Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Why Do The Twitter Files Matter?

gizmodo  |  There is genuine news value to a story along the lines of “These Are the Emails That Led to Twitter Suppressing the Hunter Biden Laptop Story.” It is rare for a company as large and valuable as Twitter to account so thoroughly for wrongdoing, perceived or actual. The emails resemble the documents received in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. They detail internal drama at a company whose power is on the order of a government agency, maybe greater. BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos tweeted, “Any news outlet would’ve loved to have this scoop! It’s just not a ‘scandal’ as teased.”

Twitter’s new owner considers it “the de facto public town square,” suggesting he believes in a level of public accountability. Again, not unlike a government agency. Though it is thrilling to receive once-hidden documents in response to a FOIA, it is also possible that those documents are boring, that they tell you what you already know. Such is the case with the Twitter files. We learned how Twitter came to its decision to block the Post’s story, but we did not learn a shocking new reason why. We knew Twitter suppressed the story before the release of these documents, and, for the most part, we knew who was involved.

Those people have since suffered professional punishment and left Twitter. Vijaya Gadde, the former chief legal officer who played a “key role” in the decision, according to Taibbi, was fired by Musk. Roth quit over Musk’s “dictatorial edict.” Borrman left before Musk arrived. Jack Dorsey, CEO at the time, is gone. When deciding to digitally quarantine the Post’s story, did those people act out of fealty to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party? Out of opposition to the Republican Party and hatred for Donald Trump? Out of distaste for the New York Post? Judging by the documents we have, we can’t say they did. Was it drastic interference in the political process and the press? It was. We already knew that.

Taibbi interviewed several anonymous ex-Twitter employees on the decision, all of whom expressed shock and outrage at the company’s actions: “Everyone knew this was f–ked,” he quotes one source. But since Taibbi doesn’t quote that expletive from the leaked emails, we can reason they included few or no quotes as sensational for his purpose. Ergo, we can deduce that those executives said little to support claims of nefarious purposes.

Outlets far more vested in the Hunter Biden story than Gizmodo also seem vexed by the release, and delivered the news below muted headlines. If the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop belongs to any one outlet, it belongs to the New York Post, which has never shied away from a blaring headline in its 221-year life. Yet the Post’s two Friday-night notifications about Musk’s actions were restrained. The first was a simple curtain-raiser about Musk’s promise: “Elon Musk to drop Twitter files on NY Post-Hunter Biden laptop censorship today.” The other was a “Read these documents”-style headline: “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell: Elon Musk’s Twitter drops Post censorship details.” Fox News’ push alert, delivered via Apple News, read “Elon Musk drops bombshell docs on Twitter censorship.”

Bombshell, bombshell, bombshell… what, exactly, is the bombshell? We’ve yet to hear it explode. Maybe we’ve heard too much about this story, and we’re missing the forest for the trees. Or maybe these documents detail a decision where the outcome was already well-documented.

On its website, the Post argues why you should care. Twitter is censoring things willy-nilly and concocting reasons to do as it goes along, its headline implies: “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell: Twitter invented reason to censor Post’s reporting.”

And yet, it is not shocking that Twitter used an ad hoc decision to moderate a piece of content from one of America’s most infamous tabloids. The social network had done that exact thing for years as it struggled with toxic users—violent white nationalists, virulent transphobes, harassers and bullies of all political stripes, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum et ad nauseam. The company never had a handle on content moderation, and it certainly doesn’t now, no matter how much Musk crows. Back in 2016, a lengthy investigative story published by Buzzfeed showed how Twitter had been struggling with abusive posters since its 2006 founding. Jack Dorsey and all his executives made things up as they went along, just like Musk.

Lastly, did the United States government run interference on a social media company for the former vice president? That would be shocking indeed, a bonafide bombshell. Musk himself said as much Friday: “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.” That is true! And Taibbi once believed that is what happened. In August 2022, he tweeted: “The laptop is by the far the secondary issue. The real problem is the FBI stepping in to cut distribution of true story [sic],” as pointed out by Columbia professor and New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufecki. But on Friday night, Taibbi rescinded the assertion: “There’s no evidence—that I’ve seen—of any government involvement in the laptop story.”


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