Maastricht Journal of Politics & Economics
The Twitter Files: The Little Bird Tells us What his Cage Looked Like
By Francesco Lasorella
Twitter’s new administration, led by the multi-billionaire Elon Musk, is disclosing information regarding the internal mechanisms and the influences Twitter’s previous board created and “suffered”. Musk allowed journalists from the ‘TheFreePress’ organisation to take a dive into the immense ocean of the last administration's internal communications. Interesting discoveries are revealing how the platform censored and allowed only certain topics or political stances. Musk stated that he bought Twitter intending to make it a free confrontation platform; these files, which can also be interpreted as a marketing strategy, are demonstrating why Twitter was not free at all.
© Le Monde
Introduction: Twitter abused its position to make its stances the official ones
On 3 December, Mark Taibbi, a freelance journalist, published the first of the so-far fourteen so-called Twitter Files. Taibbi often works with the freelance journal TheFreePress.
The editorial board of TheFreePress was contacted by Elon Musk to investigate and analyse the algorithm, the censorship and the “misinformation” mechanisms, and the collusion with American political and federal entities.
This journey inside the innards of Twitter’s last administration’s carcass was done by dissecting Slack chats, internal documents, and confidential emails.
The fourteen files (more will probably be released) expose the worrying influence that mainstream social media has on society. Debates were suppressed, accounts were banned, and ideas were hidden to favour the ‘official’ narrative. The adjective ‘official’ does not need to be instantly associated with truth, especially when it lacks truth's most essential characteristic, the need to be confronted.
It would be foolish to think that governments, or other kinds of powers, do not try to influence society through the media. At the same time, it is fascinating to uncover those patterns. It becomes noble when some people are suffering because of them.
The Metamorphosis of the Little Bird: A Donkey
Twitter’s high-rank employees were constantly in contact with representatives of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Democrats, however, had a much greater influence, due to the political orientation of Twitter’s employees, as demonstrated by the lobbying and funding activities.
A total of 146.000 dollars (134.000 euros) were funded by Twitter employees into the pockets of Democrat politicians. This is why the little bird transformed itself into a donkey, the symbol of the democratic party.
The First File: How and Why Twitter Blocked the Hunter Biden Laptop Story
On 14 October 2020, a few weeks before the presidential elections, the New York Post published the catchy and massive title, “Biden Secret E-Mails”. The article regards Biden’s son, Hunter, and his controversial contacts with Ukrainian government officials and businessmen. These first emails are a glimpse of the suspicious and questionable information that will emerge from Hunter's famous laptop.
Mark Taibbi’s Twitter thread focuses on the extraordinary measures taken to silence the scandal. After the NY Post’s article was labelled as unsafe content, and the account of the then-press secretary of the White House, Kaleigh McEnany, was suspended for retweeting it; Twitter released a statement where it justified all its actions with a policy on hacked material.
However, according to some former employees, the policy needed an official finding from the police, which never appeared. The arbitrariness of this exception is evident, especially given its political relevance.
Political debates on the ethics behind those decisions and the legitimacy of Twitter to assume the role of a “free-speech moderating authority” went on for months. The apex of the debate was reached with Donald Trump’s ban from the platform - as explained in files three, four, and five.
The Second File: Twitter’s Secret Blacklists
The following thread was written and researched by Bari Weiss, founder of TheFreePress. He explained how high-ranking Twitter employees secretly labelled many users’ accounts with discriminatory tags that grafted unclear shadow-banning mechanisms. Twitter's former employees, therefore, seemed to highly manipulate the visibility of many users.
The obscuring filter, for the blacklist members, limited their tweets’ sharing possibilities, by preventing these from entering tendency rankings and from appearing in hashtags research. SIP-PES (Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support) was the highest committee responsible for the censorship.
The readers can further deepen their knowledge by looking at the many examples of accounts targeted; these can be found on the Twitter Files. Note that these countermeasures were initially secret, as technically, those accounts did not violate any hate, violence, or any other explicit and objective rule of the platform.
Political ideologies were favoured - surgically rigging the balance of available information for conflicting ideas, and scientific debate was limited to information that strictly adhere to the official narrative, even when those disagreeing were experts worthy of being listened to.
The Third, Fourth and Fifth Files: The Removal of Donald Trump
The third file focuses on the internal communications before the events of 6 January - when Capitol Hill was stormed by Trump’s far-right supporters - regarding the then-POTUS Donald Trump. The main findings report that many shadow-banning mechanisms were already applied to Trump’s account long before 6 January.
In addition, internal Slack chats (a platform commonly used for professional communications) confirm that the head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, weekly met with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The fourth file analyses the plentiful internal messages on 7 January, the day after the riots, and the day before Trump was banned. Chats show how Twitter’s rules were changed, created ad hoc measures, ignored, distorted, and conveniently interpreted to make Trump’s ban fit their policies.
Roth expressed that his goal was to “drive the change in the world”. This statement perfectly identifies Twitter's former high-rank employees' thinking; the self-proclaimed ideological superiority would legitimise them - through their powerful position - to be the arbiters of speech.
The fifth file exposes the fictitious arguments Roth and Vijaya Gadde elaborated on to permanently ban Trump. The tweet in question reads:
Trump's Tweet © Donald Trump| Twitter
“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!!!”.
This tweet announced his absence at Biden’s inauguration. Certainly, as it is well known, Trump is a controversial figure, considered by his opposition as a cloying demagogue, and by his supporters as a charismatic orator.
Surprisingly, the security department of Twitter did not consider the tweets as violating Twitter’s policies; the tweets could not be classified as incitement to violence - they do not encourage rebellion nor hate, but pledge a promising future, as every politician does.
The department, however, was overridden by Roth and Gadde who argued that the ‘American Patriots'’ referred to terrorist groups. In addition, there was to be a parallelism between the unconscious mechanisms of the Nazis, described in Arendt’s book “Banality of Evil” and the condescending employees of Twitter that allowed those ‘evil’ tweets. To conclude, as Will Oremus wrote on OneZero:
“The underlying problem is that the dominant platforms have always been loath to own up to their subjectivity because it highlights the extraordinary, unfettered power they wield over the global public square, and places the responsibility for that power on their own shoulders. That in turn would make it clear that the underlying problem here is not the rules themselves, but the fact that just a few, for-profit entities have such power over global speech and politics in the first place. So, they hide behind an ever-changing rulebook, alternately pointing to it when it’s convenient and shoving it under the nearest rug when it isn’t.”
These platforms are called “over the top” because many (smaller) countries have almost no power over them, and those that could - America in primis - in the end exploit them in their favour.
Now, the reader is probably wondering: “If this enormous power could not be handled by a group of people - the board of directors of Twitter’s last administration - how could we possibly think that centralizing that power into the hands of one man - Elon Musk - would help for the better?” Well, reader, you are probably right: let’s hope someone will be there to uncover Musk's misdeeds.
Sources: Twitter File 1, File 2, File 3, File 4 and File 5
Written by Francesco Lasorella