During a global pandemic, the role of social media companies shouldn’t be to police discussions about highly complex, multi-factorial medical questions such as the effectiveness of cloth masks against viral infection, potential adverse events from mRNA vaccines, or the origins of Covid-19. Their role should be to allow free speech to thrive and opposing perspectives to clash in the marketplace of ideas.
Most Americans wouldn’t argue with those premises—but as recent revelations have made clear, under former CEOs Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal, Twitter assumed the role of arbiter of truth, deciding which scientific viewpoints to suppress and which to boost in visibility. Now, as part of his effort to re-orient Twitter, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has recruited independent journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger to sift through the company’s private documents and internal communications and publicly share the inner workings of its past moderation decisions.
In the second edition of the so-called Twitter Files, Weiss revealed the vast reach of the company’s exercise of its powers of censorship and control: “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 writes.
One of the more prominent accounts blacklisted on the platform was that of Stanford epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya. In 2020, Bhattacharya coauthored the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated for governments and health authorities to follow a Covid policy of focused protection for the most vulnerable groups but freedom for the healthy, non-elderly population to resume their lives as normal. For this “crime”—differentiating between the minority of seriously vulnerable people and the majority of healthy Americans for whom Covid poses a near-zero serious threat—Twitter marginalized Bhattacharya’s account, placing it on a “trends blacklist.” This move prevented his tweets, regardless of the number of likes, views, and retweets they garnered, from appearing on the platform’s list of trending topics, thus reducing their visibility.
As Weiss has noted on her Substack, this and other mechanisms, which Twitter euphemistically called “visibility filtering,” allowed Twitter employees to minimize the reach of any accounts they deemed problematic. “Think about visibility filtering as being a way for us to suppress what people see to different levels. It’s a very powerful tool,” Weiss reported one senior Twitter employee as saying.
When I asked Bhattacharya for his take on the censorship, he said: “While there are a lot of questions about why Twitter 1.0 would place me on a ‘trends blacklist’ shortly after I joined Twitter, I think the important thing to understand is that this action (and I was certainly not the only one blacklisted) had damaging real-world consequences.” Bhattacharya strongly believes that the stifling of the public debate on Covid lockdowns and school closures played a crucial role in maintaining these economically damaging and scientifically misinformed policies.
While indeed striking, none of this comes as a surprise. As was previously known, the social-media platform banned professional doctors with contrarian perspectives on Covid, labeled tweets from public-health experts of peer-reviewed studies on mRNA vaccine side effects as “misleading,” and censored independent journalists, allegedly at the behest of interested parties.
Musk’s acquisition of the company appears to herald a new direction: publicizing the incoherence and arbitrariness of Twitter’s past content moderation, reinstating banned or blacklisted medical professionals (among other voices), and promising more transparency about content-moderation decisions in the future. If delivered upon, these moves would bode well for the future of online discourse.
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