However clouded Twitter’s future may be at this point, Elon Musk has accomplished a seismic shift in the media world by exposing the old regime’s left-leaning roots and its propensity for covert censorship. If both faults can be remedied, the new Twitter has at least a shot at becoming a global forum for neutrally moderated free speech and discussion.
Twitter’s censorship apparatus has come to light because Musk released files for analysis to independent journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger. Their findings, which do not make for pleasant reading, outline a range of suppressive activities that the new Twitter will presumably avoid in future.
The censorship system acquiesced to political requests to squelch speech, despite the old Twitter’s insistence that it never did any such thing. Taibbi describes an email of October 24, 2020, in which one Twitter executive wrote to another, “More to review from the Biden team,” and listed five tweets that had apparently been found objectionable. “Handled these,” came the reply three hours later.
It’s hard to know what these tweets contained because they have been deleted. Their absence is witness to the fact that Twitter was letting political organizations secretly manipulate a major news source used by many journalists. Twitter accommodated requests from both parties, but mostly from the Left. Taibbi recounts the series of events in which Twitter employees suppressed discussion of Hunter Biden’s laptop, posting warnings that the story could be “unsafe” and restricting its circulation within Twitter.
The old Twitter’s moderation efforts began by setting up necessary safeguards against spam and scams. But these curbs metastasized into a Glavlit-like censorship apparatus, all the more sinister for being largely invisible. Weiss and colleagues write, “The people in charge of these institutions enforced the new parameters by expanding the definitions of words like ‘violence,’ ‘harm’ and ‘safety.’ Things once considered part of everyday life in America—like disagreeing about whether a global pandemic started in a market or a lab in Wuhan—were increasingly off limits.”
Twitter’s censorship method, known inside the company as “visibility filtering,” was a set of tools for making certain tweets harder to find. These included rendering a tweet invisible to a search or preventing it from appearing in popularity lists, which Twitter users consult to find out what’s going on. “We control the amplification of your content quite a bit. And normal people do not know how much we do,” a Twitter employee told Weiss’s team.
Facebook’s files, if ever made public, would doubtless tell a similar story. I know because their apparatchiks visibility-filtered a story I wrote in May 2020 on the origin of the Covid virus. The piece was one of the first to make a serious scientific case that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab, a proposition derided by the legacy media, then and now. It’s hard to conceive of a more legitimate public issue, and my story carefully examined the case for natural emergence of the virus as well as the lab-leak hypothesis. Yet Facebook’s truth shaders warned readers that my story was missing context and steered them to a “fact-check” page slanted heavily against the possibility of lab leak. The story even disappeared for a few hours from Medium, a blogging site with a long list of cloying restrictions on what can or cannot be said about Covid.
Another of the old Twitter’s problems was that its censorship staff failed to follow its own rules. As Weiss relates, Twitter banned Trump, even though the two offending tweets under consideration violated no Twitter rule. The left-leaning Twitter employees were so zealous to oust the president from their platform that they violated their own rules to do so.
Will the new Twitter avoid the faults of the old? Musk is being deluged with criticism from mainstream media writers, perhaps in panic that the same faults of leftist bias and political accommodation that Musk has found in Twitter might come to light in their own backyard. Several critics have written that his management will provide a business school case study for how not to revive a business.
Yet Twitter is in operation and innovating even after Musk fired about 5,000 of its 7,500 staff, including some who openly disagreed with him. Besides the vast gain in efficiency, doubtless there will be fewer employee mobs in the future to demand that Twitter overthrow its own rules in favor of their political preferences.
Musk has also set out reasonable policies, whether to be implemented by himself or a successor. He has promised a software update “that will show your true account status, so you know clearly if you’ve been shadowbanned, the reason why and how to appeal.” He has also said that the “new Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.” Such an approach eases the dilemma of how to allow free speech while moderating incitements to hate. With platforms like Twitter, it’s not so much the first cry of “Fire!” that sows panic but its amplification across the platform by various algorithms. Administrators thus have a choice of allowing almost anything to be said but restricting its further dissemination within Twitter. The approach would use the same tools as visibility-filtering, so it would need to be done as transparently as possible, with tweeters being notified of restrictions and given avenues of appeal.
Musk had perhaps already decided to stand down as Twitter’s CEO before asking his audience to vote on the issue. Having shaped the major policies that Twitter is to follow, and having cleansed the Augean stables left by the previous administration, there is no reason he should not rest from his labors and let Twitter evolve into a global public square.
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