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We ignore Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ at our peril

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

What ever happened to the Twitter Files?

You remember — that vast trove of the company’s internal documents, handed over to hand-picked journalists by Twitter’s new chieftain, Elon Musk.

The first stories based on the files were published in early December, and we in the media scoured them in search of stunning revelations of corporate and government malfeasance. When no such bombshells landed, Musk’s critics raced to their keyboards to write articles declaring the series a “nothingburger,” devoid of any major significance.

Don’t you believe it.

Suppose The New York Times or The Boston Globe met regularly with the US government to discuss which stories they ought to publish, and which ones they shouldn’t. Suppose the same company also knowingly ran stories under fake names by US intelligence agents pushing the government’s agenda in foreign countries.

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Happily this isn’t going on at newspapers. But it’s happened at Twitter.

And the Twitter Files contain many other fascinating and disturbing details.

Among the least surprising tidbits was proof that Twitter routinely limits the reach of controversial messages. Former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss showed how Twitter limited access to tweets from people like conservative broadcaster Dan Bongino and Stanford professor and COVID lockdown critic Jay Bhattacharya.

Twitter makes no secret of down-ranking tweets from those it perceives as online troublemakers, and the company has every right to do so. But surely the company ought to inform those who’ve been targeted for such treatment. Instead, the company acted in secret. That’s an abuse of Twitter’s considerable power. If the company can automatically suppress troublesome tweets, it should also notify the troublesome tweeters.

Another discovery: There’s no evidence of any “deep state” conspiracy behind Twitter’s decision to suppress the New York Post’s October 2020 story about the contents of a laptop belonging to President Biden’s son Hunter. Twitter executives screwed up that decision all by themselves. They chose to believe a false allegation that the data had been stolen by hackers.

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However, the Twitter Files produces evidence that the FBI may have put a thumb on the scale by warning the company to expect a flood of fake news out of Russia just in time for the election. Yoel Roth, the Twitter executive in charge of weeding out inappropriate content, admitted that these warnings played a role in the company’s decision to quash the story, which wasn’t fake. (Roth resigned from Twitter not long after Musk took over.)

Elon Musk purchased Twitter in 2022.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Twitter Files show how alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election became an excuse for relentless federal surveillance of social media, and constant efforts to goad Twitter into cracking down on messages that the FBI considered “misleading.”

Roth and the FBI exchanged 150 e-mails between 2020 and 2022. He and executives from other social media companies held regular meetings with a multiagency federal task force aimed at preventing foreign election interference. The FBI gave Twitter officials temporary security clearances, so they could receive classified briefings in the run-up to the 2020 election. The agency also monitored Twitter for suspicious tweets, and set up a special electronic communications channel to transmit lists of messages the agency deemed deserving of suppression.

Many of these messages were posted, not by bots or foreigners, but by US citizens. Twitter officials kept telling the FBI they could find little evidence of Russian activity on their network, only to be goaded by the government to look harder.

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Twitter’s security team was right to be skeptical. A paper published earlier this month by researchers at New York University concluded that Russian messages on Twitter were seen by very few users and produced “no measurable changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior among those exposed to this foreign influence campaign.”

No matter. The federal agents who started out trying to quash foreign agents on Twitter turned to other targets — US citizens with unwelcome opinions about COVID-19. According to the Twitter Files, the Trump administration asked for help in restricting messages that might encourage panic-buying by consumers at the start of the pandemic, while Biden’s people called for Twitter to silence speakers who dissented from the official government line.

To its credit, Twitter often refused the FBI’s requests for censorship. Still, the company was paid $3,415,323 to cover the cost of working with the feds. It’s not unethical for Twitter to be compensated for its efforts. But the sheer size of the bill suggests just how much assistance the US government was able to obtain.

There’s no evidence here that the company merely followed orders. Instead we see the federal government working the refs like an aggressive football coach, hectoring and goading the company’s executives into exercising ever-stricter control over what users are permitted to say. In response to this pressure campaign, the GOP has filed legislation that would make it illegal for federal agents to engage in this kind of arm-twisting.

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Meanwhile, someone in Washington apparently liked the idea of using Twitter as a propaganda tool. So, starting under the Trump administration, the US government used fake Twitter accounts to spew propaganda targeting Russia, China, and other US adversaries, in violation of Twitter corporate policy. For instance, US operatives posed as Iraqis on Twitter and posted accusations that Iran was smuggling drugs into Iraq. Twitter finally shut down these accounts, but only after a couple of years.

In all, the Twitter Files paint a picture of a wide-ranging federal effort to exert control over the editorial policies of a major media company. The feds might be doing the same at other social media companies, such as Facebook and YouTube. And since the US government has the power to make things very unpleasant for companies that resist, the temptation to comply may prove irresistible.

It’s all in the name of protecting us from fake news. But when our political leaders set the terms of permissible debate, how will we protect ourselves from them?


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.