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Saturday, January 28, 2023

With new Twitter files, Musk forces a free-speech reckoning for politicians and pundits

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“We don’t make exceptions for jokes or satire.” That line from a third tranche of company documents released by Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, captures the social media giant’s censorship culture. Its humorless, officious tenor is all too common with state censors throughout history. Censorship creates an insatiable appetite for more censorship, where even jokes become intolerable.

These latest Twitter files shatter past denials of “shadow banning” and other suppression techniques targeting disfavored viewpoints. That includes denials by former CEO Jack Dorsey under oath before Congress and public denials by top corporate executives. The legal ramifications will become clearer as more information emerges. Yet, a far more significant problem already is confirmed in these files: the existential threat of corporate censors to free speech.

In the new material released late Friday, journalist Matt Taibbi confirmed that Twitter executives met weekly with FBI, Homeland Security and national intelligence officials to discuss “disinformation” they felt should be removed from the site. Those discussions apparently included the Hunter Biden laptop story.

You don’t need a state ministry of information if the media voluntarily maintains official narratives and suppresses dissenting views. And what emerges from these files is the notion of an effective state media in America — an alliance of media, business and political figures who act, not out of government compulsion, but out of personal conviction.

The notion of a privately-run state media is reinforced by the response to these disturbing disclosures — a virtual news blackout, with most major media offering little coverage of the disclosures. Just as Twitter suppressed dissenting or opposing views in a myriad of ways, many in the media are minimizing coverage of this scandal.

To use a favorite term of Twitter executives found in these files, the media “amplifies” certain narratives or views while “deamplifying” stories that contradict those accounts.

Some of these files reflect specific subjects or measures long pushed by powerful politicians to get private companies to do indirectly what they themselves are barred from doing under the First Amendment.

In a Senate hearing where Dorsey apologized for blocking the Hunter Biden laptop story, for example, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was more concerned about Twitter “backsliding or retrenching” on censorship and warned that Congress would not tolerate any reduction of “robust content modification.” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) reminded Dorsey that he expected censorship of misinformation on climate change as well as other areas.

Others, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called on social media companies to use enlightened algorithms to protect people from their own bad reading choices. As shown in the recent Twitter releases, these algorithms manipulate what someone sees in searches or trending stories.

What these files suggest is an utter license to control political speech on social media platforms. Twitter executives often sound like overlords determining what the public should be allowed to read or say. This is hardly surprising, given the constant stroking by many politicians and pundits who say they are saving democracy by limiting free speech.

In speaking to media figures in April, former President Barack Obama called upon “our better angels” to shape voters’ opinions. Similarly, President Joe Biden has said social media editors are vital to protecting citizens from their own misguided values or assumptions. Without enlightened editors, he asked, “How do people know the truth?”

Such comments show total contempt for the ability of people to make up their own minds on subjects ranging from elections to vaccinations.

Yet social media executives readily embraced their role in framing “the truth.” Former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal pledged to “focus less on thinking about free speech” and more on “who can be heard.” While some of us denounced his anti-free-speech agenda, others rose in defense of Twitter maintaining one of the largest censorship systems in history.

Now, these Twitter files show precisely what it means to manipulate “who can be heard” — a process that went beyond controversial suspensions of users to include a broader, secret effort to suppress disfavored viewpoints. The new documents show Twitter using blacklists and “visibility filters” to interfere with user searches or to shadow-ban individuals and prevent their tweets from trending. The new material also indicates that “visibility filtering” was directed at various Republican campaigns, throttling or reducing candidates’ visibility before the 2020 election.

Most striking in the latest documents is how Twitter censors knowingly discarded even their own policies to hamper then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In one tweet, Trump referenced a mail-in voting problem in Ohio that was found to be true. Nevertheless, Twitter executives were praised for their speed to impose “visibility filters” so the tweet could not be “replied to, shared, or liked,” and the staff received a censorship “attaboy”: “VERY WELL DONE ON SPEED.”

There was even a long debate over whether to censor a joke about mail-in voting by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) because Twitter staff insisted they “make exceptions for jokes or satire.” After all, the censors noted, a joke “could still mislead people” — the same logic that appeared to be the basis for suspending conservative satirical site Babylon Bee. The only reason Huckabee’s joke wasn’t censored was a concern that “we’ve poked enough bears.”

Of course, Twitter long ago exceeded its bear-poking quota with the public.

Musk claims a record number of users signing up with Twitter now, however, and a recent poll shows a majority of Americans supporting his efforts to restore transparency and free speech on the site.

Thus, Musk seems to be forcing a reckoning that few in Washington relish — and one which the media can’t continue to ignore, given an expected investigation by a Republican-controlled House. Political and media figures will be forced to dispense with any pretense of support for free speech in defending censorship, election manipulation, blacklisting and shadow banning.

Twitter’s former executives were correct about one thing: There is nothing humorous about any of this — if you value free speech.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.





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