The Wasted Potential of 'The Twitter Files'

The much-anticipated "Twitter Files" have demonstrated a pattern of overreach by woke liberals. Wait, no they haven't.

The Wasted Potential of 'The Twitter Files'
A journalist examining some of Elon Musk's tweets. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

THE MUCH-ANTICIPATED sequels to the “Twitter Files” rocked the world last weekend, showing once and for all that Twitter was puppeteered by angsty liberals desperate to end free speech in America as we know it.

Just kidding. They didn’t do any of that.

For those just tuning in, “Twitter Files” is the self-assigned nickname of a reporting series so far produced by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, once-acclaimed journalist Matt Taibbi, and Michael Shellenberger (who writes for Weiss’ new publication). The series, posted to Twitter by the three writers in lengthy threads, describes and quotes from internal Twitter communications that the platform’s new owner Elon Musk passed to Weiss and Taibbi. (Here’s a link to the best explainer I saw.)

I’m all for transparency at Twitter, which has established a death grip on a worryingly large percentage of online conversation between people with influence in government and media, but this particular exercise feels like a woefully missed opportunity. The source material seems wasted on people who lack the technical abilities, resources, or subject knowledge to competently report out deep-cutting scoops. Instead, the chosen scribes appear to have been selected by Musk because they can be trusted to conduct their work from a perspective he endorses: that “wokeness” was ruining both Twitter and society more broadly, and that Musk is saving it by letting the place get rowdy and toxic again.

If Musk had given access to Twitter’s internal systems to a team of actual investigative and tech reporters or researchers, there would surely be some great stories to report from the inside out. I’m not even opposed to Taibbi, Weiss, or Shellenberger getting that access, I just doubt that they have the resources or expertise to do justice to whatever internal Twitter information they have access to. No one believes Twitter, or any social media platform for that matter, is anywhere close to perfect. In fact, I think we could all get excited to watch its previous regime autopsied live on the service. But that doesn’t really seem to be what Musk has in mind here. It’s also not clear what information Musk gave these folks. Did they have the run of Twitter’s email server? Did they get to look at users’ DMs? Did they request stuff directly from Musk, and he sent it to them, or did he come to them with a trove of information and ask them to go through it?

Taibbi released part one of these Twitter Files last week, focused on Twitter’s removal of links to a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. What could have been an interesting and thoughtful thread about the ways a company like Twitter makes a big policy decision was instead framed as an example of censorship gone awry at the hands of liberal Twitter employees. Taibbi didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know about that situation. He mentioned that the Trump White House had sent “requests” into Twitter for content to be reviewed, but then skipped over that in favor of… exposing the libs, or something? Taibbi left genuinely new information sitting on the table in front of him.

Part two, tweeted out by Weiss, was pitched as proof that “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,” according to Weiss. But as Ashley Feinberg pointed out, this has been Twitter’s public policy since at least 2018, and as many others have noted is the exact same policy Musk declared for his “new Twitter” less than a month ago. Yet again, another wasted opportunity.

Weiss went on to share photos of a computer screen displaying an internal tool that Twitter employees use to manage user accounts (which would have been really cool if Vice hadn’t already reported its existence more than two years ago). A few inflammatory conservative influencers—right-wing media talking heads Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk—and Jay Bhattacharya, an outspoken critic of COVID-19 prevention policies, were shown to have had varying degrees of moderation actions applied to their accounts. That’s sort of interesting, if you haven’t seen that tool before or are deeply invested in how many clicks Bongino or Kirk are able to get on one platform. But Weiss didn’t prove that Twitter did anything beyond what anyone paying attention knows it does, and what Musk has stated he will also do. She just showed that Twitter flagged content by users that conservative media people think should have greater reach.

Weiss took a shot at explaining why she thought she stumbled upon a scoop: she writes that the screenshots she received and shared showed that Twitter employees lied to the public and to Congress about “shadow banning” conservatives. That’s not what shadow banning actually is, but rather what conservatives wish it meant: not getting gassed up by the algorithm as God intended. What is evident in Weiss’ screenshots is that Twitter decreases the visibility of some users in its sorting mechanisms, which is interesting but also, I repeat, exactly what Musk said he will continue to do. (Musk has also promised Twitter will one day tell users whether they’ve been shadow banned, which kind of defeats the purpose of that method of moderation, but I digress.)

Weiss did put forward something interesting, though. Possibly by accident, Weiss revealed that senior Twitter staff have in the past exempted some accounts (Weiss focuses on the Libs of TikTok account) from the kind of general rule enforcement everyone else on the platform is subject to. Now, Weiss clearly believes that discovery was proof of a secretive and nefarious plot to censor conservatives, but it seems to show just the opposite!

Part three of the Twitter Files was released by Taibbi on Friday evening. To his credit, Taibbi did manage to bring something slightly more interesting to the table that round: internal discussions over how to handle former President Donald Trump as he used the platform to elevate his refusal to concede the election to President-elect Biden and eventually call for a rally that would turn into the Capitol riot. As he did with the Hunter Biden laptop saga, Taibbi showed communications between a staff debating whether a high-profile user was in fact breaking its rules and how to deal with that user. In this case, he also demonstrated that intelligence agencies were flagging material to Twitter for review. But Taibbi is apparently committed to framing the matter as a conspiracy within Twitter to suppress Trump’s engagement on the platform, so he simply can’t acknowledge that Trump was flagrantly violating the platform’s policies at the time. I’m not surprised staff were talking about it, and again it’s inherently interesting to see snippets of the internal debate that preceded Trump’s eventual ban. But the conservative narrative again overwhelmed material that might have been genuinely interesting in the proper context.

Part four of the Twitter files was posted by Shellenberger on Saturday, covering Trump’s suspension on January 7: the day after the Capitol riot. Like Taibbi and Weiss, Shellenberger contends that Twitter staff conspired maliciously to suspend Trump, as if there was no good reason to do so after inciting a riot that killed five people.

Weiss published part five on the Twitter Files on Monday, which showed Twitter employees arguing internally about the eventual suspension of Trump's account. Weiss ends her Twitter thread stating that she believed her latest release showed "the power of a handful of people at a private company to influence the public discourse and democracy." That sounds like a critique of all tech platforms, and a fair one at that. But ultimately, decisions to suspend or not suspend users are acts of platform owners' free speech. And isn't that what the anti-cancel culture branding is supposedly about?

And that’s about it! If it sounds kind of boring, that’s because it is, or at least it ought to be to anyone who doesn’t live in the paranoid mental state encouraged by modern right-wing media, where around every corner crouches a green-haired college student ready to destroy your life for failing to adapt to obscure social courtesies. Hey, maybe the idea that being polite threatens all of society is just a moral panic perpetuated by rich and powerful people who think they’re above criticism.

The wasted potential of this project frustrates me. Twitter remains one of the most influential tech platforms of our era. It’s truly a shame that it has been handed to opinion writers seeking to fill in blanks on a narrative, MadLibs style, rather than to sharp investigative bodies or outlets who could pull the place apart brick by brick and explain what makes it tick.

On the off chance you’re reading this, Matt, Bari, or Michael, here are a few ideas I’d be more interested in:

  • How Twitter encourages users’ addiction to its service
  • How its software picks winners and losers to incentivize
  • How granular the data Twitter collects is, and who Twitter sells that data to
  • How Twitter handles requests from law enforcement
  • What the Trump White House was communicating with Twitter about

I am going to try to avoid writing about this debacle going forward unless somebody involved produces a real banger of a scoop. Otherwise, it’s all just so damn boring and sad to me. It’s any random night of Fox News monologuing, but with extra screenshots to create the appearance of scandal. We’ve all heard the song by now. I’m going to move on to another tune.

And of course the real question remains to be answered: Will anyone outside the top 5% of media consumers and conspiratorial Trump followers be bothered to give a single shit about any of this? It’s hard for me to imagine that they will.

Filed Under: Yep, Feel That