The ‘Twitter Files’ divide

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The ‘Twitter Files’ divide

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Hopes that a change in leadership at Twitter might produce less political division about the social media site favored by journalists and political junkies are far from reality. But new owner Elon Musk is certainly making strides with Republicans in the wake of a document dump that cast his predecessors in a harsh light.

The “Twitter Files” reports reflect thousands of pages of selected internal communications that Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, and his team gave to journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss about the way the company previously operated. Released with much fanfare, the reports from the two reporters are either “blockbuster revelations” or a “nothing-burger,” depending on where one stands politically and how closely he or she has followed the long-running battle over content moderation.

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Republicans have for years accused Twitter, among other social media platforms, of favoring content from the Left while suppressing or removing a disproportionate amount of the Right’s postings. Many in the GOP point to Twitter’s de-platforming of former President Donald Trump, restrictive standards for alleged disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, and claims from right-of-center media personalities that their accounts were being suppressed or “shadow-banned.”

When Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, purchased the microblogging site earlier this year after dramatic legal and boardroom battles, some Democrats fretted about the possibility that Twitter would bring similar sanctions against left-wing accounts and content. Instead, much of the criticism from the Left of Musk’s brand of content moderation has ended up centering on claims that his team is leaving too much offensive material on the site. The company’s many critics reacted with outrage when Musk on Dec. 12 abruptly disbanded Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council.

Democrats are anxious in part because of how much more significant a role Twitter plays on the Left compared to the Right. A recent Pew Research Center study found that about a third of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were Twitter users, almost twice the share of Republicans and Republican leaners. Twitter has mostly skewed younger, too, magnifying the partisan and ideological splits, with 42% of adults ages 18 to 29 saying they use Twitter compared to only 7% of those 65 and older.

Liberals’ anxieties about Twitter’s direction are a serious problem for the company, given the leftward bent revealed in those user numbers. Research shows that the partisan distribution at Twitter competitors such as Facebook and TikTok is much more balanced, increasing audience growth and advertiser reach.

Musk seems focused on changing Twitter’s universe of users. He said his twin goals for the company are to expand the breadth of opinions on the platform and make it profitable, objectives that could be reinforcing if Musk can keep core current users while drawing in more users from the right side of the aisle. The Twitter Files, along with reinstating Trump’s account, which the previous management team suspended for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, reflect Musk’s effort to win Republicans’ trust and bring those users to the platform and the advertising dollars that would follow them.

This first chapter of the Twitter Files was aimed directly at one of Republicans’ most common complaints about the social media platform: allegations of unfair practices during the 2020 presidential election. Musk’s release pulled back the curtain on Twitter’s handling of the October 2020 New York Post story about emails found on the laptop of then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Many Trump supporters claim that Twitter’s role in casting doubt on the story, which showed Hunter Biden, in the throes of active addictions, trying to trade on his family name and claims of influence with his father to make money overseas, helped turn the election.

The newly released documents chronicle the internal debate around the decision to mark the story as “unsafe” and prevent users from sharing it by direct message at Twitter, pre-Musk. The initial justification for blocking the laptop story being based on fake or hacked materials, a violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service, was the source of tense conversation inside the company that day.

One screenshot showed Twitter communications executive Trenton Kennedy struggling to find a rationale for smothering the story. “I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” he wrote. “And I think the best explainability argument for this externally would be that we’re waiting to understand if this story is the result of hacked materials.”

To many on the Right, that sounds like proof that Twitter’s decision to suppress the story was politically motivated and just looking for an excuse to help the Biden campaign.

“The American people deserve to know why Twitter took down the Hunter Biden laptop story even when your colleagues were questioning the rationale for suppressing the story,” incoming House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) wrote in a letter seeking the testimony of Jim Baker, a top lawyer for the FBI who went on to a senior legal position at Twitter before Musk recently ousted him.

The next thread focused on what Weiss described as proof that “teams of Twitter employees build blacklists, prevent disfavored tweets from trending, and actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics — all in secret, without informing users.” She went on to highlight instances with conservative voices or causes being placed on “Trends Blacklist,” “Search Blacklist,” and “Do Not Amplify” settings on the platform, greatly curtailing their reach.

The report doesn’t specifically address if similar accounts on the Left were also subject to these restrictions. Nor does it show if those accounts were stunted for political reasons or for other possible rule violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service.

And as Taibbi noted, both parties sought to influence Twitter in 2020, but it wasn’t a fair game.

“Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation,” he wrote. “There were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right.” However, Taibbi did acknowledge that “requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored.”

That’s part of why many, particularly on the Left, don’t view the correspondence as a smoking gun. Mike Masnick, editor of Techdirt, wrote that it revealed “basically nothing of interest.” Masnick said that in “a few internal communications,” the Musk team “simply confirmed everything that was already public in statements made by Twitter, [former CEO] Jack Dorsey’s congressional testimony, and in declarations made as part of a Federal Elections Commission investigation into Twitter’s actions.”

Many who work in the industry or follow content moderation policy closely were not surprised to see the level of information management going on at Twitter. An enormous amount of content moderation goes on at the leading social media platforms as a matter of business as usual. Spam, violent content, and pornography can all fall outside acceptable bounds and need to be removed, hidden, or blocked. That these decisions can sometimes be controversial or difficult is something the platforms have said publicly.

Surprising or not, though, the issues discussed in the Twitter Files have implications beyond the social media site, including election results, public health, and free speech. But given the public reaction to Musk’s document dump, a new consensus on how to use and treat social media sites seems more elusive than ever.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is fighting to claim the speakership when Republicans take control of the chamber on Jan. 3, 2023, reacted to the Twitter Files saying, on where else but Twitter, that the company “colluded to silence the truth” and promised that an inquest would begin on the first day of the new Congress. Democrats just as quickly dismissed the promised investigations as little more than a politically motivated distraction.

So far, a consensus is proving elusive for Twitter. But industry analysts will be closely watching to see if Musk really can maintain the platform’s left-side dominance while broadening its appeal and advertising footprint for his new $44 billion acquisition.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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