#24 – Twitter Files Reveal US Government Pressure on Social Media Platform to Suppress Alternative Views

by Shealeigh
Published: Last Updated on

The “Twitter Files”—a trove of internal communications relating to Twitter’s content moderation practices, made available to select journalists by the platform’s owner, Elon Musk—reveal how pressure from US government agencies has shaped political content on the popular social networking service.

Twitter has banned selected political voices, supported covert government operations, censored posts exploding the myth of large-scale Russian interference in the 2016 election, silenced anti-vaccine activists, and more. The following examples of the released files, as presented by journalist Matt Taibbi at Racket News, suggest the extent of government intrusion into Twitter’s operations:

  • Secret Blacklists (Twitter Files Parts 2, 3, and 4): Twitter has a large toolbox for controlling the visibility of any user. The platform aggressively applied “visibility filtering” to the account of Donald Trump before eventually banning him altogether after his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
  • Assistance to the Pentagon for Covert Online Psyops (Twitter Files Part 8): 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) maintained fifty-two Arab-language accounts on Twitter “to amplify certain messages.”
  • Congressional Requests for Bans (Twitter Files Part 14): Former head of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Democratic National Committee colleagues not only “asked for the takedown of an obvious satire” of President Biden, Taibbi reported, but also “requested takedowns of accounts that were critical of the Steele dossier and outed the name of the supposed ‘whistleblower’ in the Ukrainegate case, Eric Ciaramella.” Schiff’s staffers reportedly thanked Twitter for its efforts to “de-amplify” certain accounts.
  • Flagging and Removing Accurate Information (Twitter Files Part 19): In March 2023, via Taibbi’s Twitter Files release, researcher 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, Instagram, and TikTok—to aid in identifying and labeling “disinformation events.” The system was used to flag verifiably true stories online about COVID-19 vaccine side effects to be deleted or “de-amplified.”

Unfortunately, as Kenan Malik pointed out in a January 2023 report for the Guardian, despite giving Taibbi and a few other handpicked journalists exclusive access to the Twitter files, Musk has resisted calls to provide additional journalists and academic researchers broader access to Twitter’s internal records of its content moderation decisions. As Malik wrote, “Musk seems more interested in being seen to ‘own the libs’ than in opening up Twitter’s inner workings.”

Establishment news media have failed to explore the full implications of the Twitter Files coverage 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 News downplayed the files’ importance, presenting Twitter as a company doing the best it could and government involvement as minimal.

Matt Taibbi, “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,” 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)