The “Twitter Files” disclose how US government agencies pressured Twitter’s content moderation practices over the last few years, resulting in widespread censorship of COVID-19 topics and activists, the banning of selected political voices, support of covert government operations, and more.
Significant questions are now being raised about Twitter’s handling of these important public issues. Should government agencies have the right to influence Big Tech and limit public access to vital information? If so, how do we discern trustworthy information from misinformation and propaganda in our social media? The following examples of the released files, as presented by journalist Matt Taibbi at Racket News and Kenan Malik of The Guardian, suggest the extent of government intrusion into Twitters’ operations.
Secret Blacklists (File #2): Twitter has a large toolbox for controlling the visibility of any user, including aggressively applying “visibility filtering” to the account of Donald Trump before eventually banning him altogether in the aftermath of the January 6th United States Capitol Attack. In another example, Twitter created a “Trends Blacklist” for Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University who was actively questioning government pandemic policies.
Debate on COVID-19 Response (Files #10 and #13): Journalist Alex Berenson detailed how Twitter throttled or erased information about COVID-19. The platform also discredited “doctors and other experts who disagreed” with public officials. Twitter personnel worked with Biden administration officials who were “very angry” that Twitter had not de-platformed more accounts.
Assistance to the Pentagon and for Covert Online Psyops: Twitter officials testified publicly to Congress that the company did not allow government-backed covert operations, even while it was a clear partner in state-backed programs involving fake accounts. For example, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) sent a list of 52 Arab-language accounts for Twitter “… to amplify certain messages.”
In March 2023, investigative reporters Matt Taibbi and Mike Shellenberger testified, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government, about what they called the “censorship-industrial complex.” They described a host of state-supported think tanks, NGOs, and for-profit firms connected to the (COVID) “anti-disinformation” movement. Reporter Andrew Lowenthal disclosed how four think tanks and multiple government agencies worked to create a cross-platform system for seven major Internet platforms—including Twitter, Facebook/Instagram, Google/YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, and Medium—to aid them in labeling “disinformation events,” which seeded “doubt and uncertainty in authoritative voices” such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Corporate news media have failed to explore the full implications of Twitter Files reporting by Taibbi, Malik, and others. For example, NPR claimed “Elon Musk is using the Twitter Files to discredit foes and push conspiracy theories”; The Atlantic called the Twitter Files “sloppy, anecdotal, devoid of context, and, well, old news”; while CBS downplayed the files’ importance, presenting Twitter as a company doing the best it could, and government involvement as minimal.
Matt Taibbi, “The Twitter Files—Capsule Summaries of all Twitter Files Threads to Date, With Links and a Glossary,” Racket News, January 4, 2023.
Matt Taibbi, “My Statement to Congress (In testimony to House Judiciary Committee about the Twitter Files),” Racket News, March 9, 2023.
Kenan Malik, “The Twitter Files Should Disturb Liberal Critics of Elon Musk–and Here’s Why,” The Guardian, January 1, 2023.
Student Researcher: Kruthi Battar (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)