By Ross Barkan / The Nation
It became quite easy, in the days after the so-called Twitter Files were dumped across the Internet, to dismiss entirely all of their revelations. For many progressives, the whole affair was a right-coded distraction, and therefore worth deriding or ignoring altogether. First, it was an Elon Musk production, and Musk has evolved into a puerile reactionary, suspending journalist accounts at will and tossing off idiotic gibes to his 122 million followers. The recipients of the Twitter Files were either apostates from the left or actual conservatives; major news organizations did not disseminate the documents. So while the likes of Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss bellowed the importance of what was found, the mainstream could collectively consign their reporting to a psychological backwater—safely ignored or, at most, angrily gestured at.
There are certainly some dubious aspects to the Twitter Files—which is why even a serious discussion of the reporting must be preceded by some throat-clearing. Twitter itself is used by less than 30 percent of Americans; it is still a narwhal swimming up against the blue whale of Facebook. Musk himself is no Jeff Bezos—the owner of the most consequential corporation on Earth and a major American newspaper, or even a Koch brother, forever trying to dominate the Republican Party. And the arrangement Taibbi, Weiss, and author Michael Shellenberger made with Musk to publish the Twitter Files remains questionable. Rather than post the documents to their Substack publications first—both Taibbi and Weiss run highly successful, independent newsletters—they agreed to the conditions imposed by Musk: All documents must leak on Twitter. Effectively running a public relations campaign for the billionaire’s social media platform, Taibbi, Weiss, and Shellenberger published their reporting as unwieldy 30- and 40-part Twitter threads. The average person, not on Twitter at all, was destined to never properly apprehend what happened. Even obsessive users of the platform were left to sift through scores of tweets in reverse chronological order, sorting through the noise to find a few nuggets.
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The Twitter Files, however, do matter. They matter because Twitter has become the de facto public square for a fourth or so of America—and for the many influential politicians, journalists, pundits, and celebrities who continue to populate the platform. Twitter has the power, as was revealed in 2020, to determine how far news travels. The files showed how Twitter deliberated over banning certain accounts (Donald Trump’s being the biggest) and ultimately suppressed—through the removal of links and even the blocking of direct messages—reporting by the New York Post on Hunter Biden’s laptop, which turned out to be a valid news story, in the sense that the younger Biden’s laptop was real and so were all of its contents. Most liberals did not care, because it was October 2020 and the defeat of Trump mattered more than any commitment to free speech principles; the locking of the account of a daily newspaper in New York City for weeks on end simply did not register as a crisis with a vital election looming. The reasoning was autocratic: For the greater good, a few must suffer, especially if their views are undesirable. (The Twitter Files held other smaller, if notable, revelations, including that the Stanford epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya was placed on an internal backlist, his tweets artificially suppressed, because he was a critic of Covid-19 lockdowns.)
It is simply not enough to say Twitter is a private company and it can do what it wants. As the progressive California congressman Ro Khanna pointed out, this is the kind of answer that gets you an A on a high school exam but fails to account for the obligation a private entity of enormous consequence has to the public. Public discourse occurs on private platforms, but these platforms—in their scale and reach—behave like public utilities. The telephone company can’t stop a neo-Nazi from ever placing a phone call. Con Edison can’t shut off a Proud Boy’s electricity if he’s still paying his bills.
There’s the conflation, too, of the First Amendment and free speech. As the many liberals who now aggressively favor social media moderation point out, constitutional protections refer to what the government can and cannot do. Twitter isn’t the federal government. But free speech, as a concept, dates back many centuries, encompassing the various philosophies and theories concerned with the protection of the individual’s right to freely think and communicate. Corporate power over speech arguably matters just as much as the governmental regulation of speech; the former cannot be simply waved away as a private matter. Freedom of speech is not absolute, and there are reasonable regulations related to criminality, as well as mores restricting bullying and harassment. The question, as always, is how far these regulations should go when applied to what is now the privately controlled digital public square. Twitter, Facebook, Google, and TikTok are not like the newspapers of old, where editors decided daily what was fit for print. They are much more all-encompassing.
As the Twitter Files show, both the Biden campaign and the Trump administration took aggressive steps to control the flow of information, as did the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which have behaved similarly under both presidents. What we don’t know is how Twitter is acting today, apart from Musk’s public declarations and his various attempts to rescue what appears to be a severely damaged business model, thanks to his alienation of advertisers. Is the Biden administration having back-channel communications with Twitter today? What concessions is Musk making now? In this regard, the otherwise swashbuckling Taibbi has behaved like any conventional journalist, covering for the powerful source that offered him such precious leaks. In the future, perhaps Taibbi will go rummaging around Muskworld to tell us what Twitter looks like in 2022 and 2023—not just what it looked like in 2020.
What is to be done now? These debates have been scrambled so much along ideological lines—with the right wing disingenuously appropriating civil liberties rhetoric, while the left appropriates the arguments of censorious cultural conservatives—that honest debate feels impossible. If there is any principle to glean from this morass, it’s that less regulation, suppression, and censorship of speech is better than more. Before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, social media moderation was not a cause that particularly animated the left. In fact, Barack Obama’s exploitation of Facebook in 2008 was regarded in almost mythical terms: the handsome young candidate seizing the tools of the future for the benefit of the commonweal. Trump’s victory was ascribed to his campaign’s embrace of Facebook misinformation, the fake news that poisoned the minds of so many voters. If there was truth in this tale—plenty of false information churns through Facebook and the Trump camp really did outflank Clinton there—it was also simplistic, forever attributing age-old ills like racism and nativism to technology that wasn’t needed for any of those ills to flourish.
Twitter and the rest of the Internet are simply too big for anyone—whether Musk or the left-leaning tech workers recently purged from the company—to properly regulate when it comes to the flow of speech. There’s an absolute danger in allowing a select few human beings to decide, rapidly and arbitrarily, what is “good” speech or “bad.” Liberals didn’t care in 2020 because the New York Post is Rupert Murdoch’s toy. But what if a future Republican administration pressures Musk or anyone to start locking the account of The New York Times? The Washington Post? The possibilities for abuse are endless. The Twitter Files, at the minimum, should push us closer to reckoning with the gravity of these unsettling questions.