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Twitter Files: What they are and why they matter

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The so-called Twitter Files are the brainchild of Twitter owner Elon Musk, who has said he wants to show "what really happened" behind the scenes regarding content moderation decisions at the social media company before he bought it in October. 

The Twitter Files have been released in dribs and drabs throughout December, with three journalists — Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger — delving into the internal documents and discussions to highlight the company's decision-making process around some high-profile actions, such as banning former President Donald Trump in January 2020. 

Under Musk, who has said he wants Twitter to be a mecca for free speech, the company has reinstated some previously banned accounts, such as those belonging to Trump and far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. (Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, was reinstated but then banned again less than two weeks later.) Musk has been critical of the prior management's content moderation decisions, arguing that they engaged in censorship.

Here's what to know about the Twitter Files and what they reveal. 

What are the Twitter Files? 

The Twitter Files consist of thousands of internal documents, including many Slack discussions, between Twitter employees about their content moderation decisions. 

So far, there have been five releases from the Twitter Files, each focusing on a different facet of Twitter's content moderation. 

  • Twitter Files Part 1 focuses on the company's decisions surrounding news about material found on what is alleged to be Hunter Biden's laptop.
  • Twitter Files Part 2 highlights how Twitter used tools to lower the visibility of some accounts. 
  • Twitter Files Part 3 centers on Twitter's decision to remove Trump from the platform after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
  • Twitter Files Part 4 adds details about Twitter's removal of Trump.
  • Twitter Files Part 5 provides more information about Twitter's decision about banning Trump.

What do the Twitter Files show?

The internal discussions purportedly reveal debates among executives at Twitter over content moderation issues, such as whether Trump had violated the company's content policies with several of his tweets after the January 6 attack. 

The files also are said to shed light on the tools used by the platform to deal with accounts or tweets that had violated its policies at the time, such as limiting the visibility of a tweet or user. Bari Weiss, one of the journalists given the documents by Musk, tweeted that decisions to "actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics" were made "in secret, without informing users." 

Most of the accounts highlighted by Weiss were tied to conservative voices, like the far-right "Libs of TikTok" account and conservative activist Charlie Kirk.

Researchers find hate speech has increased on Twitter following Elon Musk’s takeover 08:18

The Twitter Files also goes into the company's decisions regarding tweets related to the initial report of Hunter Biden's laptop, which was reportedly left at a Delaware computer repair shop and provided to the FBI under subpoena. The New York Post broke the story in October 2020. 

At the time, Twitter and Facebook sought to limit the spread of the story over concerns about its sourcing and policies against using  hacked materials. Twitter reversed course a day later and revised its policy about hacked materials, saying it had "received "significant feedback (from critical to supportive)" about its handling of the story. 

What about Hunter Biden's laptop?

In the case of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden's laptop, journalist Matt Taibbi wrote that the internal documents show that Twitter "took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be 'unsafe.'"

"They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography," he tweeted.

Added Taibbi, "There's no evidence — that I've seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story." 

The internal discussions show that Twitter executives were confused over, and sometimes didn't agree with, the decision to suppress the story. The following day, executives backtracked on the decision and made changes to their policy, saying they would now "label Tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter." The controversy over Twitter's handling of the situation was widely reported at the time.

Taibbi also noted that Twitter sometimes received requests from "connected actors" to delete tweets, with Twitter employees writing back, "handled." 

Taibbi wrote that requests came from "both parties," meaning Republicans and Democrats.

How has Elon Musk responded? 

Musk has been promoting the Twitter Files to his legion of online followers, and he highlighted some of the findings as evidence that Twitter had suppressed free speech. 

Elon Musk, Inc. | CBS Reports 22:36

For instance, in response to Taibbi's tweet that "connected actors" reached out to Twitter to get tweets deleted, Musk wrote, "If this isn't a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment, what is?"

However, as experts point out, the First Amendment protects people from government infringement on their right to free speech — it doesn't compel private companies such as Twitter to permit unfettered speech. That is why companies like Twitter, Facebook and other forums are able to enforce content standards and moderate what appears on their services. 

After some Twitter users pointed out to Musk that, in fact, Taibbi's tweet didn't show a First Amendment violation, Musk responded, "Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is." 

However, the Twitter Files don't appear to show that the government gave orders to Twitter — only that the company received "requests" from both parties and also at times consulted with the FBI and other agencies. 

Reaction to the Twitter Files

The most infamous response so far has come from former Trump, who claimed the internal documents suggest that parts of the U.S. Constitution should face "termination." His comments, made on his conservative social media platform Truth Social, were immediately condemned by Democrats, while some Republicans also criticized his remarks. 

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, wrote in a blog post that the Twitter Files show "no ill intent or hidden agendas." He added, "Everyone acted according to the best information we had at the time."

Others say the Twitter Files haven't lived up to the hype, and that it's also unclear whether some context has been omitted or overlooked.

For instance, some left-wing accounts have also been banned by Twitter, but the Twitter Files released to date haven't addressed the discussion or decision-making around those steps. The Atlantic called the Twitter Files "sloppy, anecdotal, devoid of context, and, well, old news."

As for their broader impact, that may be most evident in the changes made by Musk to Twitter's policies and content moderation practices. Despite his championing of "free speech," Musk has drawn a line on what is permitted on the social media site, such as his announcement that Twitter will never reinstate conspiracy theorist Alex Jones

"I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame," Musk wrote about that decision.

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