Twitter Lied about Shadow Banning People
Journalists continue to expose questionable practices at Twitter
I sincerely hope that everyone had a better week than myself and I do apologise for the lack of newsletters. I’ve been laid up in bed since Monday with a severe cold and I am just now starting to be able to walk around and, more importantly, think straight again. I am hoping to get back to regular newsletters in the coming week. But in the meantime, there have been more developments in the Twitter Files story — which I had begun to cover in the previous issue of this newsletter — that I think can’t wait that long.
The Shady Ex-FBI-Lawyer
So, what’s happened? Well, first off, this new batch of Twitter Files reporting was delayed because the two journalists working on this story — Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss — discovered that the material was being pre-vetted by a shady lawyer at Twitter. Something that CEO Elon Musk apparently wasn’t aware of and promptly shut down once the journalists informed him of it. Including by firing the lawyer.
James “Jim” Baker used to be the general counsel for the FBI from 2014 until 2017 when he was ousted from the position and later resigned. As general counsel of the FBI, his job was to cover for an intelligence service that routinely spies on the citizens of a democracy. He was later hired as deputy general counsel at Twitter, a platform that is one of the most important places for citizens to exercise their right to free speech on the internet. A most logical choice!
According to Matt Taibbi, one of the two reporters working on The Twitter Files — who unwittingly got handed these very files after the ex-FBI-lawyer apparently sanitised them — Baker is not a very above-board kind of person. He seems to have been involved in at least two of the bullshit scams that the FBI cooked up against Donald Trump.
To let someone like that vet internal documents handed to journalists kind of invalidates the whole idea. At least of you’re going for truthful reporting. Which Elon Musk seems to be interested in, but some people at his company are apparently still actively fighting, by the looks of it — hence Baker being inserted in the process.
Well, at least that obstacle seems to have been overcome and Baker has been un-inserted. And so Bari Weiss, the second reporter working on The Twitter Files, was able to deliver the second batch of revelations on the shady and dishonest practices at Twitter pre-Musk last night.
Twitter Manipulated Public Discourse and Lied about It
What Bari Weiss is reporting on is something that people who have been watching Twitter closely for years have always suspected: Twitter is manipulating which tweets and accounts get shown to users outside of direct follows. And Twitter does this based on the political prejudices of a few powerful employees in charge. We all knew this, but kind of like the NSA’s spying being confirmed by the Snowden revelations, it’s very important to finally have proof. Especially because what makes this a scandal is not per se what Twitter was doing — all large social media companies from Silicon Valley are complicit in this shit — but that they openly lied1 and misled the public into thinking they weren’t doing it.
According to Weiss, Twitter has shadow banned Stanford doctors, right-wing talk show hosts and conservative activists, among many others. Simply because executives and other people with power at the company didn’t agree with what these people, regardless of how qualified or generally respected, were saying. Often the excuses of hate speech and disinformation were involved. The problem with this kind of argument is that it’s often very hard to objectively determine what is a fact — we’ve seen that in the case of the Biden laptop, when things that were once thought of as facts suddenly turned out to be the exact opposite. And it’s even harder to figure out what, objectively, constitutes hate on the internet. In countries like Germany one could just go by the pretty precise local laws that already define these things, but that would mean the term “hate” couldn’t be used for subjective censorship as easily anymore. And so companies like Twitter act like these laws don’t provide a good framework to base their own guidelines on.
I’ve discussed a lot of the issues around what actually constitutes a fact and how the term hate speech is misused to censor opposing viewpoints on previous episodes of my podcast. I would suggest you listen there if you want a more in-depth discussion of these problems.
But back to Twitter. They don’t call the process of disappearing a user from the public discourse shadow banning over there, of course. They call this “visibility filtering”, “VF” for short. There are several different ways to VF someone: The Trends Blacklist, the Search Blacklist and the “Do Not Amplify” tag.
Of course, Twitter has always denied that they do this. Including in several responses to a press query I sent them about exactly this kind of thing years ago. I’m not surprised, though. It seems the directive to mislead the public about this behaviour came from the very top of the company:
Meanwhile, inside the company, it was common knowledge that this was going on. I mean, as you can see in the screenshots published by Weiss, they built it into their internal web interface!
This isn’t normal content moderation we are talking about here. A number of users were shadow banned for political reasons, by a small elite of high-ranking Twitter employees, without even going through the formal process established for this kind of thing.
This elite group of employees also knew, and internally admitted, that they were misusing technicalities to specifically restrict users for the simple reason that this cabal inside Twitter did not like what these users were posting.
These people did this without any of the users knowing. And they lied to the public — and the press — when people asked them about it. Anyone who has had an account affected by these shenanigans2 can tell you that it is obvious that something has happened once you get VF'ed. You immediately see it in your follower count change and the reach of your tweets. So all of us affected knew that something like this was going on. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to finally have it out in the open and to have Twitter's lies on this laid bare.
Beyond this first exposé, Bari Weiss has promised more revelations on how this shadow banning worked in her newsletter. I will be reading it with interest. And I will continue to stay on this story, of course. Once more details on these practices by Twitter are released, I plan to do my own research into exactly how all of this works and how we can verify if our accounts are affected or not. It's high time we had some public accountability on how these companies are manipulating our society's discourse!
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I don’t used this word as lightly as many other journalists. Lying means someone said something and knew at the same time that it wasn’t true. Proving that someone knew something is generally very hard to do. Which is why the statement “he lied” should be seldom used in responsible journalism. In the era of Trump’s presidency, between 2016 and 2021, a lot of my colleagues in the press used the term “lying” very recklessly and I consider this to be extremely shameful for my profession. Which is why I am very careful when I use this term. In this case, I think it is justified.
Having followed this story for quite a while, I’ve spoken to a number of people over the years who had good circumstantial evidence that their accounts were affected by something like this.