Moderating social media platforms is hard. Just ask the former Twitter employees whose decision to block a 2020 New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter was mentioned yesterday in Substack writer Matt Taibbi’s tweets.
Or ask Elon Musk, owner of Twitter and self-proclaimed Chief Twit, who promoted Taibbi’s tweets, which were riddled with screenshots claiming to show internal company messages. Despite billing him as evidence of a history of political bias at the company, the records showed people caught in a trap that now ensnares Musk himself, who must make tough decisions about what to allow on Twitter.
The thread of tweets, which Taibbi dubbed “Twitter Files,” shows company executives rushing to make a thorny call for restraint in a no-win situation. With a presidential election just around the corner, the New York Post reported that a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden contained evidence that he had inappropriately attempted to broker a meeting between a business client and his father when Joe Biden was US Vice President
The emails and messages in screenshots posted by Taibbi show what one executive called a “whirlwind” as some of Twitter’s policy and trust and security staff questioned the initial decision to block the sharing of the story for violating the platform’s policy on the distribution of pirated materials. (Where the laptop came from, and whether all the files on it actually belong to Hunter Biden, remains unclear.)
The screenshots showed a staff member’s warning: “We’re going to face tough questions about this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning.” A company lawyer opined that it was “reasonable for [Twitter] assume” that the material obtained by the newspaper was stolen. Other screenshots showed Twitter executives getting advice from a Democratic member of Congress and tech industry lobbyists.
What did the world learn about Twitter’s handling of the incident from the so-called Twitter Archives? Little bit. After all, Twitter reversed its decision two days later, with then-CEO Jack Dorsey calling the moderation decision “wrong.” Instead, the thread provided fresh material for the conspiracy theories revolving around the laptop saga, including the suggestion, unsupported by evidence, that government officials intervened to suppress the Post story.
However, the most salient lesson from Taibbi’s thread can be applied to Musk himself, who has dedicated himself to making big moderation decisions on Twitter almost unilaterally.
In the past two weeks, Musk has reinstated former US President Donald Trump‘s account based on the results of a Twitter poll and unblocked a number of other users who had previously been banned from the site for violating content rules. . Musk also championed the return of Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, whose account was banned in October after Ye posted an anti-Semitic tweet. (Restricted accounts still appear on the platform, but your users can’t post or interact with them.)
However, Musk announced this week that Ye would be suspended again after tweeting an image of a swastika inside the Star of David. His reasoning, which academics and journalists have pointed out as unclear, was that the post violated Twitter’s rule against inciting violence.