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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Twitter Files Revealed One Thing: Elon Musk Is Trapped

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 picked over yesterday in tweets from Substack writer Matt Taibbi.

Or ask Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner and self-declared Chief Twit, who hyped Taibbi’s tweets, which were littered with screenshots claiming to show internal company messages. Despite their billing as evidence of a history of political bias at the company, the records depicted people caught in a trap that now ensnares Musk himself, who must make any tough decisions about what to allow on Twitter.

The tweet thread, which Taibbi dubbed the “Twitter Files,” shows company executives rushing to make a thorny moderation call in a no-win situation. With a presidential election looming, the New York Post reported that a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden held evidence that he had inappropriately attempted to broker a meeting between a business client and his father when Joe Biden was vice president of the US.

Emails and messages in screenshots posted by Taibbi show what one executive called a “whirlwind,” as some of Twitter’s policy and trust and safety staffers questioned an initial decision to block sharing of the story for violating the platform’s policy on distribution of hacked materials. (The provenance of the laptop, and whether all the files on it truly belong to Hunter Biden, remains unclear.)

The screenshots showed one staffer warning, “We’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning.” A company lawyer opined it was “reasonable for [Twitter] to assume” the material obtained by the newspaper was stolen. Other screenshots showed Twitter executives fielding 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 Files? Not much. After all, Twitter reversed its decision two days later, and then-CEO Jack Dorsey said the moderation decision was “wrong.” Instead, the thread provided fresh fodder for conspiracy theories that have swirled around the laptop saga, including the insinuation—not backed by evidence—that government officials intervened to suppress the Post story. 

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Yet the most salient lesson from Taibbi’s thread may apply to Musk himself, who has taken to making big moderation decisions at Twitter almost unilaterally.

In the past two weeks Musk reinstated the account of former US president Donald Trump based on the results of a Twitter poll and unblocked a series of other users previously banned from the site for breaching content rules. Musk also championed the return of Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, whose account was restricted in October after Ye posted an anti-Semitic tweet. (Restricted accounts still appear on the platform, but its users can’t post or interact with them.)

Yet Musk this week announced that Ye would be suspended all over again after tweeting an image of a swastika inside the Star of David. His reasoning, which academics and journalists have called out as unclear, was that the post was a breach of Twitter’s rule against incitement to violence.

Like the Twitter staffers who deliberated on the New York Post story in 2020, Musk was caught in a tough spot and appeared to feel under pressure to make a decision. And, as with those past arbiters of Twitter policy, the behind-the-scenes action seemed a little messy.

A text message leaked by Ye appeared to show Musk messaging the rapper directly first, showing that he’s willing to extend personal service to some violators of his moderation policies—even if they are espousing anti-Semitic views. “Sorry, but you have gone too far. This is not love,” Musk told Ye, according to screenshots the rapper shared before his Twitter account was again suspended. “Who made you the judge,” Ye texted back.

Musk’s moderation assignments will only get more complicated from here. The longer he owns the site, the more likely he is to face a challenge with political entanglements. And research has suggested that hate speech has already become more visible on Musk-run Twitter.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment about its incitement-to-violence bans and how rules against violators will be enforced. The company has disbanded its communications team.

The Ye controversy gives some insight into what Musk considers speech that crosses the line, says Libby Hemphill, the associate director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan. But without a clear and consistent policy and a team making deliberations of the sort shown in the documents published today, making the right call will be even more difficult.

Seeing Musk attempt to tackle some of Twitter’s trickiest moderation challenges single-handedly could encourage other users to push the limits of what the platform will tolerate. Hemphill says some people will wonder what the limits of speech are and whether they’re different for Ye and presidential candidates than for non-famous figures. “That is part of what makes bespoke content moderation by one person non-workable,” she says. “The adversaries will continue to scale and adapt to see what is OK.”

Musk’s work as a moderator has undeniably drawn more attention to the platform he is trying to reinvigorate. So did his participation in the Twitter Files, which he insinuated in tweets might provide evidence, somehow, of a breach of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. “Transparency is the key to trust,” Musk wrote last night. It is unclear whether he will apply the same rule to his own stewardship of Twitter.

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