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December 9, 2022 Big Tech News

Big Tech

‘Twitter Files’: A Tale of Censorship, Secret Blacklists, Shadow Banning and Government Collusion

A second batch of “Twitter files” released Thursday reveals how the platform maintained “secret blacklists” and engaged in “shadow banning.” Files released previously included evidence of election interference and widespread censorship of COVID-19-related information that didn’t fit the accepted government narrative.

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Elon Musk credit: Samferdselsdepartementet/flickr

The second batch of “Twitter files” released Thursday reveals how the platform maintained “secret blacklists” and engaged in “shadow banning” of certain users despite prior denials.

This latest in a string of stunning revelations and large-scale changes at Twitter following Elon Musk’s takeover adds to prior revelations about election interference — including suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election — and widespread scientific censorship.

The “blanket amnesty” of previously suspended accounts and Musk’s reinstatement over the past month of many such accounts — including former President Donald Trump’s — drew fury from many Democrat lawmakers and left-wing entities, but enjoyed wide swaths of support from Republicans and Libertarians.

The outcry from Democrats, and from entities including the EU and private Big Tech and Big Media actors such as Apple and CBS, has further complicated Musk’s plans for Twitter, amid investigations against Musk’s companies and threats from the EU that it will be banned in the 27-nation bloc.

‘Secret group’ at Twitter made ‘politically sensitive’ decisions

In a series of tweets Thursday, Bari Weiss, founder and editor of The Free Press, revealed information about the “secret blacklists” and other censorship practices Twitter engaged in.

Weiss tweeted, in part:

“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.

“Twitter once had a mission ‘to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.’ Along the way, barriers nevertheless were erected.”

The Epoch Times reported that Weiss is working with Musk and independent journalist Matt Taibbi to disclose internal Twitter documents to the public, revealing the Big Tech platform’s practices prior to Musk’s takeover of the company.

Weiss revealed that among the user accounts previously targeted by Twitter was that of Dr. Jay Bhattacharaya, a Stanford University School of Medicine professor who criticized COVID-19 vaccines and countermeasures.

According to The Epoch Times, “Bhattacharya was put on the list because he stated that children would be harmed by COVID-19 lockdowns. This action stopped his tweets from trending.”

Other accounts targeted for censorship included those of Libs of TikTok, conservative talk-show host Dan Bongino, who was placed on a “search blacklist,” and conservative activist Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, who was placed on a “Do Not Amplify” list.

Such practices, and in particular “shadow banning,” were referred to internally among Twitter executives and employees as “visibility filtering,” or “VF.”

This arsenal of practices enabled Twitter to make it difficult for other users to search for such accounts, to make individual tweets more difficult to find, to prevent tweets from appearing in Twitter’s “trending” section and to block tweets from appearing in hashtag searches, “all without users’ knowledge,” according to Weiss.

Many decisions were made, according to Weiss, by a “secret group,” the Strategic Response Team-Global Escalation Team (SRT-GET), that consisted of former Twitter executives including Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, public policy and trust; Yoel Roth, head of trust and safety; and CEOs Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal.

According to Weiss, “This is where the biggest, most politically sensitive decisions got made.”

However, Twitter previously asserted that it did not engage in “shadow banning” or other similar practices.

On Thursday, Musk retweeted a pair of 2018 tweets by Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s former head of product, where they asserted that “we do not shadow ban … and we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”

According to The Epoch Times, Weiss said there is “more to come on this story” that will be published by The Free Press and also made public through the revelation of a “part three” release of the “Twitter files.”

“We’re just getting started on our reporting,” Weiss said. “Documents cannot tell the whole story here.”

Musk announced on Thursday, in a separate tweet:

Even Dorsey — implicated in previous efforts to censor content on Twitter via his participation on the SRT-GET — called for more transparency, tweeting on Wednesday:

Still, Musk faced opposition, primarily from Democrats and the Left, for the “general amnesty” he offered to suspended Twitter users, and his reinstatement of Trump’s account, following a poll of Twitter users posted by Musk on Twitter.

Twitter took ‘extraordinary steps’ to suppress information about Hunter Biden 

The Gateway Pundit — part of a group of individuals and organizations suing several Biden administration officials over allegations they pressured social media platforms to censor content and individual users — on Dec. 2 republished a series of tweets by Taibbi revealing Twitter’s censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story, and the apparent reasons behind this practice.

According to Taibbi, while “Twitter in its conception was a brilliant tool for enabling instant mass communication, making a true real-time global conversation possible for the first time,” outside pressures to censor or manipulate speech soon followed.

As time progressed,” tweeted Taibbi, “the company was slowly forced to add those barriers. Some of the first tools for controlling speech were designed to combat the likes of spam and financial fraudsters.

This included requests directly from Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, according to Taibbi, who tweeted:

“By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’”

He continued, “Celebrities and unknowns alike could be removed or reviewed at the behest of a political party,” referring to the Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee and efforts targeting celebrities critical of Biden, such as James Woods.

Requests came from both parties and campaigns, Taibbi wrote, although he noted that “Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right.”

On Oct. 14, 2020, when the New York Post published “Biden secret e-mails,” about the dealings of Hunter Biden, “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,” said Taibbi.

This decision led to the New York Post and then-White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany being locked out of their Twitter accounts — McEnany for a purported violation of Twitter’s “hacked materials” policy.

“The decision was made at the highest levels of the company, but without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, with former head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde playing a key role,” Taibbi said.

According to Taibbi, this decision was made — and then maintained — despite internal company knowledge that there was no basis for the suspensions and censorship, based on Twitter’s own policies.

Also playing a key role in the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020, according to Taibbi, was James Baker, a former FBI lawyer who became Twitter’s deputy general counsel and who advised the company to continue censorship of the story because “caution is warranted.”

On Dec. 6, Musk announced that Twitter fired Baker, stating, “In light of concerns about Baker’s possible role in suppression of information important to the public dialogue, he was exited from Twitter today.”

Taibbi provided further context for this decision, noting that Baker was “vetting the first batch of ‘Twitter files’ — without knowledge of new management.”

In a follow-up tweet, Musk said Baker’s “explanation” regarding his attempts to slow down the release of the first batch of these documents “was … unconvincing.”

Musk made further allusions to Twitter’s likely role in election interference in recent tweets. On Nov. 30, referring to U.S. elections, Musk tweeted:

And on Dec. 3, Musk commented on the recent Brazilian presidential elections where left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was declared the winner, leading to legal challenges by the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, who previously opposed restrictive COVID-19 measures:

After widespread censorship of scientific debate, new calls to add more voices

Twitter’s censorship practices targeting outspoken critics of official COVID-19 policies highlight broader practices that were the norm at Twitter prior to Musk taking control of the company.

In comments reported Dec. 5 by ZeroHedge, Roth said the removal of COVID-19 censorship on Twitter following Musk’s takeover was “bad and damaging” — although he did not clarify these remarks, made despite his characterization of the censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story as a “mistake.”

However, there also have been prominent calls for loosening such policies pertaining to medical information and COVID-19 in particular.

For instance, in Dec. 1 tweet, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban openly called on Musk to allow more transparency in medical information being posted on Twitter, via a voting process. Cuban tweeted:

And on Dec. 5, Dr. Simone Gold, another outspoken critic of COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions, tweeted an open letter to Musk on behalf of America’s Frontline Doctors, calling upon Musk to assemble a team of “honest, brilliant, courageous doctors to ‘fact check’” medical information on the platform.

Gold wrote, in part:

“I am the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors and I became known to the world on July 27, 2020, when I brought doctors and social media influencers to the steps of the Supreme Court. My intent was to bypass the media and government which had been lying to the world in a very organized and systemic fashion. We had 20 million views in 8 hours then I was deplatformed everywhere at once. Either I sing like Beyonce or the truth spread like wildfire.

“Medicine will not advance unless unbiased sciencists are able to resist the pressure of special interest groups and the media. I work with freedom physicians across the nation and world, and we are now over one million subscribers.

“I am both an emergency physician and Stanford University educated attorney. My nonprofit is the ‘Free Speech Foundation’ because, like you, I have long known that the battlefield is speech.”

White House, Congress, EU and others hit back at Musk and Twitter

Musk’s actions over the past several weeks have led to significant pushback, including from the Biden administration and the White House, members of Congress, local authorities in San Francisco — where Twitter is headquartered — the EU and various major corporate entities.

On Dec. 5, Reuters reported that Neuralink, a company owned by Musk, was under federal investigation in the U.S. “for potential animal-welfare violations amid internal staff complaints that its animal testing is being rushed, causing needless suffering and deaths.”

The probe, according to Reuters, “was opened in recent months by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General at the request of a federal prosecutor.”

Also on Dec. 5, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre, in response to a question posed by Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich, dismissed the revelations that Twitter suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story as “a distraction” and “old news.”

As previously reported by The Defender, the Biden administration in 2021 threatened Big Tech platforms, including Twitter, with antitrust proceedings over their enormous market share if those companies did not provide, per the White House’s demand, content related to “health misinformation” on their platforms.

The Biden administration’s attempts to censor alleged “misinformation” are part of the basis for a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri.

On Dec. 8, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal.) tweeted:

“On Elon Musk’s Twitter: slurs against Black people have tripled, slurs against women are up 33%, slurs against Jewish people are up 61%, and slurs against gay men are up 58%.

“These numbers are abysmal — and unacceptable. Today, @RepMarkTakano and I are demanding action.”

Schiff did not provide a source for the data he cited. Musk, in response, cited statistics of his own, tweeting: “False, hate speech impressions are actually down by 1/3 for Twitter now vs prior to acquisition.”

Schiff was a key figure in the impeachment proceedings against Trump, as was retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Alexander Vindman, who on Nov. 27, also lashed out at Musk, tweeting: “Kinda weird that @elonmusk gets to decide how like a half-billion people communicate. Way too much power for one erratic individual to wield, don’t you think?”

Local authorities in San Francisco, where Twitter is based, are also investigating Musk, alleging he has turned offices into bedrooms at the company’s headquarters.

The BBC reported that an official with the city’s Department of Building Inspection told local NPR affiliate KQED, “’We need to make sure the building is being used as intended.”

In response, Musk tweeted the following on Dec. 6: “So city of SF attacks companies providing beds for tired employees instead of making sure kids are safe from fentanyl. Where are your priorities[?],” tagging San Francisco mayor London Breed in the tweet.

The EU also set its sights on Twitter and Musk. According to a Nov. 30 Financial Times report, the EU, representing a bloc of 27 European nations, threatened to impose a ban on Twitter if its demands for an audit and for the non-reinstatement of banned accounts and rollback of loosening content moderation policies are not met.

According to the Financial Times:

“Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner in charge of implementing the bloc’s digital rules, made the threat during a video meeting with Musk on Wednesday, according to people with knowledge of the conversation.

“Breton told Musk he must adhere to a checklist of rules, including ditching an ‘arbitrary’ approach to reinstating banned users, pursuing disinformation ‘aggressively’ and agreeing to an ‘extensive independent audit’ of the platform by next year.

“Musk was warned that unless he stuck to those rules Twitter risked infringing the EU’s new Digital Services Act, a landmark law that sets the global standard for how Big Tech must police content on the internet. Breton reiterated that the law meant, if in breach, Twitter could face a Europe-wide ban or fines of up to 6 per cent of global turnover.”

As previously reported by The Defender, the Digital Services Act (DSA), passed in April, seeks to tackle the spread of “misinformation and illegal content” and will apply “to all online intermediaries providing services in the EU,” in proportion to “the nature of the services concerned” and the number of users of each platform.

According to the DSA, “very large online platforms” and “very large online search engines” — those with more than 45 million monthly active users in the EU — will be subject to the most stringent of the DSA’s requirements. Twitter fulfills these criteria.

The DSA also requires platforms to “flag hate speech, eliminate any kind of terrorist propaganda” and implement “frameworks to quickly take down illicit content.”

Companies violating the provisions of the DSA would risk fines of up to 6% of their total global annual revenue, while repeat offenses may result in the platforms being banned from the EU — despite the “open internet” principle professed by the principle of “net neutrality” enshrined in EU law.

On Oct. 28, Thierry responded to Musk’s statement, after completing his purchase of Twitter, that “the bird is freed,” by tweeting:

And in an Oct. 31 NPR interview, Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — who is in charge of digital policy, also threatened Musk, stating: “Otherwise, we have the penalties. We have the fines. We have all the assessments and all the decisions that will come to haunt you.”

In a move possibly connected to the EU’s threats, Musk closed Twitter’s offices in Brussels — where many EU institutions are headquartered — in late November, in an action framed by Euronews as one which is “raising fears Elon Musk may not comply with EU rules.”

Twitter and Musk also appear to have run into a potential confrontation with Apple — whose App Store makes Twitter’s mobile app widely available to users of Apple’s devices worldwide.

On Nov. 28, Musk tweeted that Apple “has mostly stopped advertising on Twitter,” asking “Do they hate free speech in America? What’s going on here @tim_cook?” in a reference to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

In a follow-up tweet the same day, Musk wrote “Apple has also threatened to withhold Twitter from its App Store, but won’t tell us why.”

Also on Nov. 28, in a response to a tweet by user @techAU asking Musk to reconsider engaging in a battle with Apple because “An awful lot of your Tesla customers use iOS to access their cars … if that app gets pulled, it’ll significantly impact your ability to sell to Apple customers,” referring to Musk’s ownership of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, Musk responded: “Are you suggesting Apple would use its duopolist powers to hurt Tesla?”

However, two days later, following a meeting between Musk and Cook at Apple’s headquarters, Musk tweeted:

Big Media has also gotten into the act. On Nov. 18, CBS ceased advertising on Twitter “out of an abundance of caution.” However, the boycott lasted for only two days, as two days later, CBS resumed advertising on Twitter.

This was followed up by a laconic tweet by Musk on Dec. 4, where he wrote: “Just a note to thank advertisers for returning to Twitter.”

Republicans, Libertarians applaud Twitter revelations

In a Dec. 6 article, former presidential candidate and member of the House of Representatives Ron Paul said the release of the internal Twitter documents “blew the lid off government manipulation of social media.”

Describing it as “a huge victory for those of us who value the First Amendment,” Paul also wrote:

“The release, in coordination with truly independent journalist Matt Taibbi, demonstrated indisputably how politicians and representatives of ‘official Washington’ pressed the teams that were then in charge of censorship at Twitter to remove Tweets and even ban accounts that were guilty of nothing beyond posting something the power-brokers did not want the general public to read.

“Let’s not forget that many of those demanding Twitter censorship were US government officials who had taken an oath to the US Constitution and its First Amendment.”

In an opinion piece for The Hill, Jonathan Turley, an attorney, legal analyst and commentator, also weighed in on the Twitter document dump, writing that “Musk’s dumped Twitter documents not only confirm the worst expectations of some of us but feature many of the usual suspects for Twitter critics.”

Turley added:

“Obviously, bias in the media is nothing new to Washington; newspapers and networks have long run interference for favored politicians or parties. However, this was not a case of a media company spiking its own story to protect a pal. It was a social media company that supplies a platform for people to communicate with each other on political, social and personal views. Social media is now more popular as a form of communications than the telephone.

“Censoring communications on Twitter is more akin to the telephone company agreeing to cut the connection of any caller using disfavored terms. And at the apparent request of the 2020 Biden campaign and the DNC, Twitter seems to have routinely stopped others from discussing or hearing opposing views.”

Turley also noted that a record number of users are signing up with Twitter, despite what he described as Washington’s “all-out war against Musk,” arguing the American public wants “more, not less, free speech.”

Appearing Dec. 8 on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle,” former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich described Musk’s release of the “Twitter files” as “remarkable” and the censorship practices of Twitter and Big Tech as “fascist.”

House Republicans, who secured a majority in November’s elections, have hinted at a potential investigation or other legal action in relation to the Twitter revelations.

Mark Alford, a Congressman-elect in Missouri, one of the states currently suing the Biden administration for alleged social media censorship, also publicly reacted to the revelation of the “Twitter files,” stating:

“The American people and my constituents of the 4th District deserve answers on why Big Tech covered up the Hunter Biden laptop story and censored free speech.

“This is something I’m committed to fighting and delivering answers in the next Congress.”

And on Dec. 5, the results of a Trafalgar Group poll showed that a majority of Americans “support Elon Musk’s ongoing efforts to change Twitter to a more free and transparent platform.”

Specifically, 52.3% of overall respondents said they support Musk’s actions with Twitter so far, 31.3% said they did not, and 16.3% stated they were unsure.

However, the results varied significantly by political affiliation, with 59.3% of Democrats stating that they opposed Musk’s initiatives and only 17% stating they supported his actions. Conversely, 84.8% of Republicans polled stated their support of Musk’s Twitter policies, while only 5% opposed them.

Nevertheless, even prominent free-speech advocates who previously opposed COVID-19 restrictions — and COVID-19-related censorship — have urged Musk to do more.

In a Dec. 8 post on his blog, journalist Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter banned by Twitter for posting “COVID-19 misinformation,” wrote that Musk “has not moved forward with broad amnesty,” as several prominent COVID-19 skeptics, including Dr. Robert Malone and Naomi Wolf, remain banned from Twitter.

However, Berenson added:

“It’s still early. Musk hasn’t even owned Twitter for six weeks. He can still keep his promise of amnesty. He can still make Twitter the open town square it needs to be.

“Let’s hope he does.”

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