The Editor-in-chief of the Italian news publication Domani shares his concerns about what’s been left out of the controversial Twitter Files conversation regarding social media, censorship, and the public debate.
Many are aware of the “Twitter Files” story, part of which contained a release of internal communications amongst Twitter’s staff in 2020 about how to handle a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, a piece that could influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Elon Musk gave the information to select reporters and asked that they share the information via their own Twitter accounts. The documents show the internal dialogue that led to the social media platform preventing users from seeing the Post’s story under its policy not to disseminate information that came from hacked materials. The incident ultimately led to then-CEO Jack Dorsey testifying in front of Congress that Twitter had made a mistake.
The release of the Twitter Files has not had the impact I thought it would. Some have denied the truth of the release, others have declared evidence of biased censoring, and many say they are neither surprised nor upset over the decisions made by Twitter executives.
However, the reality is even worse.
As a journalist and editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper myself, I would like to share some thoughts regarding the Twitter Files story and its relevance that might be helpful to ProMarket academic readers.
When a media outlet breaks a story, it faces a trade-off: if the story is not available to subscribers (or readers/viewers) of other media outlets, the benefit of coming first is minimized. If the piece is too widely available, there is no benefit in coming first.
The traditional compromise used to be that intermediaries such as newswire agencies or TV shows could share the information, but only after double-checking it was sound and truthful, and with a mention of the original source.
Back in the day, one of the most important roles of newswire agencies was to select which breaking news and exclusive stories to amplify. In a newsroom, these decisions are made by editors who monitor newswires to follow market news, political statements, sports results, etc.
What the Twitter Files make clear is that social media platforms have fashioned themselves as information gatekeepers, just like traditional newswire agencies, but with the clear distinction that they have not advertised themselves as such to the public.
There is a difference between viewing the New York Times homepage, which readers know to be curated by its editors, and browsing Twitter, which readers assume to be governed by benign algorithms rather than potentially biased executives.
Adding insult to injury, thanks to Section 230, social networks do not risk any consequence for content that users share. Newspapers, on the other hand, bear reputational and legal responsibility for every piece of information they publish.
Twitter imbuing itself with the power to make decisions about what is amplified to the world and what is hidden would be like Apple giving itself the ability to control what you read on your Mac, and worse, without your explicit consent.
A Trust Problem
According to Twitter Files reporting, the social media platform abused this power with the Hunter Biden laptop story. By initially diminishing the Post’s story, Twitter cast doubt on one of the most politically relevant stories of the presidential campaign, just a couple of weeks before the general election.
Additionally, we now know that FBI communications with Twitter executives set the stage for this doubt. The FBI primed Yoel Roth, Twitter’s then-Head of Site Integrity, to doubt the soundness of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden article even before it was published.
As Roth later testified, he used to have regular meetings with the FBI and other agencies, and “during these weekly meetings, the federal law enforcement agencies communicated that they expected hack-and-leak operations by state actors might occur in the period shortly before the 2020 presidential election, likely in October.”
And now we have Elon Musk, the self-proclaimed prophet of free speech, kicking journalists off of Twitter and banning accounts that post information he dislikes.
For academic readers of ProMarket, imagine the idea of Twitter staff deciding to block discussion of your research paper because they think the findings are debatable. Or for kicking you out of the public discussion because they don’t like your research. The peer review process exists for a reason, it is not for a social media executive to dictate what is credible and what isn’t.
Frankly, I am shocked that traditional news outlets aren’t talking about this more. How can the Fourth Estate do its duty as a check on government if the reach of its reporting is controlled by an institution with no credibility at stake?
What would have been the outcome if Twitter had been around in the days of Watergate? Or the Pentagon Papers? What if Twitter staff had arbitrarily chosen to diminish those stories? Put in this context, it’s easy to see the real impact, and danger, that a non-neutral platform can have.
After all this, it’s not surprising that Twitter has suffered a blow to its credibility, a consequence once reserved for traditional media outlets. The picture painted appears to be one of a politically motivated institution lacking both neutrality and transparency about how its judgment calls are made.
Conspiracies play on our trust: their supporters believe in alternative theories only because they find plenty of reasons to distrust the official truth. Between the actions of the FBI, the black box of Twitter decision-making and the lack of reaction from traditional news outlets, is it any surprise that the incident has spurned so many questions?
The Twitter Files show that there is a serious trust issue in the media environment, which is extremely dangerous at a moment when we pursue some common ground on historically controversial issues such as climate change and vaccination policies.
By the way, for those wondering if we can even trust the Twitter Files story, remember that sources are always biased: they share information because they have an agenda. Even though Elon Musk might claim to leak documents to journalists for the common good, there is an implicit assumption on what the common good is and what is the most effective way to get to it.
But, if you are willing to trust a New York Times story that is based on a biased anonymous source, you have to ask why you would question a story from a biased known source.
1. The Twitter Files reveal a total lack of neutrality and transparency in how digital platforms regulate the content they spread. This creates an opportunity to manipulate the public debate, especially if they mimic newswire agencies as a source of information for the public.
2. Twitter executives never publicly commit to distorting facts or supporting one side of a discussion and hiding the other, but that is what they did on multiple occasions.
3. The lack of reaction by traditional media to the Twitter Files indicates that we have become numb to this disturbing information environment. Perhaps traditional outlets are not the effective watchdog they used to be.
4. The idea that, thanks to a brand-new owner, Twitter can now self-regulate and avoid repeating past behavior is simply an illusion. It is the ultimate evidence of the platforms’ control on the public debate.
There is one outstanding issue: Traditional media and regulators argued for years that platforms should act against fake news and disinformation that threatened quality journalism. Shouldn’t we want social media to prohibit misleading information?
It is hard enough for philosophers to debate the nature of truth, and they have been doing it for ages, so why should an anonymous Twitter employee pretend to have the answer? A bunch of machine learning experts and engineers should not decide what truth is, so Twitter should not interfere with content that users share on its platform, especially if it is journalism.
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