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Behind the scenes of Twitter’s censorship machine

A timeline of what happened before Elon Musk took over

Jack Dorsey, chief executive officer of Twitter, right, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sept. 5, 2018 Getty Images/Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Behind the scenes of Twitter’s censorship machine

The recent release of internal communication from Twitter vindicated many conservatives’ frustration with the platform for its censorship of voices from the right.  New owner and CEO Elon Musk promises to make the social media platform more fair and open. Here’s a timeline of Twitter history leading up to the changes going on now.

March 2006—Creation of Twitter Jack Dorsey, then an employee with the podcasting company Odeo, created a messaging platform featuring short notes sent to groups of people—similar to text messages. That platform became Twitter in July 2006. The company’s mission statement was “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

2008 to 2010—Explosive growth in use According to Pennington Creative, the website’s activity numbered 300,000 Tweets a day in 2008. Two years later in 2010, that number had grown to 50 million a day. The growth set up Twitter as one of the foremost emerging social media platforms, paralleling the growth of other companies like Instagram.

2009—Donald Trump joins Twitter As the platform picked up steam, it attracted well-known celebrities like Donald Trump, who was primarily a TV personality and real estate businessman. Trump unsuccessfully ran for president in 2000 and would make another minor bid for the office in 2012.

November 2013—Initial public offering Twitter opened its IPO on Nov. 7, 2013, securing $1.8 billion in funding, selling 70 million shares, and closing the day at $44.90 a share—a performance greater than originally forecast.

2014—Reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal In 2014, The New York Times and many other publications covered the use of Facebook-generated user data by the U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica data firm to profile American voters. The information allowed the company to connect social media activity and the political orientation of a user, providing powerful insight into how social media could influence politics. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was one of the first public examples of the political influence of social online services.

October 2017—Facebook, Google, and Twitter testify before Congress Legal representatives of major social media platforms appeared before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee to testify about influencing factors in the 2016 presidential election. Despite previous public scrutiny of Facebook, this was one of the first times social media leaders appeared before Congress to discuss misinformation and content moderation. At the time, questioning focused on Russian misinformation. Twitter disclosed knowledge of 36,000 Russian bot accounts and 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian personnel.

Sept. 5, 2018—Twitter CEO Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg appear before the U.S. Senate Accusations that Twitter and other widely used technology platforms were selectively promoting or downplaying certain types of content prompted a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that focused on the companies’ role in public discourse. In his first appearance before Congress, Dorsey was asked if Twitter engaged in “shadow-banning” certain accounts, limiting the dissemination of select political views. Dorsey denied the claim.

Oct. 14, 2020—The New York Post reveals contents of Hunter Biden’s recovered laptop After receiving a laptop allegedly owned by Hunter Biden from an electronics repair shop in Delaware, the newspaper unveiled messages that placed Joe Biden uncomfortably close to the business dealings of his son in Ukraine while serving as vice president during the Obama Administration. Biden denied any involvement in his son’s business operations internationally. Recovered emails seemed to indicate otherwise. While no illegal activity was immediately implied, it prompted questions about whether Hunter Biden improperly used his father’s position as vice president to further his business overseas. The New York Times later confirmed the authenticity of the laptop and its contents.

Oct. 14, 2020—Twitter leadership discusses how to manage content from the Post’s story Twitter preliminarily marked the Post story as “unsafe” under its hacked-material policy, displaying a label to users. But internal documents reviewed by Matt 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.

Oct. 15, 2020—Twitter locks out the New York Post’s Account In a standoff that lasted two weeks, Twitter locked down the Post’s Twitter account for disseminating the story on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The company also blocked certain users who disseminated the story such as former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter would restore the Post’s account on Oct. 30.

Oct. 24, 2020—Twitter removes content at Biden campaign team’s request Screenshots taken from Matt Taibbi’s review of internal documents at Twitter show that the company took requests from the Biden administration to remove certain content. Taibbi describes the practice as something that became “routine.” 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.

Oct. 28, 2020—Twitter, Facebook, and Google testify before congress Questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation, and freedom of information sparked a politically charged hearing on content moderation before the Senate Commerce Committee. Many figures—both in Congress and in the private sector—called for an overhaul of Section 230 and a revaluation of the responsibility platforms bear for the content they host. Section 230, a provision of the Communication Decency Act, provides publishers like Twitter with broad protections from the materials users decide to share, shielding them from most repercussions. Democrats have historically called for a tightening of Section 230, giving platforms and rules more power. Republicans have raised concerns that this empowerment could come at the excursion of certain political views and stifle freedom of expression online.

Nov. 3, 2020—The 2020 presidential election Throughout his Presidency, Trump used Twitter as a tool to communicate with his supporters and critics alike. While some claim this practice made his administration one of the most transparent in history, Trump’s use of the platform on Election Day and in the weeks following came under scrutiny when he began asserting that he had not really lost the election.

Jan. 6, 2021—The U.S. Capitol riot Protesters, many affiliated with groups supportive of Trump, made their way into the Capitol building after Trump held a rally in Washington. The rioters were looking to disrupt the ballot-counting processes to confirm the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Jan. 7, 2021—Twitter internally discusses removing Trump’s account Bari Weiss, journalist and editor of The Free Press, reviewed internal documents at Twitter demonstrating that the company struggled to clearly identify if Trump had violated the platform’s policy on violence. Despite some pushback, the company ultimately decided to interpret Trump’s verbiage as likely to incite further violence, opening the door to his account’s removal.

Jan. 8, 2021—Twitter permanently bans Trump’s account Citing concerns over Trump’s messaging that may have encouraged the events on Jan. 6, Twitter permanently suspended the account of the former president.

Early 2021—Twitter employees discuss technicalities used to restrict the spread of some accounts’ material At an unspecified date at the outset of 2021, internal conversations at Twitter denoted a sense of confusion about when and how the visibility of certain accounts should be restricted. Weiss reported that these practices, known as “visibility filtering” often did not operate with strict guidelines. Weiss’ reporting also found that Twitter had created categories for accounts with repressed content. These included tags like “search blacklist,” “trends blacklist,” and “do not amplify.” She did not expand on when or how Twitter developed those tags. According to Weiss, sensitive accounts, such as the Libs of TikTok and other high-profile instigators, were handled by Twitter’s “Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support” or SIP-PES—a body that often had the last say on visibility filtering.

Sept. 2021—The Facebook Files In a bombshell investigation, The Wall Street Journal published documents that revealed glaring inconsistencies between how Facebook operated on paper and the actual practices behind the scenes at the social media giant. The investigation, which spanned 17 articles and four months, continued to shake public confidence in the workings of social media companies.

Nov. 29, 2021—Jack Dorsey leaves Twitter Dorsey stepped down from Twitter, leaving Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal to run the company as its new CEO.

April 14, 2022—Billionaire Elon Musk Offers to buy Twitter Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and one of the world’s wealthiest men, offers to buy Twitter for $44 billion.

July 8, 2022—Musk retracts offer Citing a lack of confidence in the performance, account numbers, and actual value of the company, Musk announced plans to terminate his offer to purchase Twitter. Musk had previously waived due diligence in making his offer.

Oct. 4, 2022—Musk decides to proceed with original deal Weeks away from a trial that might have forced Musk to follow through with his purchase of Twitter or pay a high fine, Musk announced plans to continue with his purchase at his original offer. Apart from additional undisclosed changes, Musk affirmed his version of Twitter would center on free speech practices and promote transparency of the platform’s functions.

December 2022—The Twitter Files Following his pledge to unveil the workings of Twitter, Musk opened internal documents of the company to limited journalistic review. Since the beginning of December, several journalists have participated in evaluating Twitter’s records and communications.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a graduate of Patrick Henry College. He reports on politics from Washington, D.C.


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