Musk boosts Twitter’s right-wing appeal with moderation changes, ‘Twitter Files’
A slew of changes implemented by Elon Musk after his purchase of Twitter is shifting views of the platform along partisan lines.
Under its previous ownership, Twitter faced frequent criticism from the GOP over its content moderation policies, which Republicans have long asserted were biased against them and led to the accounts of several prominent members of the party — including former President Trump — being removed from the platform.
In recent weeks, Musk has rolled back those policies and restored a number of previously banned users as he pursues his vision of a “free speech” platform, moves that have earned him cheers from conservatives and public scorn from many liberals.
In what experts and observers of the tech and media industries say is the latest attempt by Musk to woo right-wing users back to Twitter amid a largely chaotic revamp of the company, the eccentric billionaire last week shared with an independent journalist a series of documents about Twitter’s previous content moderation procedures, seemingly in a bid to show bias at the highest level of the company’s leadership against the political right before his arrival.
The first installment of what Musk dubbed “The Twitter Files” was published by Matt Taibbi, an independent journalist, in a series of posts on the platform containing purported screenshots from internal communications from top executives at the company that showed debate among them about how to handle the New York Post’s publication of a story containing potentially politically damaging allegations about Hunter Biden, the son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Taibbi kicks off the thread by saying the system by which politicians flagged content for the social media company to review “wasn’t balanced” because “Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation,” using publicly available data from OpenSecrets about political donations from Twitter staff. Because of that dynamic, he said, “there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right.”
Musk promoted the journalist’s thread, which over the weekend served as fodder for an explosion of right-wing outrage across the internet and on political cable news shows.
“It is hard to imagine a more brazen attack on our democracy than this,” the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared on his program after Taibbi published his thread.
Although the first installment of Musk’s “Twitter Files” was seized on by the right as an example of the anti-conservative bias it has accused mainstream tech companies of, critics mocked the thread for what they said was a failure to deliver shocking or incriminating revelations.
The information released by Taibbi in the thread appears to show an internal debate amongst Twitter employees over how to handle a potentially explosive story based on unconfirmed sources.
“Elon’s team is just creating new Main Characters for Fox News to accuse of treason by implying they did some sort of high crime but never actually saying what the crime is,” Ben Collins, a prominent journalist who tracks and covers disinformation and extremism on the internet for NBC News, noted in a tweet this week. “This is about creating pariahs to launch a mob against in order to, ironically, suppress their speech.”
Taibbi states that both parties had access to tools to request tweets be reviewed or removed, and in 2020 requests from the Trump White House and Biden campaign “were received and honored.”
“The Hunter Biden story has been a hobby horse of the right for two years. Musk obviously was not only deeply aware of it, but he decided he was going to get the files out there and expose it,” said Julie Millican, vice president of the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America. “It was showing what we all know to be true, if you’re being reasonable with social media, is that content moderation is hard and you saw them making difficult decisions about what to do about this questionable content.”
Others, including Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, questioned why Musk chose to release the documents through Taibbi, a polarizing figure in the media, if he is trying to be transparent.
“If the goal is transparency to build trust, why not just release everything without filter and let people judge for themselves? Including all discussions around current and future actions? Make everything public now,” Dorsey tweeted.
Musk responded that the “most important data was hidden (from you too) and some may have been deleted, but everything we find will be released.”
The Hill has reached out to Twitter for comment.
The release of the “Twitter Files,” and Musk teasing the future publication of other documents, comes as the billionaire tries to make his $44 billion purchase of Twitter profitable. Other sweeping changes implemented by Musk have included slashing the company’s core workforce, reinstating accounts banned for posting harmful content — including that of former President Trump, a decision he seemingly made via a poll of Twitter users — and a short-lived rollout of a feature that lets users pay for blue verified check marks. Musk has said the feature is set to return, after a chaotic launch led to a pause.
“We can see very interestingly in some ways that Musk is using Twitter the same way Trump used Twitter, which is if you don’t like the story, tweet about a new one,” said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina. “In terms of this very sort of public red pilling that we’ve seen him go through, this fits with what we’ve observed about him trying to make it look more hospitable to those on the right.”
“Red pilling” refers to people learning a potentially jarring truth about the world by exposing themselves to ideas they have not considered before. Originally a reference to “The Matrix,” the term is often used to describe a person adopting far-right beliefs.
Musk has said he recently stopped voting for Democrats, instead favoring Republicans in this year’s elections, and has tweeted about the idea of “red pilling” in the past. The billionaire has also drawn scrutiny for his promotion of political conspiracy theories and misleading information about a number of topics in the news.
Since Musk’s takeover, some leading right-wing figures, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), have returned to Twitter after their accounts were restored. Greene’s personal account was previously banned over violating the platform’s COVID-19 misinformation policies, which Musk has done away with.
Trump, whose account for years dominated political news cycles, was restored on Twitter mid-November, but the former president, now a candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for the White House, has yet to return after starting a smaller social media company of his own, Truth Social.
Twitter has more reach than Truth Social and other platforms that cater to right-wing audiences with lax content moderation policies similar to those Musk seeks to bring to Twitter.
Twitter, however, has never enjoyed the same number of users as its mainstream competitors across the social media industry. Facebook parent company Meta reported 2.9 billion daily average users in its most recent quarterly earnings report in October. By contrast, Twitter reported an average of 273.8 million daily monetizable users in July, the last report released before Musk acquired Twitter and took the company private. Twitter will no longer be required to disclose that data.
Yet, Twitter remains among the more popular sites in the world for voices seeking to be influential in media and politics.
For elected Republicans, specifically the House GOP, which will claim a slim majority in January, the “Twitter Files” episode provides a pathway to ramp up their attacks against mainstream social media content moderation. Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said during a recent Fox News appearance he is requesting former senior Twitter employees to testify before the committee next Congress.
Critics, however, say Musk’s latest apparent olive branch to the right is a misguided one that demonstrates his miscalculations about the potential consequences of throwing fire on the already overly heated political discourse online.
“It’s easy to understand why the right is overall so happy with what Musk has done to Twitter,” said David Weinberger, an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. “Particularly with extremist viewpoints, Twitter gets messages out. It validates viewpoints, the beliefs of the extreme right. Musk does not actually understand free speech or the dynamics of the internet and is missing the point of what conversations [online] are.”