Everything you know about the "Twitter Files" is probably wrong
A hard drive full of files from Hunter Biden's laptop really isn't an interesting news story. Just ask Mike Masnick
If you care about the impact of technology on society and you’re not a regular reader of the blog Techdirt, you should be. It’s been around for as long as, well, dirt, and proprietor Mike Masnick has been among the most principled people I can think of when it comes to issues like free speech.
Which is why I was particularly interested in Mr. Masnick’s take on the latest manufactured controversy from Elon Musk. As part of his campaign to completely destroy Twitter’s brand equity, Musk hired Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss and gave them each a thumb drive full of old Twitter internal corporate emails and said “Make us look bad.”
The result was predictable, with the usual suspects bleating about how this is all proof that Twitter was under the thumb of the woke mob for years and … oh sorry, I really can’t go on with this.
Anyway, Mr. Masnick was annoyed enough by the whole affair to write the definitive (more than 6000 words) explainer of the “Twitter Files” story. It’s here, and you really should read it. You also should bookmark it because you might want to send it to people who … well, read the title of the post and you’ll see.
Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Twitter And Hunter Biden’s Laptop
My only complaint is that the thorough debunking of this story is so long that it will discourage the very people who most need to read it from getting past about the third graf.
In the spirit of Doing Something Instead Of Just Complaining, I’ve gone through the post and created the tl,dr version.
Here’s the premise, in a few tidy sentences:
[F]or some reason, the story has persisted for years now that Twitter did something nefarious [with the Hunter Biden story], engaging in election interference that was possibly at the behest of “the deep state” or the Biden campaign. For years, as I’ve reported on this, I’ve noted that there was literally zero evidence to back any of that up. So, my ears certainly perked up last Friday when Elon Musk said that he was about to reveal “what really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression.”
Certainly, if there was evidence of something nefarious behind closed doors, that would be important and worth covering. If it was true that through discussions I’ve had with dozens of Twitter employees over the past few years every single one of them lied about what happened, well, that would also be useful for me to know.
And then Taibbi revealed … basically nothing of interest.
This is the kind of stuff conspiracy theorists love, but those of us who have worked in the tech industry for any length of time look at it and go, “Uh, this is a pretty anodyne business decision. I do not believe Satan was cc’ed on any of these memos.”
Twitter (and Facebook) briefly blocked sharing of a New York Post story on the Hunter Biden hard drive. We already knew that, and we also know that this was not particularly surprising. It was a consistent business decision for a company that is in the Trust & Safety business:
[I]mportantly, the very next day Twitter realized it fucked up, admitted so publicly, and changed the hacked materials policy saying that it would no longer block links to news sources based on this policy (though it might add a label to such stories). The next month, Jack Dorsey, in testifying before Congress, was pretty transparent about how all of this went down.
All of this seemed pretty typical for any kind of trust & safety operation. As I’ve explained for years, mistakes in content moderation (especially at scale) are inevitable. And, often, the biggest reason for those mistakes is the lack of context. That was certainly true here.
If you’ll recall, the reporter who wrote the story for the Post refused to allow his by-line to be used on it. That’s pretty weird, wouldn’t you say?
Anyway, Matt Taibbi, who is not an investigative reporter and proved it pretty conclusively with this assignment, did a good job of fulfilling his assignment to make this look suspicious AF.
But it was all just hand-waving, really:
[Taibbi] revealed a few internal communications that… simply confirmed everything that was already public in statements made by Twitter, Jack Dorsey’s Congressional testimony, and in declarations made as part of a Federal Elections Commission investigation into Twitter’s actions. There were general concerns about foreign state influence campaigns, including “hack and leak” in the lead up to the election, and there were questions about the provenance of this particular data, so Twitter made a quick (cautious) judgment call and implemented a (bad) policy. Then it admitted it fucked up and changed things a day later. That’s… basically it.
(I refuse to call it a nothingburger, but you are free to do so.)
The meat of Mr. Masnick’s post is in five bullet points, each focused on one of the terribly incorrect takeaways that motivated readers are likely to have because the story is told in such a hackish way. Here are those bullet points, in summary form, to save you a few minutes of scrolling.
1. If you said Twitter’s decision to block links to the NY Post was election interference…
You’re wrong. Very much so.
2. But Twitter’s decision to “suppress” the story was a big deal and may have swung the election to Biden!
I’m sorry, but there remains no evidence to support that silly claim either.
3. The government pressured Twitter/Facebook to block this story, and that’s a huge 1st Amendment violation / treason / crime of the century / etc.
Yeah, so, that’s just not true.
4. The Biden campaign / Democrats demanded Twitter censor the NY Post! And that’s a 1st Amendment violation / treason / the crime of the century / etc.
So, again, the only way that there’s a 1st Amendment violation is if the government issued the demand. And in October of 2020, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee… were not the government.
5. But Jim Baker! He worked for the FBI! And he was in charge of the Twitter files! Clearly he’s covering up stuff!
Here we are ripping from the stupidity headlines. This one came out just last night as Taibbi added a “supplement” to the Twitter files, again seemingly confused about how basically anything works.
There is, of course, a great deal of detailed evidence under each one of those bullet points. If you find yourself engaged in debate with someone who insists on using any of the above arguments, you should read Mike’s post so you can fully understand why they are wrong and then use that understanding to counter their argument.
You should not, however, expect your debate partner to change his* position.
Anyway, this is the bottom line:
Companies are allowed to be biased. But the amazing thing revealed in the Twitter files is just how little evidence there is that any bias was a part of the debate on how to handle this stuff. Everything appeared to be about perfectly reasonable business decisions.
I’ve been writing about Silicon Valley (and Redmond) for years. And every time I run across a story that involves a sinister conspiracy by some tech giant, it has always been explainable as the result of simple, profit-oriented business decisions.
This time is no exception. And please note that Elon Musk is doing all this not because he’s an agent of Vladimir Putin or a tool of Peter Thiel or the reincarnation of overlord Xenu. He is doing this because he thinks that the controversy will be good for his money-losing business.
Let that sink in.
* Pronoun chosen deliberately because it’s always a dude
You mean it isn’t a steaming pile of . . .
Nope, it still is ;)
It's always a dude. Or a bro. Usually both.