Did ‘Every Conspiracy Theory’ About Twitter Turn Out To Be True?
The so-called Twitter Files, written by a group of independent journalists given access to internal company documents, offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the federal government shaped the flow of information on one of the world’s largest social media platforms.
Some tech pundits say that the Twitter Files contain no secrets: they knew about the thousands of takedown requests the company receives every month from law enforcement agencies and the courts, or they had already opined about the immense challenges of content moderation. However, the Twitter Files have brought important new information to light. They show that the company stifled debate over important policy issues by shadowbanning certain accounts for no good reason and then misleading the public. They show that Twitter was routinely strongarmed by the White House and the FBI into complying with frivolous takedown requests. And they provide evidence that the intelligence community likely influenced the decision to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story during Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
“Almost every conspiracy theory that people had about Twitter turned out to be true,” Elon Musk said on the All-In Podcast in late December. “Is there a conspiracy theory about Twitter that didn’t turn out to be true?”
Conspiracy theorists are often sloppy with the facts and exaggerate what actually happened. But the information brought to light by the Twitter Files should be alarming to anyone who cares about free speech and a free society. Is the government meddling similarly with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Google search? How can we prevent the internet from becoming a centralized apparatus through which state actors shape and censor public debate? Here are three major takeaways from the Twitter Files:
#1 Twitter distorted the conversation and misled the public
Twitter had a system of “whitelists” that allowed its algorithms and human moderators to turn engagement dials up and down based on what a user said. It used this power to limit the ability of certain groups and individuals to reach an audience, including conservative commentator Dan Bongino, Stanford economist and medical school professor Jay Bhattacharya, mRNA vaccine critic Alex Berenson, and the Libs of TikTok account.
The company regularly tap-danced around the meaning of “shadowbanning” to maintain plausible deniability. In a 2018 blog post, Twitter’s Trust and Safety team wrote, “We do not shadow ban. You are always able to see the tweets from accounts you follow (although you may have to do more work to find them, like go directly to their profile).”
Needless to say, making Tweets so hard to find that digging through someone’s profile is the only way to unearth them is what’s commonly known as “shadow banning,” or, as Twitter employees termed it with an Orwellian flair, “visibility filtering.”
The Twitter Files show that company staff became increasingly comfortable using these tools to manage the flow of information and political discourse around the 2020 election, regularly deploying filters to limit the visibility of Trump’s tweets and many others pertaining to election results in the weeks preceding the January 6 riot and the decision to evict the president from the platform.
Of course, Twitter is a private company, and it has every right to label the tweets of Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kuldorff as “misleading” when he tweets statements such as, “Thinking that everyone must be vaccinated is as scientifically flawed as thinking that nobody should.”
But Twitter is still worthy of our condemnation. Stanford physician and economist Jay Bhattacharya was shadowbanned despite being a respected epidemiologist from a prestigious university, and many of his warnings during the pandemic turned out to be correct.
And you can acknowledge serious problems with the work of former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson—who, for instance, badly misinterpreted data to infer a spike in “vaccine-caused mortality”—while still believing it’s preferable to have a public airing of controversial and deeply flawed arguments.
A better way to deal with speech you disagree with is to respond to it, as Derek Thompson attempted to do in The Atlantic when he called Berenson “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man.” Ironically, Twitter raised Berenson’s profile by allowing him to inhabit the role of the oppressed truth-seeker.
#2 The government is secretly policing speech.
The most troubling thing about the Berenson de-platforming isn’t Twitter’s decision per se, but whether it made that decision freely. Was it done at the behest of the federal government? The Twitter files provide circumstantial evidence that the White House played a role.
“When the Biden admin took over, one of their first meeting requests with Twitter executives was on Covid,” writes journalist David Zweig in the Twitter files. “The focus was on ‘anti-vaxxer accounts.’ Especially Alex Berenson.”
Berenson was suspended hours after Biden said to a reporter that social media companies were “killing people” by failing to police pandemic-related misinformation.
Zweig also revealed that a series of meetings took place last December in which an “angry” Biden team excoriated Twitter executives because they were “not satisfied ” with its “enforcement approach” and wanted “Twitter to do more and to de-platform several accounts.”
In Twitter Files 6, Matt Taibbi described Twitter as an “FBI subsidiary.”
Agents from a dedicated task force would regularly send lists of accounts—some with fewer than 1,000 followers—for Twitter to look at for terms-of-service violations, suc
Article from Reason.com