The So-Called “Twitter Files” Was a Massive Flop. Was It a Distraction Gone Wrong?

Elon Musk published a series of documents he dubbed the “Twitter files”. It ended up being a giant nothingburger.

Elon Musk’s tenure as owner of Twitter has been nothing short of a trainwreck. Even his critics didn’t see just how horrifically bad he would seemingly run Twitter into the ground. The most recent update we posted is the lawsuits that are piling up with more on the way. In the process, we noted the reports that suggest that Musk has broken the world record for most money lost by a person – ratcheting up $200 million in losses. This while affecting the Tesla stock.

As the problems continued to stack up, Musk seemed to want a distraction to show that he was actually doing something. So, he ended up announcing that he was going to release a giant expose of files that showcased how big government was working on consort with Twitter before his arrival to silence conservative voices. This would be quite a surprise given how it is well documented that platforms have a pro-conservative bias and have a habit of taking a light hand approach to such voices compared to almost everyone else. Still, for far right extremists who live in a fantasy world where everyone is out to get them, this would finally show how they were right all along in their yarn string covered walls.

You might have noticed that we weren’t covering the Twitter files up to now. That is for very good reason. If they actually showed anything particularly scandalous, then we might be interested. The problem is that there was no real big exposure that was of particular note. No big grand conspiracy was forthcoming, no big secrets revealed, nothing. So, instead, we covered stories that had actual substance such as the US warning Canada about Bill C-11, the Competition Bureau filing a legal complaint against the Rogers Shaw merger decision, and Amazon hacking and slashing jobs. You know, stories with actual substance.

Indeed, far right propaganda sites (no, I am not linking to them to give free publicity) have been trumpeting this as the proof conservatives have been waiting for. That their conspiracy theories were right all along. More than one were parading the conspiracy theory that the government was, indeed, working in consort with platforms to silence conservative voices. Interestingly enough, they never actually cite any particular document to prove it, only that the documents proved their case. Well, there is a reason for that: the documents don’t appear to show this. As a result, they have to re-write what was actually shown in order to throw meat to their political base and rile up their readers for clicks.

So, what did end up being true? The files showed nothing noteworthy. TechDirt did do some digging in these files and, last December, showed the actual substance (or lack thereof) within the files themselves:

This would be a big scandal if true. But, it’s not. It’s just flat out wrong.

As with pretty much every one of these misleading statements regarding the very Twitter that he runs, where people (I guess maybe just former people) could explain to him why he’s wrong, it takes way more time and details to explain why he’s wrong than for him to push out these misleading lines that will now be taken as fact.

But, since at least some of us still believe in facts and truth, let’s walk through this.

First up, we already did a huge, long debunker on the idea that the FBI (or any government entity) was in any way involved in the Twitter decision to block links to the Hunter Biden laptop story. Most of the people who believed that have either ignored that there was no evidence to support it, or have simply moved on to this new lie, suggesting that “the FBI” was “sending lists” to Twitter of people to censor.

The problem is that, once again, that’s not what “the Twitter Files” show, even as the reporters working on it — Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger — either don’t understand what they’re looking at or are deliberately misrepresenting it. I’m no fan of the FBI, and have spent much of the two and a half decades here at Techdirt criticizing it. But… there’s literally no scandal here (or if there is one, it’s something entirely different, which we’ll get to at the end of the article).

What the files show is that the FBI would occasionally (not very often, frankly) use reporting tools to alert Twitter to accounts that potentially violated Twitter’s rules. When the FBI did so, it was pretty clear that it was just flagging these accounts for Twitter to review, and had no expectation that the company would or would not do anything about it. In fact, they are explicit in their email that the accounts “may potentially constitute violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service” and that Twitter can take “any action or inaction deemed appropriate within Twitter policy.”

That is not a demand. There is no coercion associated with the email, and it certainly appears that Twitter frequently rejected these flags from the US government. Twitter’s most recent transparency report lists all of the “legal demands” the company received for content removals in the US, and its compliance rate is 40.6%. In other words, it complied with well under half of any demands for data removal from the government.

Indeed, even as presented (repeatedly) by Taibbi and Shellenberger as if it’s proof that Twitter closely cooperated with the FBI, over and over again if you read the actual screenshots, it shows Twitter (rightly!) pushing back on the FBI.

So, basically, the FBI was noting accounts and telling Twitter something along the lines of “hey, we think these accounts are violating your terms of service. Maybe you should look into that.” It’s really not that far removed from your average every day user reporting an account for potential terms of service violations. At the very least, this is hardly big government working hand-in-hand with platforms to silence conservative voices.

Of course, that was from December. Has anything really changed since then? Apparently not. From Techdirt:

For all the talk of the “Twitter Files,” as we’ve detailed, they’ve mostly been, at best, misleading, and frequently actively wrong. One of the big reveals, we were told, was that the Files were going to expose the political machinations of how Twitter banned former President Trump. And, indeed, Bari Weiss’s “Part Five” of the Twitter Files, back in mid-December, purported to reveal the big secret reckoning. But if you haven’t heard much about it since then, it’s because… they were a complete flop when it came to anything of interest. Basically, it was exactly what some of us said the day it happened: a difficult decision with a number of competing factors going into it. One that could have gone either way, but recognizing the gravity of what happened on January 6th, and the genuine concern that Trump would continue to whip his fans into an insurrectionist frenzy, one that you can see a reasonable argument for making.

And while Musk (falsely) insisted that the big reveal was that Trump didn’t actually violate Twitter’s policies, that’s also a misreading of what happened. What we’ve learned is that Trump and other Republican leaders were actually given special treatment over the years, because they tended to violate policies way more often than Democrats. But, knowing that Republicans would flop to the ground and fake injury any time they were faced with even having to take the slightest bit of responsibility for violating policies, all the big social media platforms went above and beyond to better protect the high profile accounts of Republican rule breakers.

And while many people tried to paint the decision to finally ban Trump as some sort of “proof” that the company leadership was a bunch of left-leaning censors, the reality seemed to be quite different. Even Weiss’ big reveal was simply that there was strong and heated internal debate about what to do, with many employees (mostly not directly engaged in content moderation issues) calling for the company to ban him, while executives and trust & safety folks questioning whether or not that would be appropriate.

Right at the end of last year, though, as the House Select Committee investigated January 6th was wrapping up, some of the details of what they discovered about Twitter’s debate was leaked to Rolling Stone, and presents an even more detailed picture of how the company strongly resisted calls to ban Trump.

In all likelihood, the “Twitter files” were more of a distraction from the mountain of problems going on at Twitter ever since Musk took over. In short, Musk has been making all sorts of very bad decisions that undercut the potential success of Twitter including not paying bills, driving away advertisers, torpedoing morale among employees, making deep staff cuts that only served to further undermine the platform rather than ‘trim the fat’, burning bridges with business partners, rolling out policies that further erode the user experience on the platform, and more.

What’s more is that Musk was probably hoping to, at least, muddy the waters when it came to debate over how Twitter is being run in the last few months. It may have been inspired by Julian Assange and Wikileaks – both of which shot to fame thanks to their disclosures. The difference here is that the Wikileaks expose’s actually had substance.

The Afghan war diaries, for instance, put the difficult question of whether crimes were committed during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan (ala Collateral Murder). The diplomatic cables put to the forefront whether America was just acting as world peace keeper or influencing governments all over the world to write laws that serve corporate American interests. Also, the ACTA and TPP leaks showed that such agreements have less to do with “promoting international trade” and more about international lawmaking with American corporate interests dictating what laws should be written (not to mention corporate sovereignty with ISDS provisions).

All of those leaks had one thing in common: there was substance to those leaks that were noteworthy. That was the reason why it made international headlines and why Assange won so many journalism awards for his efforts. It was also why there was so much effort by American governmental organizations to demonize him and do anything and everything to see him arrested and/or killed in the process. It exposed the underbelly of American influence being pushed throughout the world with likely little knowledge of the American people, infuriating the powers that be who are calling for Assange’s head.

It’s entirely possible that Musk thought he could pull a similar thing with the so-called “Twitter files”. It wouldn’t be surprising if he thought that he would make headline news all over the world by these giant expose’s that proved a certain political ideology right all along. All that was needed is to tell people how to interpret the files and things will work out for him in the end. The problem is that some people actually read and some actually insist on having evidence to back up those claims. Without actual substance, the story falls apart.

That appears to be what happened here. While far right propaganda websites are happy to go along with the narrative pushed by Musk no matter what the evidence said, it didn’t exactly make the big time like Musk had hoped. For many, this whole exercise wound up being a complete waste of time and effort.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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