A few thoughts on the Twitter Files

Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi teamed up to offer the “Twitter files,” a look inside the internal deliberations at Twitter when it decided to block access to a New York Post story which revealed all kinds of embarrassing and scandalous information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. You can quibble with Taibbi’s decisions, but overall, the files paint an ugly portrait of a social-media company’s management unilaterally deciding that its role was to keep breaking news away from the public instead of letting people see the reporting and drawing their own conclusions.

Opening the ‘Twitter Files’

The revelations of the “Twitter Files” paint an ugly portrait of the individuals who made decisions about standards of content on Twitter during the 2020 presidential campaign. The company’s senior management — oddly, without consulting or involving CEO Jack Dorsey — basically decided unilaterally that people shouldn’t be allowed to read the New York Post’s article, which laid out emails indicating that Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm, “less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating the company.”

Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, gave reporter Matt Taibbi access to internal company emails and records, and Taibbi laid out in a series of tweets how the company “took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe.’ They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.”

The reasoning behind the ban of the article was the contention that it included “hacked materials,” even though there was no evidence of hacking. The Post said the information was obtained from a computer that was dropped off at a repair shop in Biden’s home state of Delaware in April 2019 and never reclaimed. This was not electronic theft; this was old-fashioned reporting — and exceptionally bad judgment on Hunter Biden’s part, which at this point shouldn’t seem implausible to anyone.

Note that Twitter made its decision to restrict access to and distribution of the Post story before more than 50 former senior intelligence officials signed a letter contending that the trove of emails from Hunter Biden “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” (In retrospect, the characterization of it as an “information operation” instead of a “disinformation operation” was a revealing admission.)

That letter was an extraordinarily irresponsible act by the likes of Jim Clapper, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, et. al., because it assumed facts not in evidence, and effectively cashed in on the reputations of those former intelligence officials to persuade the American public to believe something that wasn’t true. Many Americans likely believed that former CIA staff would know something about Russian operations that the rest of us didn’t.

But Twitter’s management can’t pass the buck to those former intelligence officials, because the company made its decision to block access to the Post’s story five days before their letter was published.

I suppose the revelations of the Twitter Files could have been even worse if the Biden campaign or someone in the government had somehow “ordered” Twitter’s management to take these drastic measures. But it’s still atrocious that just about all of Twitter’s management believed its role was to keep news away from the public instead of letting people see the Post’s reporting and draw their own conclusions.

Recall how Twitter touted its purpose back in 2016: “Twitter connects you with the people you’re interested in — whether that’s someone across the world who shares your love for science-fiction, your friends and family, a politician, or your local sports team.”

If, from the beginning, Twitter had declared that, “We are a progressive company, and we are only interested in connecting progressives with other progressives, and we will suspend the accounts of conservative users with little warning and with vague explanations, and we will block the public’s ability to see news that we think might make them want to vote against Democrats,” well, at least then it would have been honest, and most conservatives never would have bothered to set up accounts on Twitter.

You notice that you don’t see many conservatives complaining that they’re being shut out of Mastodon, the social-media network that many progressives flocked to after Elon Musk purchased Twitter. If progressives want to set up their own online community that conservatives can’t join, that’s their right.

This was one of the complications of the “Twitter is a private company, so they can set whatever rules they like” argument. Twitter changed the deal, so to speak, after it had obtained significant authority over a chunk of online public discourse. Twitter attracted its large user base by being seeming politically neutral, and then gradually ratcheted up its attitudes of limiting and suppressing conservative speech.

Perhaps the lone pleasant surprise in the Twitter Files is Democratic congressman Ro Khanna of California, who reached out to Twitter’s head of legal, policy, and trust, Vijaya Gadde, and tried to gently nudge the company away from its censorious actions. Khanna described himself as a “total Biden partisan,” said he was convinced that Joe Biden had done nothing wrong, and characterized the New York Post as “far right.” (Eh, right of center, pugnacious, populist, tabloid, yes. Far-right, no.)

But credit Khanna for being the only figure to point out that, “This seems a violation of the First Amendment principles. . . . A journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack. So, to restrict the distribution of that material, especially regarding a presidential candidate, seems not in the keeping of [the Supreme Court case] New York Times vs. Sullivan.” Khanna added that, “In the heat of a presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if NY Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.”

You can find quibbles and beefs with the way Musk and Taibbi handled the story. There was no need to post the email addresses of figures such as Khanna. There are one or two spots where Taibbi’s characterization isn’t as clear as it ought to be, such as when he wrote, “By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’” Apparently, four of the five tweets in the example Taibbi pointed to included nude photos, which seems like an important detail. Most of us would agree there is a substantive difference between “please remove these nude photos of my son that he did not consent to have released or published” and “please remove this information about my son’s business deals with shady foreign figures that is embarrassing to me and my campaign.”

It would have been helpful to have all of this laid out in one document instead of a long series of tweets, and links to source documents also would have helped paint the fullest picture possible.

When a social-media company decides to block access to a news article out of ideological and political loyalties, that’s newsworthy and consequential, and it’s worth asking, “How did this happen? Who made the decisions that led to this point?”

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