Who's in Charge of Your World View?
The Twitter Files affords a dizzying glimpse into how everything works
Last month I was in California. A friend from the news business, Matt Taibbi, had been granted startling access to internal communications at the social media giant Twitter — who knew for how long. There was an urgent need for sifting, analyzing, downloading and organizing of data, a supporting role I was happy to play.
As the project evolved into what has been labeled the Twitter Files, more journalists were recruited, and I stepped further into the background; it had been fun, but it was time for me to get back to my full-time job in Massachusetts, and leave this important investigation to dedicated professionals. I’d gotten to briefly meet billionaire Elon Musk, and to explore the workplace paradise of Twitter’s 10th floor, with its free food and self-serve espresso bars decorated with elaborate moss-and-succulent gardens. I’d enjoyed the rare spectacle of lawyers confronted with the horrifying and insane idea of journalists rooting around in private papers — lawyers who, once Musk started summarily firing people, rapidly cycled through the five stages of grief to arrive at obedience.
And, in the initial files we sifted through, I saw evidence for what I’d suspected beforehand, something the Files continue to flesh out: That CIA, FBI and the rest of the U.S. security state — with little to no public discussion, and probably illegally — have become way too comfortable with policing what Americans see, say and hear on the Internet.
A Word About Musk
At last count, Taibbi and colleagues have published 15 official Twitter Files threads. These have shared an avalanche of internal company e-mails and Slack channel discussions. Below is my attempt to summarize some of what those files have revealed so far, and why it matters.
First, though, a word about Musk himself. This decision of his to open up internal corporate communications to a public inspection — it’s a unicorn event! Things like this never happen!
We are familiar with whistleblowers dropping huge data collections into the public sphere. Think of Edward Snowden revealing, 10 years ago, that the National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring the telephone and internet communications of law abiding citizens (prompting President Barack Obama to propose reforms, even as his government canceled Snowden’s U.S. passport and trapped him in exile in Russia); or of Julian Assange publishing tens of thousands of secret documents about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (prompting three successive U.S. presidential administrations to hound him ever since, such that he now remains in solitary confinement in a British prison, his health wrecked, and pending hearings on extradition to America); or of the still-unnamed persons who shared millions of electronic financial records dubbed the Panama Papers, which have been used by journalists to follow the money associated with leaders around the world, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, to the King of Saudi Arabia, to prime ministers from Iceland to Pakistan.
This Twitter lark is different, though. Musk is not a troubled middle management type who’s stolen a few documents and gone on the lam. He owns the files — all the files. They include communications with, and insights into, everything from the FBI to Facebook to the Pentagon’s fake Twitter accounts.
Why is Musk opening all of this up? He says because we need a national discussion about corrupting arrangements across social media — not just at Twitter but on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Wikipedia, all of the places where ordinary people post their thoughts and collect their information. At risk of damaging his own company just after purchasing it — and also at risk of hobbling his other, government-dependent businesses such as Tesla and SpaceX — Musk has invited independent journalists to come poke around.
The Twitter Files journalists gleefully accepted this incredible opportunity, and they approached it ruthlessly. They have focused on “getting the story” — as much access to as much data as possible — while notably saying little favorable about Musk himself. They know that if they suggest Musk could be sincere, or deserves praise for providing an important public service, they will be attacked as shills, useful idiots, etc. The journalists involved — Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger and others — have earned reputations for independence and reliability over years of careful work. They aren’t going to jeopardize all that now by gushing gratuitously over some billionaire. If I were still a full-time journalist, instead of an E.R. doctor, I’d do the same.
This is probably the last time I’ll write about this topic, though, and the stakes are lower for me, so I’ll just offer my opinion that Musk is the real deal — a rare person in elite America who is walking the talk. I saw the thousand-yard stare of Twitter employees as he force-marched them into his new era of public sharing. I saw his brief, respectful interactions with the journalists, which could be summed up as, “Do you need anything?” and “I’ll look forward to reading what you publish!”
Because what Musk is doing is so subversive, he’s been attacked stridently and incessantly. The narrative that he is enabling COVID-deniers, cyberbullies, racists and KGB sleeper agents is everywhere. So is the further-left complaint that, via companies like SpaceX, Musk is too close to the Pentagon, and so will probably never let Twitter become truly anti-establishment. Those critiques may be valid: Twitter might well get edgier and less polite for a time, even as it might continue favorably highlighting Pentagon-friendly takes on issues like Ukraine.
For now, however, we’re learning a lot, and I for one feel gratitude to Musk for this. I also feel newly hopeful for social media in general, and Twitter in particular.
And so, to the Files. Twitter had teams of employees who worked to prevent certain comments, or even certain people, from being seen. As reported by Bari Weiss, they had an array of esoteric-sounding computer settings — “trends blacklist”, “search blacklist,” “do not amplify” and more — with which they could dial up or down the visibility of a person to the rest of the online world. Twitter staff could, for example, prevent a person’s tweet from showing up in searches; or prevent an entire Twitter account from being seen by anyone that did not already follow it.
The company jargon for this was “visibility filtering”. They could and did filter a person out of visibility, whenever they felt that person’s views should disappear.
We are not talking about obvious criminal activity like violent threats, online scams or child pornography. Such postings, then as now, would simply be removed, often with a call to law enforcement. But visibility filtering — that’s different. It was done secretly.
Weiss and colleagues took cell phone photographs of the computer screens of Twitter employees while that visibility filtering program was open and running. Here’s a photograph Weiss shared of the file for a physician at Stanford University. You can see from the gold-colored labels he had been flagged for a “recent abuse” of some kind and placed on a “trends blacklist,” which would keep his Tweets from trending:
This Stanford professor, Jay Bhattacharya, is a serious and respectable physician perhaps best known as an author (along with professors at Harvard and Oxford) of the Great Barrington declaration, an early pitch to abandon society-wide COVID-19 lockdowns, especially of children, in favor of focusing protection on the most vulnerable senior citizens.
It was a provocative idea, especially for October 2020 (just seven months after the White House had declared the pandemic emergency). Yet I don’t remember much vibrant debate about it. People at Twitter had “shadowbanned” the author. One can only speculate if other social media did the same.
Maybe our COVID-19 discourse would have been less strident, if some people hadn’t realized intuitively that they were being muted?
Visibility filtering was also applied to politicians. However one might feel about Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, it is startling to see that Twitter, without informing her, labeled her Twitter account “not safe for work,” as if it were some sort of pornography site, and also weighed it down with a “do not amplify” setting, which would decrease its reach on searches and retweets:
This photograph of Twitter’s in-house visibility filtering program was shared by Abigail Shrier, who notes that Greene was actively campaigning for election to Congress at the time. Seems like cheating somehow, doesn’t it?
If social media in a Third World country were caught secretly dialing down the on-line visibility of a major political party or candidate, would independent foreign observers question whether it was a “free and fair” election?
If you think this is just about “Republicans on Twitter” though, think again. The Twitter Files show Facebook’s approach was no different — and this forces a reassessment of the allegations by Bernie Sanders that back in 2017, Facebook “flipped a switch” to overnight stop engagement between the popular progressive and his supporters.
“Bernie had this tremendous rise on Facebook. We had a really successful online video program,” recalls Ari Rabin-Havt, Sanders’ former campaign manager, in this video (start around the 22:30 mark). “We saw our numbers rising, rising, rising. And then one day, literally out of nowhere — this is the Senate office page, the Facebook page — it stopped getting followers. It just dead stopped.”
Meetings ensued with Facebook, including with Adam Mosseri, then in charge of Facebook’s newsfeeds and now head of Instagram.
“During the meeting with Mosseri,” Rabin-Havt recounted, “it was revealed that Facebook had changed a setting on its back end that essentially shut off the pipeline of new subscribers to Bernie’s page. They could not come up with a reasonable explanation for the changed setting.”
Probably it had something to do with Facebook joining with the rest of corporate media to keep people from seeing things like this pro-Sanders video — still the best short video ever about politics in America.
Bernie has disappointed me grievously over the years, but just think: What if we’d had ideologically neutral social media and an honest political process? The counterfactual possibilities are amazing. We might never have even had a President Trump!
Deleting the Donald
Of course, no one loved himself some Twitter more than Donald Trump.
The Twitter Files exhumed the months and days before the January 8, 2021, banishment of the sitting U.S. president from his favorite social medium. Twitter had not banned other world leaders when, for example, they had described Israel as a “cancerous tumor” in need of “eradication,” or asserted Muslims have “a right … to kill millions of French people.” But as is well-known, they banned the U.S. president, a day after Facebook also did so.
That Trump was evicted from social media over the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots is not news. However, we now know from the Twitter Files that long before the J6 debacle — in fact, during the 2020 election campaign itself — Twitter was already using its “visibility filters” to slowly edit Trump out of our lives. Neither Trump nor anyone else was informed of, for example, the exciting new innovations at Twitter to dial down the visibility of many presidential statements on this platform.
Again: Maybe our electoral politics would have been less virulent and wackadoodle, if some frustrated people hadn’t sensed intuitively that one side was being muted?
Policing the Public Square
Do Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Marjorie Taylor Greene have a right to expect a fair shake on a given social media platform? Many say no. The argument that “Twitter is a private company and can do what it wants” is often heard. After all, The New York Times is also not soliciting op-eds from Congresswoman Greene, nor is Fox News rolling out the red carpet for Senator Sanders.
But these are straw man comparisons. Massive platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and even Great Google itself, dwarf in size even the largest corporate news operations. They are wide-open public spaces, where hundreds of millions of people every day around the world generate and share their own content — art work, essays, jokes, product reviews, how-to videos, citizen journalism — and where they also share and comment on the work of professional news operations. Massive social media platforms thus act more like a utility — like critical modern infrastructure, comparable to the highways or the electric grid.
And in fact, Twitter and its ilk enjoy unprecedented federal legal protections — protections found only in the United States — that acknowledge this exact reality. Thanks to the so-called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Yelp can’t be sued for someone’s malicious review of a business, and Twitter can’t be held liable for, say, someone’s cuckoo medical advice. We have decided to treat social media platforms as a public square. This means that if a person misbehaves there, that person can be held accountable, but the square itself has nothing to do with it.
As the Electronic Freedom Foundation notes, our on-line world would look completely different without these Section 230 protections:
I find it dispiriting that many educated, intelligent Americans want to do away with Section 230 protections precisely because they want more visibility filtering and censorship, not less. Twitter’s new owner has said he wants Twitter to be that public square where free speech is valued. Others have responded that they don’t actually like a big swath of the public, and don’t really relish hearing from them.
Yet It’s Much Worse Than That!
What if it’s not the social media companies policing our pubic discourse, but the intelligence agencies? Is everyone still okay with that — just because, so far, the Deep State’s most famous enemy has been Trump?
The Twitter Files have revealed internal correspondence between the intelligence community and social media that shows FBI and CIA targeting their own country for elections manipulation.
It’s as if the United States was just another foreign playground of Langley’s.
Journalist Taibbi describes a “master-canine relationship between the FBI and Twitter,” in a long thread that characterizes Twitter as an “FBI subsidiary.” The FBI was everywhere — banging on the front door with so many censorship-related demands that staff were overwhelmed trying to meet them, but also getting hired via the back door as Twitter executives.
There were so many “ex-FBI” alumni at Twitter, they had their own company Slack channel, and a crib sheet to orient the new FBI hires. Nor were these low-level FBI alumni: they included the Bureau’s former top lawyer, and a former deputy chief of staff for Director Jim Comey. Sometimes, when the FBI couldn’t get traction with the Twitter civilians, it set up its own separate meetings with Twitter FBI alumni.
The FBI was not only telling Twitter to investigate and mute or suspend certain people’s social media accounts for things like stupid jokes, or cynical remarks about the security of mail-in ballots, it was also asking that Twitter share each account holder’s geographic location and personal data.
Get a warrant, you say? But this isn’t a law enforcement project — it’s just good people, cooperating to ensure safe elections! Why get so formal and legalistic?
It’s an odd dynamic of the FBI-social media (abusive) relationship that the FBI usually asks Twitter to investigate whether people have violated “Twitter’s terms of service” — not the law, but “Twitter’s terms of service.”
After all, bringing a legal case involves following certain rules. But jamming up people on the side — that’s just some fun, Wild West troublemaking. Always, of course, in the name of election security.
Censorship Gets Real
It’s been off-putting enough in recent years to see corporate newscasts steadily filling up with the “journalism” of intelligence chiefs — people who have walked straight out of government spy agencies to become “senior analysts” on national television. At MSNBC, one can hear world events interpreted by a former CIA director, and a former chief of staff of the CIA. At NBC, you might see this same former CIA director. Over at CNN, you can hear world events interpreted by a different former CIA director, perhaps with nuances offered by a former boss of CIA directors (the Director of National Intelligence). How did we let that happen?
Now we find the intelligence community has been managing the information we see in the back end, as well as from the anchor’s chair.
Both Facebook and Twitter leadership have described being told by their FBI friends — the ones so helpfully working with social media to keep elections secure — that a “Russian hack-and-dump” operation was coming in 2020 and would share presumably false information about Biden family corruption. (Yes, this is the dreaded Hunter Biden laptop story.)
Perhaps the most forehead-smacking Tweet of the entire Twitter Files adventure comes courtesy of journalist Shellenberger, who reveals the agenda of a “table top exercise” one month before the election — an exercise organized at the reliably pro-establishment Aspen Institute; led by a former CEO of National Public Radio; attended by leadership from Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post, The New York Times and others; and devoted to the hypothetical scenario of someone “hacking and dumping” information about Hunter Biden’s dealings with the Ukrainian Burisma oil company. (Hunter was paid $1 million a year for his barely-there job on Burisma’s board, an arrangement that, to quote longtime politics watcher Jon Stewart, was “corrupt straight up.”)
The title of this war-game was, “Aspen Digital Hack-and-Dump Working Group - September 2020 EXERCISE: The Burisma Leak.”
A month later, when The New York Post did indeed publish damning information found on Hunter Biden’s abandoned personal laptop, social media companies stuck to the practiced script and dutifully killed the story.
Facebook, according to Mark Zuckerberg himself, dialed down who could see the New York Post report. Twitter went further and shut down the entire account of The New York Post, prevented people from re-Tweeting or even direct-messaging the story, and when a White House spokesperson tried to re-Tweet it, they shut down her account, too. This happened over a factually accurate report, one of major importance and interest, by a leading American newspaper. Incredible!
Four days after The New York Post story had been released and immediately censored from social media, more than 50 former intelligence officials — including five former CIA directors (John Brennan, Michael Hayden, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell and Leon Panetta) — signed a letter declaring the laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
This was an eye-rollingly meaningless formulation. To say a news report “has all the classic earmarks” of something is different than saying it actually is that something. But this corny public letter provided some cover, and allowed others to play the roles they’d been rehearsed for. The laptop story was to remain dead.
These five former CIA chiefs, each of them well-informed insiders, knew the laptop story was true. They knew it because the Bidens did not deny it, among other things. It’s since been confirmed as an authentic story by everyone from CBS News to the U.S. Justice Department.
Remember: The laptop had long been in the possession of the FBI. They knew exactly what it was! Yet they had just spent weeks briefing social and news media companies to watch out for a “Russian hack-and-dump” involving Hunter Biden, to discredit reporting they knew was about to come out — reporting they knew to be true — and now they were doubling down on the deception.
So we’ve got five former chiefs of the CIA — and dozens of other top intelligence officials — all of them openly using deception to meddle in the American democratic process. We’ve also now had revealed via the Twitter Files that the intelligence community had spent the months prior working the refs to make sure their preferred deceitful narrative dominated. Doesn’t this seem of first-order importance — a far bigger story even than, say, Watergate? (or Russiagate)?
Here’s a final thought: Would Trump have won the election if the CIA and FBI had stayed out of it? Remember, it was close! I am not a Trump supporter. But I do support free and fair elections. I’ve been hearing for two years about the Big Lie™, and about kooky election-deniers. But who’s the bigger threat to our democracy: some shirtless guy in face paint wearing a buffalo headdress, or every current and former CIA chief all conspiring together to manage what we see and hear?
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