Elon Musk posted a reminder to his followers on Friday that, as the new owner of Twitter, he has access to the company’s internal communications from before he took over.
The public “deserves to know what truly transpired” behind the scenes during Twitter’s decision to conceal a story about Hunter Biden in 2020, Musk said earlier this week in a teaser for the publication of what he termed “The Twitter Files.”
Finally, on Friday night, Musk came through, to an extent. Author and Substack contributor Matt Taibbi, who appears to be in possession of the cache of internal papers, released a thread in which he methodically presented each document in a narrative fashion, one tweet at a time. The thread was retweeted by Twitter’s new owner.
On his Substack, Taibbi mentioned that he had to “agree to some conditions” in order to land the story, albeit he did not specify what those terms were. (We would assume that tweeting links to the papers as a means of increasing platform activity was on the list.)
In retrospect, Taibbi’s approach to publish only a subset of the papers via a series of tweets was not meticulous enough. Until it was removed, Jack Dorsey’s personal email address was visible in a snapshot. Another individual posted an uncensored version of an email from the account of Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California. As far as we can tell, both of these situations violate Twitter’s anti-doxing policy.
The communications between Twitter employees provide a picture of the mayhem that prevailed two years ago when a New York Post article about Hunter Biden was removed from the platform. After the younger Biden left his laptop at a repair shop, in October of 2020, The New York Post published a report citing information supposedly taken from the device. Twitter decided to restrict the story’s reach because of the upcoming presidential election and the memory of the hacked DNC emails and other Russian election meddling in 2016.
Former Twitter Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth discussed the company’s rules regarding hacked materials with members of the communications and policy teams, citing the “severe risks and lessons of 2016” as a factor in the decision.
It was “logical” for Twitter to believe that the papers originated from a breach, one of Twitter’s lawyers said, adding that “caution is necessary.” “We simply need more information,” he wrote.
According to Taibbi’s Twitter thread, it is quite rare for an executive to make such a significant enforcement decision without first engaging the company’s CEO. Former CEO Jack Dorsey was notorious for being absent from the firm, preferring instead to work from his own island in the South Pacific and leave even major policy decisions to his policy team.
The reaction from the outside world was instant once Twitter took action, and it seems to have included at least one Democrat. “… in the midst of a Presidential race, blocking circulation of newspaper stories (even if NY Post is extreme right) seems like it will encourage more blowback than it will accomplish good,” Khanna wrote to a member of Twitter’s policy team.
Facebook, at the time, had adopted such safeguards. In an unusual move, Twitter decided to remove all links to the story, sparking accusations that the platform was biassed in favour of the Democrats. The newly released emails corroborate the explanation given by the company, its former CEO, and some policy executives, who blamed an abundance of caution for the incident.
Musk framed the release of the emails as the discovery of incriminating evidence, but all they really confirm is that Twitter overreacted in its moderation of the situation out of fear of a repeat of 2016, when it could have avoided the situation by providing background information and letting the story spread. Apparently, Musk has been thinking about the Post’s suspension since at least April, when he termed the move “very inappropriate.”
In the early stages of the story, no one, including social media platforms, could verify that the papers from the laptop were legitimate and not edited, but later on, other news sources were able to do so. The Washington Post wrote in their own story that the emails were authentic, but that “most of the data obtained by The Post lacks cryptographic features that would help experts make a reliable determination of authenticity,” when the original computer and hard drive are unavailable for forensic examination. As a result of the ruling, Twitter altered its policies regarding the distribution of hacked content.
In an interview published earlier this week, Yoel Roth, formerly the head of trust and safety at Twitter, provided further context for the decision, saying that the article triggered “alarm bells” suggesting that it may be a hack and leak campaign by the Russian group APT28, better known as Fancy Bear. According to Roth, “it ultimately didn’t reach a level where I was comfortable taking this information from Twitter.”
Dorsey indirectly accepted culpability at the time. To solve what he called a “straight banning of URLs” problem, Dorsey announced the change on Twitter. The corporation may now seek to “add context” to compromised materials, he added.
Before agreeing to purchase the firm, Musk was already worried with a small number of content filtering judgments. His decision to purchase Twitter appears to have been motivated by his anger at the company for suspending the conservative parody site The Babylon Bee following a transphobic comment.
Conservatives, right-wing media, and Twitter’s new ownership are still smarting from the Hunter Biden social media incident, even though it’s been two years after it unfolded. Musk’s leadership has rendered the platform’s previous policy debates mostly moot, but he still seems to have some bone to pick with the Twitter of old, and we’re witnessing that process in real time.
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