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Big Tech on the ropes

Will greater transparency at Twitter lead to greater fairness and accountability?


Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California Getty Images/Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Big Tech on the ropes

The decision to ban then–President Donald Trump from one of the top social media networks boiled down to labeling “American patriots” a terrorist organization, according to a series of internal memos, emails, and documents released over the past two weeks. On Jan. 8, 2021, following riots at the U.S. Capitol and tweets by Trump questioning the 2020 election results, Twitter leaders decided to shutter all his access. But the road to this decision followed other moves to flag and monitor conservative content. And the road ahead is unclear under Twitter’s new CEO and a massive staff shakeup.

Independent journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger joined forces over the past couple of weeks to slowly release “The Twitter Files,” a five-part series detailing how top executives and staffers dealt with conservative content and Trump in particular. The reporters, handpicked by new CEO and “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk, reached a deal with the company to access internal messages and documents on the condition that they release their findings on Twitter first. Conservatives have hailed the files as long-awaited confirmation of suppression, while liberals panned them as a “nothingburger.”

In 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey testified to a House committee that Twitter did not “shadow ban” or otherwise censor conservatives. That’s not the story Weiss found. Twitter flagged a variety of accounts between 2020 and the present with internal labels such as “trends blacklist” and “search blacklist” to make them hard for users to find and impossible to go viral. Accounts such as TurningPoint USA founder Charlie Kirk’s were marked “do not amplify.”

In 2020, Twitter preliminarily marked as “unsafe” a report by the New York Post about a laptop allegedly owned by Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, and recovered from an electronics repair shop in Delaware. The report pointed out possible links between Joe Biden and his son’s business dealings in Ukraine while the elder Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.

Twitter flagged the Post story under its hacked-material policy, displaying a label to users. But internal documents reviewed by Taibbi, an independent investigative finance and business journalist, showed leadership disagreed about the decision. Twitter’s former vice president of global communications, Brandon Boorman, questioned the truthfulness of the claim that the content actually violated Twitter’s policy. Figures outside of Twitter also approached the platform about the warning, including U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. Twitter shut down the Post’s account for two weeks.

The Twitter Files also showed that the company took requests from the Biden administration to remove certain content. According to Taibbi, the Trump administration also sent these kinds of queries—though the majority of them came from Democratic-affiliated individuals. Celebrities made similar requests.

Twitter never called its actions “shadow-banning,” a term used to describe when a social media platform hides particular posts from other users. Instead, it applied what it called “visibility filtering” at the behest of a leadership team, the heads of which were top executives, including Dorsey and his successor, Parag Agrawal. None of the Twitter Files indicate whether any of those filters were placed on Donald Trump’s account.

For years Twitter faced internal and external pressure to suspend Trump for his posts, but leaders consistently argued it would be wrong to silence a world leader. Instead, they added “context links” to many of his claims about election fraud. The context links sent users to websites with reports that often contradicted Trump’s claims. But this workaround collided with the practice of restricting other conservative accounts following the 2020 election.

But then riots broke out at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Even as crowds finally dissipated and lawmakers reconvened to certify the presidential election, internal Twitter channels hosted intense debates over whether to allow the president access to his personal account anymore. Yoel Roth, former head of Trust and Safety, pushed Dorsey to implement a five-strike framework, the end of which could be a permanent ban. Roth resigned in November.

According to Weiss, things happened quickly on Jan. 8, 2021. The tweet that finally heralded Trump’s suspension was a post about the election: “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

Every time the former president tweeted, analysts convened their teams to scrutinize them. Initially, all security and safety teams agreed the tweet was not a violation. But then head of legal, policy, and trust Vijaya Gadde asked to flag the phrase “American Patriots,” claiming that if this referred to rioters, then it qualified as an inciting post that glorified violence.

Within hours, the new consensus was not only that “patriots” referred to violent offenders, but also that Trump could be characterized as the leader of a terrorist organization, according to screenshots of conversations with anonymous members of Twitter’s scaled enforcement team.

Weiss pointed out that Twitter left the accounts of other world leaders promoting violence against religious and ethnic minorities alone, and Dorsey eventually admitted the permanent suspension was wrong. But he also has criticized Musk’s release of the Twitter Files. He argues that the new CEO should simply release all the documents as-is, rather than filter them through favored reporters.

Musk reinstated Trump’s account on Nov. 19, following a public poll asking Twitter users if he should. He also announced in a tweet that a software feature is in the works to let accounts know if they have been shadow-banned and provide a way to appeal.

Republican lawmakers have watched the file releases with growing anger. Many have promised further investigations into Twitter’s transparency. Following the release of the first two Twitter Files, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., sent a letter to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to hold renewed hearings on Big Tech censorship. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who is currently campaigning to be the next House speaker, said he intends to direct scrutiny toward Twitter but also major platforms like Facebook and Google, all of which he called “arms of the Democratic Party and the Biden administration.”

But academics say the First Amendment doesn’t have much application here. This section of the Constitution manages entities like the press and public information, but it does not reach as far as a private social media company like Twitter, according to Northeastern University professor of journalism and misinformation expert John Wihbey.

“If this were a public square, the First Amendment would protect it, but as a private company, they’re doing business and trying to make money. They are perfectly within their rights to try to make money and run their company how they wish,” Wihbey told WORLD. “Now, simultaneously, you would hope because it has this postcard, imagine you would try to be fair to all sides of the ideological spectrum.”

Wihbey told me he agreed with the suspension of Trump’s account, but he thinks it should have been a short-term ban to wait for tempers to cool. As for Twitter’s treatment of conservative voices, Wihbey also thinks the Twitter Files don’t tell the whole story. He said right-wing voices tend to espouse more politically incorrect speech in topics like race and gender identity than the left, which lands them in the hot seat. Wihbey says it’s what happens next that’s more important.

“I think the core question is not whether more conservatives end up coming to the attention of the content moderators, it’s more a question of whether it’s a true apples-to-apples behavior that is being treated fairly,” he said. “I constantly raised this issue with [Twitter and Facebook] that it’s in the public interest for them to be more transparent about who makes content moderation decisions and whether there’s undue influence. But the way Musk is going about it seems forced and manipulative to selectively publish internal emails to independent journalists.”

Washington Post contributor Hugh Hewitt wrote in a recent op-ed that the Twitter Files convinced him that conservatives were unfairly treated. “Over and over, I and others on the center-right knocked down talk of behind-the-scenes activists busy silencing dissidents from the approved party line. But the folks paranoid about Twitter have been proved right, and those who dismissed their concerns—wrong, wrong, wrong. Try getting anyone on the right to believe assurances of good faith from Big Tech again.”

And while the Twitter Files only dealt with the murky political waters surrounding Trump’s permanent ban, Musk’s recent activity shows that an investigation about the platform’s handling of COVID-19 information could be next. In a recent tweet, he declared, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” referring to the retiring chief medical adviser to the president Anthony Fauci.

Other platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat also banned Trump after Jan. 6 and have not restored any of his accounts. Although Trump has not reactivated his account after Musk lifted the permanent ban, several users banned for posts about the COVID-19 vaccine and lockdown skepticism returned to Twitter this week.


Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a reporter for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College graduate. She resides in Washington, D.C.

@CarolinaLumetta

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