Trying to understand "The Twitter Files"
What is the point of Elon Musk's controlled leak?
Another edition of “The Twitter Files,” Elon Musk’s ongoing project of releasing company documents to independent journalists in exchange for assurances that they will publish their findings as Twitter threads, was released last night, this time on the Twitter account of former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. While the first drop of the Twitter Files (released to and through the reporter Matt Taibbi) concerned internal emails debating whether the platform should suppress a New York Post story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, Weiss’s thread showed off photos of administrator screens (literally, actual monitor screens), revealing the tags and settings that Twitter employees had added to certain prominent accounts.
Read Max is just a normal guy writing a newsletter. I don’t have advertisers and no one will ever ask me to help them leak files from the company they own, for some reason. All my money comes from paying subscribers, like you. [elaborate but charming wink]
“A new #TwitterFiles investigation reveals 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,” Weiss wrote.
My immediate reaction was, obviously, that I would happily pay twice as much for Twitter’s Blue subscription service if one feature was that I could see all the admin tags on everyone else’s account. (Musk claims to be working on just such a product.)
My second reaction was to feel annoyed. What a waste of an opportunity! The partisan structure of arguments on Twitter has pushed some well-meaning people into taking the position that there is nothing at all of value or importance in “The Twitter Files,” but, come on, I would kill for admin access to Charlie Kirk’s Twitter account. Screenshots of interfaces like these (as well as emails between Twitter executives) are obviously newsworthy, not to mention fascinating, and understanding how Twitter makes and executes on its moderation decision is unquestionably valuable given the site’s importance in media and politics. Twitter has been relatively open about its ongoing, active moderation of the platform, and it’s not new information that Twitter employees “actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics”1 -- but there isn’t much clarity on the precise tools and means of moderation, or on the process through which decisions are reached. (Even if, frankly, we all could guess that the moderation process was usually “scared Twitter execs winging it.”)
Unfortunately Weiss’s thread is more confusing than it is clarifying. What do any of those tags actually mean? (Does “Do Not Amplify” refer, perhaps, to the Twitter Amplify video-ad program?) How or why were they placed on those accounts? How many and what other kinds of accounts have those tags, in which countries, at whose behest? Weiss provides no context that might help us understand better how Twitter actually works. (Though in fairness she promises there’s more to come at her newly launched news organization, The Free Press.) Instead, her headline conclusion is that Twitter has been using hidden mechanisms like down-ranking to limit the spread of information it deems unwanted. Without any of that missing extra context, it’s hard to see how that differs from Musk’s own stated policy on speech on the platform.
What is the point of the “Twitter Files,” exactly? Not journalism, if the purpose of journalism is to inform and enlighten. Musk has suggested The Twitter Files is an exercise in rebuilding credibility, but it’s hard to think of a less credible means of doing so than haphazardly releasing a bunch of documents to a few extremely divisive reporters under semi-secret conditions.2 The limited rollout, strange secrecy, and clear partisan tilt gives The Twitter Files the shape and scent of a poorly organized political ratfuck, but to what end? I have a hard time believing that the revelations contained in The Twitter Files will have far-reaching effects -- or even become an politically relevant obsession -- for a bunch of reasons:
“Platforms suppress speech” is an extremely important issue to, say, journalists and pundits whose income is tied to their reach, but I have the sense that people who are posting pictures and videos to an audience of a few dozen, at most, already have an intuitive understanding of (if not actual experience with) heavy-handed platform moderation, and simply do not care that much that Dan Bongino or whoever is also suffering from this problem.5
Most importantly, Elon Musk is already in charge of Twitter. What else could you want?!
Setting aside the political motivations of the various participants in this limited hangout, or the question of journalistic value (or ethics) around the Twitter threads, I think what’s going inside Musk’s head is actually pretty simple and stupid: I think he noticed that Twitter attracts more traffic when he cultivates drama on the site and within the company, and he has stumbled upon a pretty effective means of cultivating more drama in order attract more traffic. Bring in the traffic, he must assume, and you will bring back the advertisers. I mean, this is why he’s requiring Weiss and Taibbi to post to Twitter first, right? It sounds so stupid, as a business proposition, and so obvious, as a motivation for launching the project, that it feels incomplete. But time and time again history has proven that you should never overestimate Elon Musk.
Never underestimate the stupidity and contextual specificity of the origins of features and policies that eventually become objects in the Twitter Culture Wars: Twitter was openly “manipulating” its Trending Topics as far back as 2010, in order to reduce the number of times Justin Bieber and related hashtags showed up.
The sub-plot where Musk fired Twitter’s deputy counsel Jim Baker -- who I gather is a sort of Hillary-aligned character in the Twitter Politics Universe? -- after Taibbi and Weiss objected to his role in feeding them documents made the whole thing, if not less credible, certainly way more confusing to me.
Additionally, one lesson of the most recent elections is that “things conservatives are obsessed with on Twitter” is not a winning slate of issues for Republicans, and I’d bet smarter Republicans are not thrilled at the prospect of Fox News spending hours on Ted Cruz grilling some ex-Twitter VP in a hearing about stuff that happened in 2020 when they could have Steve Doocy claiming that gas prices are high or whatever.
I don’t have anything in particular to say about Musk’s constant, dogged defense of Dorsey, I just want to highlight it as a really funny running joke of the whole Twitter debacle.
A related dynamic is, I think, true w/r/t the first Twitter Files, and even to some extent with the Twitter verification stuff: It’s absolutely true (and gross) that rich, prominent, and well-connected people get better treatment from platforms, but because most people already understand or expect that to be the case, no one really cares except the rich, prominent, and well-connected people who for whatever reason don’t get the better treatment.