On Friday, Elon Musk announced via tweet that documents related to Twitter’s decision to intervene in the propagation of an October 2020 story in the New York Post about then candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, would be made public. The incident caused a furor at the time, with some Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump insinuating that it was proof that social media firms are biased against conservative interests. Some even maintain that the actions of Twitter and Facebook with regard to this particular New York Post story may have had some impact on the outcome of the election, as far-fetched as that might be.
Today, we’ll hear two voices on the disclosures. The first is David Ingram, who covers tech for NBC News and will walk us through what happened. And the second is Mike Masnick, the editor of the influential site Tech Dirt, who offers his first thoughts on the disclosures, and what they portend for the future of Twitter under Elon Musk.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
David, can you tell my listeners just a little bit about your beat? You’ve certainly been on the Musk beat for the last many months, but what else do you cover? What’s your approach?
Yeah. I broadly cover Silicon Valley and the tech industry for NBC News. Mostly what I do is I write articles for our website. And then sometimes I do appear on camera either on some of our linear TV or our streaming services. I write about usually some mix of the big tech story of the moment and also long-term projects, trying to explain the pitfalls and upsides of the tech industry to a very broad, mostly US audience.
Well, certainly one of the tech stories of the moment, perhaps the biggest tech story of the moment is Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and, yesterday, the release of internal files relating to an incident that took place in 2020. I do want to start there, if you will. Can you take us back to what happened on October 14, 2020, that kicked all of this off?
Yeah. About a little more than two years ago, this was in the heat of the presidential election of 2020 between Donald Trump, the incumbent, and Biden, the challenger. October 14th was, I think, it was about three weeks just before Election Day. The New York Post, which is a conservative-leaning tabloid newspaper, very large circulation, they published a story, I think, initially online with allegations against the Bidens, both Joe Biden and one of his sons, Hunter Biden.
The New York Post was the only outlet to report these allegations initially. The Post story relied on emails from Hunter Biden’s laptop, that they said was from Hunter Biden’s laptop. The chain of custody there was one of the questions that a lot of people had about the Post story. Where did they get the emails? They did say in the story, they got them through Rudy Giuliani and learned about them from Steve Bannon.
The story immediately provoked a lot of interest online, both because it involves Hunter Biden and because of the way that the Post framed the story. They essentially were accusing the Bidens of wrongdoing involving Burisma, which is a Ukrainian oil company, and alleging that Hunter Biden inappropriately tried to set up a meeting between an advisor to that company and Joe Biden, who at the time was vice-president.
So this is in the context of the platforms being concerned, of course, about similar type of interference, perhaps, from foreign adversaries, thinking back to the DNC leaks and other activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency, other related interference concerns. So the platforms, and it’s not just Twitter, but Facebook as well, essentially saw a red flag here.
Part of the big context for them was that, as you said, four years earlier, Russian operatives had hacked emails of the DNC and other Democrats and had leaked those to the media, to social media through a variety of channels and, essentially, the Russians were accused of using Facebook and Twitter to disseminate these leaks unchallenged.
People who worked at Facebook and Twitter at that time period, they thought they were being used. So they wanted to prevent that from happening again, where potentially illegally obtained documents, they didn’t want those spreading on the companies they worked for. So fast forward from 2016 to 2020, they see the story online on the New York Post website, and they’re faced with a question of how to handle it.
Do they treat that like any other news story? Do they treat it like it was 2016 again where we’re dealing with potentially illegal obtained documents, or somewhere in between? That’s what brings us back to the leak on Friday of internal Twitter documents where Elon Musk is trying to show us some additional details of how that debate went down within Twitter back in October 2020.
Well, I guess we can’t even really call it a leak, can we, since the documents were provided by, apparently, the company’s owner and putative chief executive?
That’s right. Yeah. When he bought Twitter, he bought everything within Twitter, including what’s on their computers and their internal corporate email. I don’t think that’s in dispute at this point, whether he had the right to release these documents.
He released them to a journalist, Matt Taibbi, who has a long record of magazine journalism, very provocative, strongly opinionated writer, a little bit hard to pin down with a specific label. But he’s, I think fair to say, very contrarian and has covered a lot of different subjects over the years, from finance to politics to, I think he was based in Russia for a while as well.
So this release occurred on Friday evening. It was a thread of tweets from this journalist who suggested on his Substack that he, in fact, had, I suppose, agreed with Elon Musk or with Twitter that he would release this information on Twitter first. Tell me a little bit about this big reveal. How did it go down, and what did we learn?
It went down with a lot of suspense. Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi kind of slow-rolled this one. I think it was about roughly noon Pacific Time, 3:00 PM Eastern on Friday. Elon Musk tweets out that at 5:00 PM Eastern, two hours later or so, the Twitter files would be published on Twitter describing something about the Hunter Biden laptop.
Musk had been sort of teasing this for a few days, saying that he wanted to provide greater transparency to how Twitter had operated in the past. So 5:00 PM Eastern rolled around. I think a lot of people within tech, within politics, within the media were really kind of on the edge of their seats to see, okay, what’s Elon Musk going to show here?
5:00 PM comes and goes, Eastern time, and nothing appears. So people start tweeting at Musk, “Why are you late?” And then he clarifies that he’s fact checking, and it’s going to be another 40 minutes or so. Finally, I think around 6:37 PM Eastern Time, sort of out of nowhere I think, Matt Taibbi started tweeting out these finals.
I don’t think we had a sense before he started tweeting that he would be the vehicle, the journalist that Musk apparently had hand chosen to tell the story. So Matt starts this long Twitter thread, which starts off with, you might say, a lot of throat clearing, a lot of background, not really giving the substance of the allegations.
Eventually, I think people lose patience with his Twitter thread, and he speeds things up, starts posting what he says are some documents from inside Twitter and starts laying out some of his conclusions in, I think, an abridged Twitter thread.
So let’s talk a little bit about some of those conclusions. Can you speak to what the actual documents said that were revealed? Now, Taibbi says that there are thousands of documents, and this is just the first of multiple reports that he has planned around them. He suggests we’ll hear more about topics like shadow banning and the decision to suspend other prominent accounts on the platform.
But what did we learn last night, in retrospect, about the New York Post story and that decision?
Yeah. I mean think the main thing we learned were some details of how the debate went down within Twitter. So on the day of the Post story back in October 2020, Twitter wasn’t saying very much publicly. They had taken actions, along with Facebook, to slow the spread of the story. Twitter prevented users from sharing a link in tweets or in direct messages.
Twitter, I think by their own admission, was not very forthcoming 2+ years ago about why they had done that, at least immediately. But we didn’t really know. I think we all had a sense of because there was a very public debate of what Twitter should do, the question was, was that debate similar inside? How did Twitter employees and Twitter executives view this?
I think what we really learned is that the debate inside Twitter very much mirrored the debate outside Twitter, probably a little bit more informed and experienced given that they work in this area rather than just sort of offering theories. But they considered what their existing policies were. Did this action fit with those policies? Was there some other action or reason they should be giving for the action they’re taking? Are they doing the right thing?
There’s some back and forth where Twitter executives, in particular, their chief lawyer is defending this policy where some people on the communications team, public relations team are telling their colleagues, “Look, it’s hard for us to defend this. The reasoning here doesn’t quite add up.” By the end of the day, I mean this was already known that Jack Dorsey, then the CEO of Twitter, made his displeasure known.
I think it was that evening, maybe around 7:00 PM, Jack Dorsey tweets out that it had been unacceptable for Twitter to have taken those big steps of trying to stop the spread of the story without actually explaining why or giving a consistent reason for why it did so. So we really got to see what some of the individual employees felt at Twitter and how that discussion proceeded.
Of course, that was one of several moments where Twitter executives have acknowledged essentially that they made a mistake, both from a policy perspective, procedurally, and in terms of the implementation of the block on the URL and some subsequent actions that were taken against individuals in the Trump campaign or in the Republican Party for sharing that information or information related to it, including Kayleigh McEnany, who was then senior in the Trump administration.
One of certainly the fresh details was just who was reaching out to Twitter to give feedback. I think the feedback itself was not particularly surprising, but you had the White House press secretary whose account was temporarily locked. The White House is asking why this account is being locked. You had a Democratic congressman from California reaching out to Twitter saying, “Look, the explanation you’re giving about some potential safety threat here is just not satisfying people on Capitol Hill,” and essentially saying, “You need to do better.”
People from the outside were just really putting pressure on Twitter to either reverse course and allow the story to spread normally as it would any other story or to give a more persuasive reason for why it was taking the action it was taking. Some of the Twitter executives, including their top lawyer internally, were standing by their position, saying that the White House press secretary needed to delete a tweet that was in violation of policies and, until they did so, that account would remain locked.
I think it is worth saying here that Twitter did have a written policy against the sharing of hacked materials, and that dated to 2018. It had its roots in that 2016 era. Twitter employees, I think, were struggling. Okay, we have this policy that you can’t spread hacked materials. How does that apply to a New York Post story that is apparently relying on emails that they didn’t know if they were legally obtained?
So you’ve got this essentially fog of war moment, right? You’ve got Giuliani, not exactly the most trusted vehicle for information, Steve Bannon a known propagandist, dissembler of facts. You’ve got the New York Post, I mean for all its storied history. Yesterday, I read a piece that was in the New York Post about Vladimir Putin taking a fall and soiling himself, which 10 paragraphs down or so was sourced to an anonymous Telegram user.
So I mean we’re not exactly talking about high trust kind of environment. And yet, Twitter’s essentially made a mistake. I mean I think they’ve acknowledged that. So it’s, in many ways, a major overreaction to the 2016 scenario they’d feared so much.
I think that’s an accurate description of how even Twitter employees feel now and some of them felt at the time. We heard an interview recently with Yoel Roth, who was a high-level head of trust and safety at Twitter until recently. He said in this interview that even at the time in October 2016, he did not agree with the call of other managers and executives who had decided to stop the spread or slow the spread of this New York Post story.
He felt that that was going too far, that they hadn’t quite met the high burden of showing that this was hacked material in order to take the really extraordinary step of blocking this New York Post link. So yeah, I think the majority of Twitter employees at the time were, at a minimum, dissatisfied with how the company handled it. I think Dorsey’s comment about how it was unacceptable was pretty widespread.
So we’ve seen this incident essentially, I don’t know how to quite say it, fester perhaps in the right wing media and the right wing political conversation. It’s been brought up numerous times in Congressional and Senate hearings. It is now promised that Congressional House Republicans intend to call Twitter executives involved in this incident for interviews or testimony in committee in the spring once Republicans take over the House.
In many ways, this has become a kind of totem on the right, a sort of sign that these left-leaning social platforms are interfering in the public discourse on their behalf. Is there any proof of that in what Matt Taibbi brought forward yesterday?
I think it’s very possible that Matt Taibbi will post things that give more direct evidence on that point, either for or against it. The emails that he posted yesterday included very little in the way of references to partisanship or wanting explicitly to help one candidate or another hurt one candidate or another. These were not emails that said, “We must help Joe Biden.” They were primarily concerned about whether Twitter itself was being used improperly by hackers who had gotten these emails.
So I don’t know what Republicans are going to do in the House next year in terms of hearings. It does sound like they want to continue a focus on this. I think it was almost a, watershed might be a little strong, but it was a big moment where Twitter and Facebook were exerting this power they have over what we all see on social media and in a way that may have been an overreaction to 2016, maybe not. But it was a radical shift in strategy for how companies think about all this.
It’s also worth saying that, according to Hunter Biden, he is under investigation by the Justice Department for tax issues. So there are other issues involving Hunter Biden that are yet to be resolved. He says he has not done anything wrong in regard to his taxes, and I think we all expect that there will a decision from the Justice Department sometime in the medium to near future about whether he faces charges.
But there are other avenues for Republicans to talk about if they want to keep talking about Hunter Biden separate from this Twitter issue.
So one of the things that Taibbi wrote was that he had seen no evidence that there was government involvement in Twitter’s move to block the New York Post story. So this had been one of the key concerns on the right, this idea that somehow the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other government entity had influenced Twitter’s decision to take action on this story.
Of course, that, I guess, flame was fanned slightly by Mark Zuckerberg with relation to Facebook’s decision to limit the spread of the URL on Joe Rogan’s podcast a little bit. Can you speak to that a little bit? What evidence did we see there about the government involvement in any of this?
This is such a story with so many confusing layers of the onion and so many different weird side tangents. But yes, this is an idea that Zuckerberg promoted or dropped in this Joe Rogan interview that there had been a warning from the FBI that somehow influenced Facebook’s thinking on this. Zuckerberg said, at the time, that it wasn’t a direct warning about the laptop story, but it was a general warning about hacked materials and Facebook being used by foreign threat actors.
Taibbi said very explicitly, very directly that he saw no evidence in the Hunter Biden story and Twitter’s handling of it, that there had been government involvement, so nothing related to the FBI or the White House or Justice Department, which I think serves to undercut the emphasis that Zuckerberg put on this. The New York Post, at the time, was kind of downplaying Zuckerberg’s comment, too, that he was trying to shift blame from Facebook to the FBI.
We haven’t seen the actual communication from the FBI to Facebook or to Twitter, but Taibbi was pretty firm that he had seen nothing to show clear involvement of the FBI.
I mean one thing I’m struck by in looking through this material is, on some level, it seems to kind of corroborate a different story, which is that you’ve got these policy executives at Twitter struggling to interpret what to do in this murky situation. They’re trying to read their own policy, react quickly. Perhaps they’ve made a mistake.
But on the other hand, you’ve got multiple instances or multiple bits of evidence that point to the opposite conclusion, that the company is making partisan decisions. You’ve got Taibbi suggests that Jack Dorsey himself intervenes on multiple occasions on behalf of or with respect to content moderation decisions on accounts across the political spectrum.
You’ve got the main, or most eloquent perhaps, questioner of this incident in the moment being a Democratic congressman from California. You’ve got other evidence that Taibbi suggests that these incidents don’t just affect the political right on the spectrum. So I don’t know. I mean it kind of paints a bit of a murky picture, but it doesn’t seem like that’s how it’s being received on the right at all.
I mean if I look at the headlines today on Newsmax, Fox News, Breitbart, this is proof that Twitter wanted to throw the election to Joe Biden.
Yeah. I mean, again, we may see more from Matt Taibbi that goes to that point. The actual facts that we learned, the vast majority of them we knew going into Friday. I mean the details about who was complaining to Twitter and their internal deliberations, those details were new, but I don’t think they changed the overall takeaway, which is that, as you said, Twitter executives, from their own telling of it, really generally overreacted to the Post story.
I think people who are dissatisfied with the 2020 election result certainly are going to look at this as another piece of evidence that maybe they were somehow treated unfairly. I mean I would be curious, frankly, to hear from Donald Trump himself or others in his world who could maybe connect those dots a little bit more and try to show why this was so influential in the election.
We haven’t seen, I think, any evidence that a lot of voters cast their ballots in the election because of lack of knowledge about the New York Post story. That would be a hard thing to tell, of course. But yeah, I think we’re going to hear more about this, for sure, from parts of the internet.
Of course, arguably, the story and its tales were made far more prominent by this incident occurring around it than they would have been had the Post story simply shared on its own accord. But I’m going to ask you maybe a last question to put this incident of Musk sharing these documents with Taibbi vaunting their release in this way, kind of creating a bit of a circus around it.
In the context of his behavior since he’s acquired the company, you’ve been covering him very closely. What does this tell us perhaps about how he’ll handle Twitter as a platform or how he’ll handle the information that he has access to as a result of being CEO of this company?
Well, we know that Elon Musk makes decisions often very quickly without necessarily a lot of planning or input from a wide circle of people. I think what we saw here reflected that because some of the documents that Matt Taibbi posted named individuals and gave their email addresses, which some Twitter users were arguing goes against Twitter’s own policy against that kind of release of personal information. It’s called doxxing.
But I think Musk is going back to maybe an earlier period in social media where executives were writing the rule book as they went along. He inherited an existing rule book from Twitter that was long and detailed, and I think he is continuing to show that he is going to rewrite parts of it as he learns more about how Twitter’s operated. He’s not going to be bound by the decisions of prior management. He strongly disagrees with how prior management ran Twitter.
I think he is going to really relish the idea of both reversing some of those decisions, criticizing them, and coming up with maybe a new paradigm, maybe an old paradigm for how social media operates.
Well, certainly, I suppose that will give you lots of items to cover over the next few weeks and months. David Ingram, tech reporter for NBC News, thank you so much. Encourage my listeners to follow you on Twitter, of course, @David_Ingram. Thank you so much for joining me today.
My pleasure, Justin.
Next up, we’ll continue to unpack what we learned and what we didn’t learn from the disclosure of internal Twitter communications on Friday and what the incident may tell us about the future of Twitter under Elon Musk.
Mike Masnick, I’m the founder and editor of the Techdirt blog and the president of the Copia Institute.
Mike, I appreciate you talking to me on a Saturday, working on the weekend. But I suppose Elon Musk somewhat dictated the news cycle when he decided on Friday to announce that there would be the revelation of what he called the Twitter files, which came in the form of a series of tweets from the journalist, Matt Taibbi. What was your first reaction to the material that Matt put forward?
What material, is the real thing. When he announced it, I was like, “Well, I’m interested.” Who doesn’t want to know this stuff? But the amazing thing was that, one, besides the fact that the Twitter thread was delayed for two hours before it actually came out, and then once it came out, the first 20 or so tweets were complete nothing of just random throat clearing.
And then when we finally got to what I guess was the focus of it, there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing of interest. It was almost exactly things that Twitter had said publicly in the days and weeks after all of this went down, that the company had a policy in place around hacked materials. There was some questions raised about the providence of this material. Basically, in an abundance of caution, the company hesitated and said that it fit under that policy.
That was all known, and that was all publicly stated. The policy itself was open to criticism. We had criticized that policy months earlier when they had blocked another … They had actually shut down, suspended another account, the DDO Secrets account under that same hacked materials policy because they were releasing some police chat logs.
We had said that it was going to be problematic because you’re going to end up blocking legitimate journalism if you say that you can’t have any materials like this, because this kind of material shows up in legitimate journalism all the time. So it basically just confirmed everything that everybody knew, but was presented in such a sort of conspiratorial tone and suggesting a bunch of things that, for people who were looking to make claims, that they could take and sort of run with it.
The few things that it revealed that were potentially semi-interesting was it showed, very much out of context, it showed requests from the DNC which appeared to be just traditional flags basically saying, “Please check this content to see if it violates the rules.” As some other people have looked up, but apparently Matt Taibbi either did not look up or chose not to reveal, those were non-consensual nude images of Hunter Biden.
So those were things that clearly violate Twitter’s policies and violate a number of different state laws, and so reasonable things. There was no indication that any of the requests had anything to do with the New York Post story, and there’s basically just nothing. And yet, people are completely running with it and assuming that this is some big reveal. It’s really just confirming the discussion.
It revealed some of the discussion inside of Twitter, which seemed like perfectly reasonable normal discussion, actually surprisingly careful and thoughtful and earnest. I actually thought, out of all of this, that Twitter’s trust and safety apparatus came out of it looking good, though there’s tons of people who seem to disagree with that. It seems there was nothing really that newsworthy in all of this.
So to some extent, I feel like experts, like you, others who’ve commented on this, agree after the fact that Twitter ultimately made a mistake in limiting the spread of this particular New York Post URL and some of the downstream actions that it took as a result, but understand that there was a fog of war kind of situation there where there were a bunch of external circumstances, certainly concerns over the source of the material, the messengers themselves, the individuals who were known to be essentially bringing that material forward to the Post, to the journalist that ultimately wrote the story, not exactly the most trustworthy individuals, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon.
But this has become a totem on the right. Now it seems like a kind of important cornerstone in the big lie.
Yeah, and I don’t fully understand why, other than it’s just something that they can cling to. Actually, it’s kind of funny because last week I had started to draft an article that was basically titled, All Right, Let’s Talk About the Hunter Biden Laptop, because I’ve written about it. I’ve written about how it’s a nothing story for multiple times, but it’s always been in other stories as part of this larger story.
So I just wanted to have a post that was specifically explaining why it’s a nothing story. The extent of the actual story, as I already kind of said, is that Twitter had a bad policy. I thought it was a bad policy, and I had said it was a bad policy before all this went down. But that happens. I mean these companies have bad policies. The thing that everybody’s trying to focus on and claim is that there was government involvement or that the suppression of the story was politically motivated, and there remains no evidence to support that.
There was that this story broke, and I was online when the story broke. I remember there was a lot of confusion. There was a lot of concern. There were some oddities about the New York Post story, including the fact that the person who said was the original reporter on it had their name pulled from the byline. That should be a warning. There were other indications that it might be of questionable provenance.
So there were all these questions. If you remember what had happened in 2016 and a few other times, there were real concerns about how different foreign actors might seek to abuse social media to try and present blatantly false or hacked information in questionable ways. So there was an abundance of caution. Whether or not you agree with it, and I think, again, blocking the New York Post never made any sense, but you can see there’s a perfectly logical explanation there.
There’s no evidence of the government actually getting involved trying to suppress it or even the Biden campaign trying to suppress the story. People are talking about, “Oh, the Biden campaign was involved in this.” And again, the only evidence that they showed was that they were focused on the naked pictures and not the New York Post story.
So whatever the underlying thing is that people think is the big story just isn’t there, but they seem to just want to focus on it because they need to just pump up the conspiracy factor, and this is all they have. So I honestly don’t get it. I feel like there’s got to be a better conspiracy theory out there that they could center on. But for whatever reason, they’re completely obsessed, I mean, one, obsessed with Hunter Biden, who isn’t even …
He’s not part of the government and is not the candidate and, obviously, not the president. I just don’t see what the big deal is other than it’s something for them to cling to.
Elon Musk has characterized this as a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment. I’ve just spent more than an hour of my life listening to a Twitter Space with Elon Musk and other characters talking about the fact that there’s what seems obvious to them, the government is engaging with Twitter in order to censor people’s speech. For my listener’s sake, do you see any potential violation of the First Amendment?
The only thing in all the releases that raised any kind of First Amendment question was the claim that was never then gone any further from Matt Taibbi that the Trump administration also sent requests to Twitter. This is important because people seem to believe time works backwards in some way in terms of claiming this because people are pointing to the DNC requesting the take down of the naked pictures and claiming that that is a First Amendment violation.
Clearly, that has nothing to do with the First Amendment because the DNC was not the government. They were representing a campaign for the President. So it’s just individuals pointing out potential terms of service violations who are not the government. That is perfectly fine. You and I can report anything, and Twitter will review them.
Because they’re a political campaign, because Twitter and every social network, frankly, has ways for campaigns, all different political campaigns at all different levels, to communicate with certain teams within Twitter, perhaps their reports were given more credence than others. But the same is true of different people who … Lots of high-profile people have the ability to communicate that way and to send in reports.
Nothing about it indicated any kind of demand, any kind of coercive pressure. So the only thing that was potentially of interest, from a First Amendment standpoint, would be if the government is putting pressure on the company. Taibbi did mention that the Trump administration had sent over a request to Twitter as well, but gave no details about them. I have no idea if those are or are not concerning, from a First Amendment standpoint, but those would be the only ones that could potentially be.
It would have been nice if he’d explain what they were. I think there are potential explanations that are not problematic under the First Amendment, and there are potential explanations that are extremely problematic under the First Amendment but, without details, it’s really difficult to say. But the Biden campaign is a private entity, not a part of the government. There’s zero First Amendment concerns there.
It seems like, though, in the right, folks are conflating this with a variety of other things that they’re concerned about, COVID misinformation, of course. There’s state attorney general inquiry into whether the White House coerced Twitter essentially to limit speech around COVID-19 vaccines, the rest. There are obviously other concerns about the relationship between the FBI and the social platforms. So there is a broader context here, a broader set of concerns.
Yeah. That’s true. Some of those concerns, I think, are potentially legitimate on the margins, but I think are blown out of proportion in serious ways. So I think a lot of people have taken a bunch of these stories and conflated them and mixed them, and the specifics and the details really actually matter. There were stories. In particular, there was a FBI agent who was meeting with social media companies.
There’s no indication whatsoever that those meetings involved the FBI telling the companies to take stuff down. It sounds as though they were pure information sharing saying basically, “We’re aware of foreign activity doing stuff. Please keep an eye out.” This was another thing that was conflated not too long ago, whatever it was, a month or two ago when Mark Zuckerberg went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and this was totally taken out of context.
They asked about the Biden laptop. Once again, not that Mark Zuckerberg is the most compelling of speakers, but he gave a pretty clear explanation of what happened on his end, which was that they had heard from the FBI basically just in general, “Be aware that there may be some foreign influence operations and just keep an eye out.” There was no indication that they got any sort of direct notification regarding the Hunter Biden laptop story or the New York Post in particular.
In fact, Facebook took a different approach to handling that particular story, which was that they didn’t block it. They just held it back from trending in recommended topics until they could go through a fact check on it which, again, is a perfectly reasonable stance to take. And yet, everybody took that and said, “Oh, he just admitted that the FBI told him to take down the story,” which is not what happened.
So there are all sorts of things. I mean I do think, in general, the government should not be telling private websites certainly what to take down. I think that’s pretty clearly a First Amendment problem or threatening them or trying to coerce them. I think that some of the things that the Biden administration has done has been concerning on that front around COVID misinformation where the then press secretary calling out individuals and saying, “These accounts are still online.” That one is a much closer call.
I think it was kind of a dumb thing to do because it’s basically giving the other side a bunch of talking points. There was no direct evidence of coercion or threats, which is where the First Amendment issues come in. I understand why the administration thought they should call out these accounts, but I think it’s a really bad look. It is at least verging on a First Amendment concern. So I really don’t think they should have done that.
But there still remains zero evidence of any actual threats or coercion or anything around that, other than here and there you have one-off senators or representatives making silly threats. This is on both sides of the aisle. So you have things like Elizabeth Warren telling the companies to shape up or she’s going to legislate against them. You have Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley on the Republican side threatening to change laws to punish companies.
All of those, I think, are First Amendment concerns. But the idea that there’s any sort of direct issue around … There’s no evidence of anything that raises to the level of a First Amendment issue with regards to companies enforcing their policies in determining how they want to moderate content, in the same way that news organizations are able to have their own editorial discretion.
All of these things happen, and I think it’s all blown out of proportion. I think a lot of people don’t really understand how the First Amendment works.
It does seem that there is a great deal of uncertainty and perhaps, in some cases, purposeful misdirection around how things actually work or how the law works in this. So we’ll see how that all plays out because we’re going to be hearing a lot more about it, at least if the headlines on sites like Newsmax, Breitbart, Fox, are any indication. There are Republican congressmen chomping at the bit to haul in Twitter executives talk about this incident.
Yeah. I mean even that, to me, that’s more concerning. That seems more of a First Amendment concern to me than anything else because basically just to show why this is crazy, just imagine if the Democrats said they were going to haul in Fox News executives to explain who they put on air and who they refuse to put on air. I think most people, certainly Republicans, would freak out about that and say that’s a huge First Amendment problem because you’re putting pressure on these companies about their editorial discretion.
So I think the same is true of trying to haul in Twitter executives to demand they explain how they made their editorial discretion decisions in terms of content moderation. And yet, for whatever reason, people want to pretend it’s something different. So I think both of those cases are bad. I don’t think that Congress should be investigating Fox News for what it puts on the air, and I don’t think Congress should be investigating Twitter for how it decides to moderate its content.
Last question, Mike. There was some notable redaction errors in the Twitter thread last night, a congressman’s personal email, Jack Dorsey’s personal email exposed. And yet, there’s sort of a bigger thing here, I suppose, about what Elon Musk will do with access to the information that he has now that he’s acquired this company. Those personal emails are just a minor part of the personal information that he’s acquired.
What do you expect to see from Elon? It seems like he’s on a kind of quest here, or this revealed, to some extent, part of his motivation to buy the company.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, to some extent, that involves thinking that there’s some grand plan here, and I’m just not sure that there is. I’m not sure that he has any idea, and it really feels like a lot of this is being driven in the moment by different whims or different demands from the people that he’s following. He’s surrounded himself with a very specific ideological viewpoint and is buying into it.
It’s kind of funny in a lot of different ways that a lot of what he is doing now is exactly the kinds of things that lots of people were accusing Twitter of doing before, moderating based on personal ideology and whims and being arbitrary and not having a clear plan and just bouncing around and potentially not protecting privacy. Those were all things that Twitter, of all companies, was actually pretty careful about having clear policies in place, trying to enforce them as fairly as possible.
I know people disagree with this or people say, “Oh, that’s not true.” But if you actually knew how much Twitter seemed to have done to really bend over backwards to try to enforce these policies equally, not to do it arbitrarily and to have clear policies in place and not to just be based on the whims. It’s funny, too, because at the same time, one of the big complaints that people had was they claimed that Twitter was shadow banning people.
People are still tweeting at Elon Musk using this very, very dubious online tool that claims to tell you if you’re shadow banned or not. I was playing around with it, and almost anyone you put into that tool will say is shadow banned. So people are tweeting at Elon Musk saying, “Hey, I’m shadow banned. You got to fix this.” So shadow banning was this huge problem.
And then meanwhile, part of his big change to how they’re handling content moderation is to implement more shadow banning, and people are cheering it on. So his approach to all of this is nonsensical. I mean he’s just sort of making it up as he goes along and just doing whatever he thinks is right in the moment. So I don’t think there’s any sort of grand strategic plan.
Some of this surprises me. I mean I thought that he would know better than if he’s going to reveal stuff, if he wants to be transparent, for the most part, he has the right to release this stuff. I think there is a sort of side note on this, which is that it’s a little bit odd for him to announce, and he also has hinted at, though it hasn’t revealed any details, that the company may have interfered in the Brazilian election, which seems particularly stupid for him to say.
But like all of this, if there was any law breaking by Twitter itself, he’s the one who’s liable for it. He’s bought the company. He owns it. So any of the liabilities came along with that. He can’t just foist it off and say, “That was the last guy’s,” because he ended up with the liabilities as well.
So I’m not sure, strategically, what the plan is here because it feels like a lot of the stuff he’s doing is going to end up with him facing legal ramifications for his own statements here about what the company may or may not have done before. So in terms of revealing private information, I have no idea. I think it certainly does not suggest that he’s being particularly careful with private information, handing it off to various journalists to go through.
I mean it was funny when the Taibbi thread began, the first few screenshots were pretty carefully redacted. I had actually commented to someone. I was like, “Oh, at least he’s redacting information.” And then halfway through, he just seemed to stop and, suddenly, they were revealing names and emails. Congressman Ro Khanna’s email address, it turns out that Representative Khanna had revealed that publicly before. So it wasn’t that big of a deal that Taibbi revealed that, the Jack Dorsey one.
It’s just kind of funny, I guess. It’s not great, obviously, because I mean that screenshot had his email in two places and Matt had redacted one of them, but not the other, which is just showing sloppiness and carelessness, which the entire thread kind of showed that. But it is this sloppy, careless attitude, which is kind of incredible because one of the big complaints around Twitter for years, and a legitimate one, I think, was that the company was really, really slow in doing anything.
But part of the reason they were so slow is because they were perhaps seriously overly cautious about everything that they did and how it might impact private data and privacy and information that they were sharing. From the outside, it certainly felt sometimes like the company was not being transparent enough, but a lot of that was just them being very cautious and careful around private information.
Clearly, the days of that happening are long gone, and now we’re just getting whatever Elon wants without much thought to the wider impact. I think just the one example of that is that within the Taibbi thread, some sort of frontline, effectively low-level employees were named, and their names were very clearly stated. Some of those people have since gotten death threats for really not doing anything concerning in the slightest, but just doing a basic frontline trust and safety kind of job.
That certainly suggests that the company is not only not concerned about private data, but also the health and wellness of people who work there.
In his Twitter Space tonight, Musk invoked the Stasi files and Mandela and truth and reconciliation and seemed to suggest that getting this information out is a way of rectifying some great harm that’s been done and clearing the runway for Twitter to emerge as a more legitimate part of democracy. So we’ll see what happens with future revelations.
Yeah. I mean the one thing I’ll say is, to me, I’m surprised at how benign they were, honestly. I’ve dealt with Twitter’s trust and safety folks for many years and, through my interactions with them and my discussions with them, had always been impressed. I thought that they were really thoughtful and careful and just actually really good at thinking through these different issues.
So when these files came out, I was like, “Huh? I wonder.” Because it’s one thing for how they interact with me as a journalist. You can put on a good face, and I’m sure that I could be fooled. So I was like, “Maybe I’ll learn that behind closed doors, they were really doing stuff that was a lot more sketchy.” Honestly, it seemed like the opposite is what came out of it.
But the idea that this is magically leading to a more trusted Twitter does not seem to be the case because people are taking these files that really showed that the old Twitter was actually really good at trust and safety and competent and careful and thoughtful. They made mistakes because everybody makes mistakes. I think the policy was bad, as I’ve said. But I thought they actually came out of it looking really good, like really careful, thoughtful.
They were discussing it in the way that every trust and safety discusses these things and not suggesting any kind of political bias or desire to influence elections or anything like that. So in some weird way, it increased my trust of the old regime, but really decreased my trust in the new regime just because of the way that they’re trying to spin this as if it’s some proof of something horrible that happened before. I was already not particularly trustful of this regime, and this has only reinforced that.
Well, certainly our opinions, your opinion, my opinion could change on this, depending on what comes out. We’re told that there are thousands more documents and that now Taibbi has been joined by Bari Weiss in reviewing those documents. So I suppose I’ll just insert a great caveat here that we haven’t seen the trove and, until we do, we, of course, can’t make final comment. But thank you, Mike, for this at least first go at it, and I appreciate it very much.
Yeah, no problem. Musk wants Twitter employees to work hardcore, which appears to be including weekends, too. So I guess we also have to do that.
Thank you, sir.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.