What the Twitter files don’t tell us

Conservatives have long accused Big Tech of being biased towards them, without much testing.

Now the “Twitter files”, a treasure trove of internal Twitter documents, is providing new ammunition for these conservatives. The new CEO of Twitter, Elon Musk, has released the files to journalists Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi, who like him are active critics from the liberal “awakening” culture.,

Last week, journalists Weiss and Taibbi shared details of some documents and their analysis in two lengthy Twitter threads. Revelations are ongoing, with plans to post more in the next days. Their central charge thus far is that Twitter has long silenced conservative or contrarian voices, and they point to internal emails, Slack messages, and content moderation systems to show how Twitter has limited the reach of popular right-wing accounts. such as Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk and TikTok Libraries.

But these claims and the internal documents lack crucial context.

We don’t have a complete explanation of, for example, why Twitter limited the reach of these accounts — that is, whether they were violating the platform’s rules about hate speech, health misinformation, or violent content. Without this information, we do not know whether these rules have been applied fairly or not. Twitter has long recognized that sometimes downgrade the content that violates its rules instead of banning it outright. It’s a strategy that Musk himself has advocated arguing that people should have “freedom of speech, but not freedom of contact” on the platform.

And while Weiss brought up specific examples of Twitter limiting the reach of conservative accounts known for spreading hateful content about the LGTBQ+ community or sharing the “big lie” on the US presidential election, we don’t know if Twitter has done the same for some far-left accounts also known for pushing the envelope, such as some exes Occupy movement leaders who have complained about Twitter’s content moderation in the past.

Musk, Weiss and Taibbi also assume that these decisions were made with explicit political motivations. Historically, the majority of Twitter employees — like the rest of Big Tech: lean liberal. Conservative critics of Twitter argue that this presents an inherent bias in the company’s content moderation decisions. The former Twitter employees Recode spoke to this week insisted that content moderation teams operate in good faith to execute the rules of Twitter policy, regardless of personal policy. And research shows that Twitter’s recommendation algorithms they actually have an inherent right-wing bias news. What has been shared so far in the Twitter files doesn’t offer clear proof that someone on Twitter made decisions about specific accounts or tweets due to their political affiliation. We need more context and information to clarify what is really going on here.

But for right-wing politicians, influencers and their supporters, none of these nuances ultimately matter. Former President Donald Trump used the release of the files to ask terminate parts of the United States ConstitutionFox News anchor Tucker Carlson said it’s proof of that liberals are censoring conservatives onlineand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) warned that “Supervision is coming.”

“We ALWAYS knew we were a target of the Twitter suppression machine. ALWAYS. Yet liberals insisted it was just another ‘conspiracy theory’.” Bongino, popular conservative commentator whoever showed Weiss’ report was apparently barred from Twitter search results at one point, he tweeted Thursday night. “Tonight is revenge,” she wrote.

What Twitter files tell us – and what they don’t

The first installment of the Twitter Files, written by Taibbi, analyzed the controversial decision by Twitter to block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden before the 2020 US election. Twitter’s rationale for blocking the story at the time was that it may have been based on hacked or fake materials — in the end, it was based on real information apparently from Hunter Biden’s laptop which he left behind in a repair shop, but the veracity of the materials and where they came from was unclear at the time Twitter was making its decision.

Taibbi’s breakdown of the internal Twitter debate over whether or not to block the New York Post story was seen by some reporters as a “snoozefest” Due to Twitter executives’ disagreement and regret over the decision, including then-CEO Jack Dorsey, has already been reported. Nor do the new files reveal any clear intention of political preference – instead, internal debate on Twitter at the time focused on whether the story violated Twitter policies about compromised materials and the publication of “personal and private” information.

The second installment of Twitter files, by Weiss, shared previously unreported details about Twitter applying what it calls a “visibility filter” on the accounts of some conservative figures, meaning fewer people saw their tweets because Twitter appeared to be taking actions like blocking their names in searches, preventing their tweets to trend or downgrade their tweet in people’s feeds. In doing so, Weiss accused Twitter of “shadow-banning” these accounts, but there is controversy over the meaning of that term.

Twitter defined the shadow ban in a company blog post in 2018 such as “deliberately making someone’s content invisible to all but the person who posted it, without the knowledge of the original poster”.

A source who worked in content moderation on Twitter told Recode that the examples Weiss reported aren’t a real shadow ban because those tweets were still visible to other people.

There’s a lot of confusion about the many ways Twitter can degrade people’s tweets without deleting them entirely. While Twitter has denied ever shadowing users, it has never fully explained what “visibility filtering” meant or which accounts it applied to. It’s easy to see how this can lead to confusion and accusations of political manipulation. However, for some former Twitter employees, the decision to demote hateful accounts is not per se controversial.

“I don’t see the scandal,” said another former Twitter employee, who spoke to Recode on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. The employee claimed that TikTok’s Libs, an account Weiss revealed has a limited reach from Twitter, is a “malicious” user who forced the company to limit its visibility. The account was accused of harassing children’s hospitals, including bomb threats.

“Why wouldn’t you want to limit the amplification of such an account?” the former employee said. “No one has the right to be amplified.”

But Twitter’s lack of transparency as to why these accounts were limited and open the company to accusations that he had exaggerated and displayed political bias.

How is Elon Musk reacting

Musk says Twitter is working on a feature that will shows users if they have been shadow banned, why and how to appeal.

Several sources Recode has spoken to who currently or formerly work for major social media companies said that, historically, companies like Facebook or Twitter haven’t done so because it could make it easier for bad actors to game moderation systems. content and evade the rules.

But despite this risk, if Musk were to publicly reveal why users were downgraded, it could actually solve a bigger problem for Twitter: the perception that the company is secretly silencing conservative voices. Instead, what it could reveal is that it is necessary to have a well-functioning platform to downgrade harmful content, even if published by prominent conservative figures.

And sometimes it’s important to kick out users who break the rules, as Musk himself learned when Kanye West’s account was reinstated and then West repeatedly tweeted anti-Semitic comments. Moss he suspended his account again in response about a month later.

If we had more insight into the full extent of accounts that Twitter “filters visibility” to and the rationale for why it does so, Twitter’s files could spark deeper conversations. If conservatives are the ones who repeatedly break the rules around hateful content, does that mean they should be held to a different standard on the platform? Or should Twitter rewrite its hate speech rules? So far, neither Musk nor his conservative supporters denouncing the Twitter files appear to have an answer.


Former US President Donald Trump. Joe Raedle/Getty Images