Bombshell Twitter files suggest censorship driven by politics and connections, not facts
"This is a battle for the future of civilization," Musk says in explaining why he released the files. "If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead."
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Elon Musk allowed Americans a glimpse inside his explosive "Twitter files" in a process certain to take many more days. But the first release of memos gave a sobering look suggesting censorship on the platform during the 2020 election was driven by politics and political connections more than facts.
Twitter's new owner used independent journalist Matt Taibbi to release a small first batch of internal documents Friday night, detailing how efforts to censor thought on the platform began, then accelerated during the last presidential election, building to a crescendo with the momentous October 2020 decision by the platform to block dissemination of a New York Post story about alleged corruption detailed on Hunter Biden's laptop.
Though fragmentary and framed by Taibbi's personal narrative, screenshots of the first memos made a compelling case that Twitter's executives censored the Hunter Biden laptop story in the final days of the 2020 campaign even though they lacked substantiation for the justification that the materials were derived from hacking and therefore in violation of the platform's rules of conduct.
"Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?" Twitter's former VP of Global Comms Brandon Borrman wrote in one such memo.
Former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker, then-Twitter deputy counsel, laid out the lack of evidence even more clearly. "I support the conclusion that we need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked," he wrote. "At this stage, however, it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been and that caution is warranted."
Taibbi wrote he saw "no evidence ... of any government involvement in the laptop story."
The memos, according to Taibbi's narrative, also make clear that then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was left out of the initial decision-making. Dorsey would later repudiate the censorship decision, calling it a mistake.
As Twitter scrambled and failed to find evidence to back its initial hacking claims, one of its research firms took a quick sounding of congressional reaction and gave an ominous warning.
The NetChoice firm surveyed nine Republicans and three Democrats and warned the social media giant a "blood bath" was brewing in the nation's capital, suggesting the censorship episode was poised to become Big Tech's "Access Hollywood moment."
California Democratic Rep. Rho Khanna wrote the company asking to discuss the backlash to the censorship of the story, making clear he believed Twitter had made an error of constitutional proportions.
"This seems a violation of the 1st amendment principles," Khanna wrote a top Twitter executive.
Taibbi augmented the screenshots of memos with commentary he said he got from current and former Twitter employees. "Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn't going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it," Taibbi wrote, quoting one ex-employee.
Musk has cast the release of the files as part of larger battle to fight censorship in America, and he vowed Friday night that more of Twitter's internal files would be released Saturday along with his hosting of a question and answer session.
"This is a battle for the future of civilization," Musk tweeted Monday ahead of the release of the files. "If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead."
Some of the documents he and Taibbi released Friday night suggested that the Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee were able to manipulate speech on the platform through tools that Twitter made available.
The emails cited requests from "the Biden team" and "DNC" and include confirmations that Twitter "handled" their requests to delete posts.
Taibbi said that the censorship machine impacted both "celebrities and unknowns alike" and that while both Republicans and Democrats had access to it, the censorship was skewed by a liberal bias among the Twitter workforce.
"It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer," Taibbi wrote, as he slowly narrated the release of the documents with more than three dozen individual tweets.
Taibbi posted a lengthy series of threads, which Musk retweeted, detailing the censorship, which included screenshots showing that Democratic operatives could submit requests to the platform to remove tweets and that these requests were honored.
One tweet showed a screenshot of Democratic operatives doing exactly that. "By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine," Taibbi wrote. "One executive would write to another: 'More to review from the Biden team.' The reply would come back: 'Handled.'"