Writing in this newspaper in 2016, the present writer argued that the US network “CNN is routinely paid by the US government to have it selectively report on certain events while censoring others.”
“While Western newspapers criticise China, Russia, and other countries regarding censorship and limitations on freedom of speech, they await content and quotation approval from the gatekeepers in the White House before printing their stories.”
I also quoted whistleblower Julian Assange explaining “how Google profits from its association with the US State Department and vice versa.”
“Objectivity, integrity, and altruism go by the wayside in the face of money, power, and dominance – from a seemingly squeaky-clean journalistic facade that delivers the news to media outlets bought by wealthy decision-makers to worthwhile stories that remain locked in drawers and insignificant ones that are highlighted and brought into the limelight.”
Seven years later, we come to the Twitter Files, thousands of documents made public by Twitter CEO Elon Musk in December to a few independent journalists and authors, among them US journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and David Zweig. They were given access to classified Twitter documents on the condition that whatever they wrote would be published on Twitter first.
The provision of the documents followed Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and fulfill his original promise to release documents that exhibit how Twitter has blocked and censored many sources. He said he wanted to show what had really happened behind the scenes at the social media company.
The release of the thousands of documents is ongoing, leading to a tsunami of disclosures on what Twitter has allowed, moderated, and censored. This is not classified information, as it is all available in hundreds of tweets for all those interested to view and follow it.
The files are internal documents sent between Twitter employees and executives and official US bodies on the company’s methods of moderation and how Twitter should deal with certain accounts that go against its policies.
Twitter has become a source of instant information over the past two decades, and 450 million users from around the world have relied on it to do just that. However, the Twitter Files reveal that censorship of free speech and manipulation was rife at the company, going against just about everything the world had believed about Twitter and other social media outlets.
Taibbi says in one of his earlier tweets that “we can say pretty conclusively, after looking at 10s of 1,000s of emails over the course of these weeks, that the [US] government was in the censorship business in a huge way.”
Weiss, another one of the three journalists given access to the files, tweeted that “decisions to actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics” were made “in secret without informing users.” These revelations prove that much of what we read and view, despite its reaching us instantly on Twitter, is designed to fit a certain strategy.
“The Twitter Files,” says Zweig, “focused on evidence of Twitter’s secret blacklists; how the company functioned as a kind of subsidiary of the FBI; and how executives rewrote the platform’s rules to accommodate their own political desires.” Weiss names those who have been banned, blocked, blacklisted, or shadow banned – blocked without their knowledge – from Twitter.
Renumeration was paid and received. According to Taibbi, Twitter has been paid over $3 million by the US government. “Based on how many content requests they appear to have fulfilled for the FBI, it now looks like they were severely underpaid,” he wrote. What is more significant is that, according to Weiss, “it wasn’t just Twitter. The meetings with the Trump White House were also attended by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others.”
In a Twitter thread of over 30 explosive tweets, Taibbi explains that “Twitter was taking requests from every conceivable government body, beginning with the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI), which seemed to need reassurance Twitter was taking FBI direction.”
The topics revealed thus far, for more details are yet to be exposed, revolve around Covid-19 information, disinformation, and anti-vaxxer accounts, former US president Donald Trump and his ban from tweeting, and the emails recovered from the laptop of Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden.
The Twitter Files also highlight Russian information, or its suppression, the mass and social media, and many internal US issues. Space does not allow us to pursue more than one issue here – that of Covid-19.
According to the revelations in the Twitter Files, Covid-19 information was manipulated to come across in a way that would please some. “Twitter censored information that was true but inconvenient to US govt. policy – by discrediting doctors and other experts who disagreed,” says Zweig.
“The United States government pressured Twitter and other social media platforms to elevate certain content and suppress other content about Covid-19.” Zweig also says that “both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes.”
“In February 2020, as Covid broke out, the Global Engagement Centre – a fledgling analytic/intelligence arms of the State Department – went to the media with a report called, ‘Russian Disinformation Apparatus Taking Advantage of Coronavirus Concerns,’” Taibbi writes.
Even the mass media was doing much the same. “The GEC still led directly to news stories like [French news agency] AFP’s headline, ‘Russia-linked disinformation campaign led to coronavirus alarm, US says,’ and a [US media outlet] Politico story about how ‘Russian, Chinese, Iranian Disinformation Narratives Echo One Another,’” he says.
Finally, after thousands of documents have been revealed, the US has rejected the information they contain. An FBI tweet reads that “it is unfortunate that conspiracy theorists and others are feeding the American public misinformation with the sole purpose of attempting to discredit the agency.”
“When you thought the world couldn’t get any crazier, the FBI now claims that the words of its own agents in tons of emails revealed by #TwitterFiles are conspiracy theories and misinformation,” Taibbi commented incredulously.
What we should take away from all this is that Twitter is not what it seems, that freedom of speech does not exist, and that social media and tech companies are not as independent as some in the West would want us to believe.
* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly