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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Transparency Theater of the Twitter Files

The “Twitter Files” are to journalism what cosplay is to superheroism: an occasionally convincing imitation of the real thing. Though I shouldn’t insult cosplayers so: They bring joy and beauty to public life, while the Twitter Files are merely proving to be grist for the likes of QAnon and other extremely online individuals addicted to viral outrage. The latest round, this time curated by ex-New York Times editor Bari Weiss, was meant to show that Twitter did indeed engage in the dreaded “shadowbanning” of far-right imagining and discriminate against conservative accounts by completely hiding them from the general public in an act of “woke” censorship perpetrated at the highest levels.

But Weiss revealed both less and more than she wished, and in the process helped confirm what should already have been obvious after Matt Taibbi’s first round of Twitter Files posting: The confected scandals supposedly revealed by this PR-friendly access to Twitter’s internal systems offer a theatrical transparency that occludes the lack of the real thing under Musk’s leadership.

Part of the problem lies in the actual definition of “shadowban.” The term has come to mean whatever people want it to mean, with all the ideologically useful flexibility of words like “woke.” This has allowed Musk’s right-wing fans to play gotcha with an old tweet from Twitter HQ that categorically denied shadowbanning. “But, aha!” they seem to say, “Now intrepid journalist Bari Weiss has shown this is not so!” Weiss took advantage of this deliberate slipperiness when she claimed,  “What many people call ‘shadowbanning,’ Twitter executives and employees call ‘visibility filtering’ or VF,” and implied her sources said they were exactly the same thing.

But all she showed was that Twitter was doing what it had always said it was doing. First and foremost, “visibility filtering” covers everything, including user-generated filtering. If you’ve blocked or muted anyone, they’ve been visibility filtered for you, in company parlance. It also covers the way tweets from openly suspended accounts would be rendered invisible to the public. Without linking to it, Weiss selectively quotes from this 2018 Twitter blog post by former trust and safety lead Vijaya Gadde and former product lead Kayvon Beykpour where they categorically said, “People are asking us if we shadow ban. We do not.” 

The trouble for the mob is that there are more words in this post. Gadde and Beykpour set forth a clear definition of shadowbanning: “deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.” This, they asserted, was not done—and nothing in the Twitter Files proves otherwise. Musk enthusiasts have deemed this mere weaselly wordplay. But, shockingly, there are still more words in this blog post. To wit: “We do rank tweets and search results. We do this because Twitter is most useful when it’s immediately relevant. These ranking models take many signals into consideration to best organize tweets for timely relevance. We must also address bad-faith actors who intend to manipulate or detract from healthy conversation.”

This ranking is explained in further detail with examples and an FAQ about a recent incident where some Republican politicians (along with Democratic politicos and a whole lot of other non-conservatives) were temporarily unable to be autosuggested through search. That was quickly fixed, but Gadde and Beykpour were clear that Twitter always had, and always would, engage in ranking and filtering based on a variety of factors. In other words, the thing that Weiss actually “uncovered” was something Twitter admitted to over four years ago. It’s even in Twitter’s terms of service.

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In short, no one’s tweets were unfindable to the public without the poster knowing about it: If they were suspended or banned, naturally they’d be aware. De-amplification—affecting a person’s ranking in search results and the like—is rather different. Some might call it “freedom of speech but not freedom of reach.”

The people playing semantic games are Musk and his propagandists, performing a pantomime of transparency while glossing over a range of issues. Matt Taibbi revealed that the Trump administration made requests of Twitter all the time—but we know nothing about what they were, which were acted on, and why. Weiss revealed that the transphobic account Libs of TikTok was actually being given preferential treatment: No moderation decision could be made about the account without consulting higher-ups, a privilege afforded to very few on the platform and doubtlessly implemented to avoid upsetting the ever-voluble online right. Why? 

But, more than that, there has been absolutely no transparency about Musk’s decisionmaking since his arrival. Where are his emails? When can we gain insight into how he’s single-handedly made numerous content moderation decisions already? When will be allowed to verify that his public statements match his private reasoning? When will we learn how critical decisions about staffing were made? The answer is: likely never, in the absence of effective legal action. 

Musk’s Potemkin transparency is meant only to flatter him by ginning up false scandals about Twitter’s previous leadership (whom, it must be noted, he has made rather rich with his purchase). It paints a fictive image of Twitter as a dictatorship that Musk has liberated to the adulation of cheering masses. That, aside from its general utility to the right wing’s bottomless politics of grievance and self-victimization, is the chief aim of this entire enterprise. For the populist right, it offers a Zeno’s paradox of a conspiracy, where the ultimate revelation is just one more viral Twitter thread away.

It is difficult to take people seriously when they complain about Twitter having been led by a group of titled individuals with managerial responsibilities making management decisions while they simultaneously cheer the consolidation of those tasks in the hands of one man. What Musk offers is not transparency: It is caprice. His idiosyncratic whims, for which we can only take his word without any mechanism of appeal or accountability, are the content moderation policy. It beggars belief that anyone could see this as an improvement.

This mirrors the broader fiction about the takeover promulgated by Musk’s fans: that he has somehow emancipated the company and made it more democratic and accountable. But in corporate governance terms, he has simply moved from the oligarchic democracy of a publicly traded company—which, not for nothing, was required by law to disclose a great many things to the public—to a personalist dictatorship.

What he dreams of is freedom from any accountability. He’s not liberating “the people,” he’s liberating himself: taking Twitter private was about ensuring he’d not be accountable to shareholders or a board, and that he could disclose only what he wanted. In a typically brazen move, after granting ideologically captured stenographers unfettered access to Twitter’s tools to promote a message he approved of, he sent an email threatening his own staff with legal action if they ever leaked anything. Transparency indeed. Musk dreams of a world where no one tells him “no.” It’s a solipsistic dream shared by too many of his fans.

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The sort of people who worship at Musk’s feet online—especially his newfound cadre of right-wing posters—are the sort whose every accusation is a confession or an aspiration. Rest assured that everything they have falsely accused Twitter of doing is what they seek to do to their many ideological enemies. Indeedit’s already happening, with no transparency about the reasoning, no clear TOS violation to cite, and no process of appeal. His every move is a mockery of the idea of transparency. Is the public afraid that Musk’s gutting of content moderation staff and CSAM teams in particular will lead to a surge in such vile material? Just falsely imply your former coworkers of covering for pedophiles. Right-wing populists steeped in QAnon conspiracies will cheer you on, you will look revolutionary, and all the while things will just get steadily worse. 

The one potentially good thing to come out of this mess is Musk’s pledge to make Twitter’s VF more visible to end users, telling them if they’re being deranked and why. I’d actually welcome this, but it’s just another Musk promise; as with all else, one has to watch what Musk does rather than what he tweets. And what he’s doing points in an unsettling direction.

Musk’s most enthusiastic supporters lived in a delusional dystopia of their own making. Now they want revenge for the imagined slight. It won’t be pretty.

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