applause from Musk, who shared Fang’s thread on Twitter, adding from his side “Yikes!” What is interesting about this part of Twitter files was a complete side job of the journalistic team, with no input from Musk, according to Fang.   

The lessons? 

Musk, in a statement of his beliefs on this case, or rather a prologue of the whole Twitter files campaign, published a poll on 19 November. Over 15 million Twitter users voted in it, with 51.8% voting in favor of reinstatement and institutionalized comeback of Donald Trump. Musk commented on this tweeting that “The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated”. Hover amid this warm welcoming, Donald Trump said that “I don’t see any reason for it,” when asked by a panel at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting.

Apart from the whole atmosphere and hurray from the side of right-wingers, deepstate seekers, and pizzagate maniacs alongside Musk and his club, the whole thing about Twitter files at the beginning doesn’t lay in the censorship-or-not question. It is not even a matter of journalist ethics.

The first thing to note is of course that Twitter is a private company, that’s why first of all the whole strategy of this kind of operation has to catch our eyes.

Musk deliberately creates a smoke, where sometimes there is no case at all, as we have seen above. The things that are genuinely important, such as shadowbanning, or co-working with the Pentagon, came somewhere in-between.

The whole case seems to be a distraction from the management methods imposed by Musk, as well as his economic problems. His personality, when revealed in whole darkness and laugh stock, damaged his businesses. But even so, where lies the problem if we go deeper? 

When we look at the documents provided by journalists, we see people who are American liberals, trying to censor or just limit the access of Republican or Trumpist users on the social platform that belongs, when it comes to the question of power, to them. The whole case is so purely American in essence that it is hard to see where it links with the European political culture, when we see the FBI and CIA, or other state agencies being completely involved in the whole banning or not culture in Twitter. 

Now we see that hell of a guy, Elon Musk, the very child of capitalism, decided to reveal the truth of his own newly bought company. So what? What does it change one might ask? 

Of course companies, such as any institutions are going to be a power playground, whether they are tech companies or social media corps. The question is do we want to give them power that provides them with censorship possibilities or not, and if we do, do we want to entangle our own political activity solely and only to those platforms? This is the very question that comes up here. Someone might say that it is too late to talk about it, because we do that, and nobody cares. However, Donald Trump shows us here that it is not the case.

It is possible to be a part of the power playground even without Twitter, even in a very American context. It goes without saying that a lot of European democracies are better without it too. 

The only lessons that come here are above mentioned questions, the futility of the whole case is about that in the end nobody cares – maybe apart from Musk and his followers. The forces that are using Twitter for their purposes, like the FBI and US agencies, are going to use it. Twitter still is going to be a power playground as it did, now just with a more friendly approach towards right-wingers. With one of the biggest databases in the world. No one except big power players and it’s owners or high tier employees cannot and should not count on it.

If this is what the future looks like – I am logging out.Do we want to base our political freedom on private companies, or our own grassroot, democratic institutions? 

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