The Twitter Files have uncovered the internal mess that Twitter has become over the last six years as the company has interfered in American elections, directly colluded with federal government agencies and censored Americans.
Thanks to new Twitter owner Elon Musk, some of the platform’s past misgivings have been laid bare for all to see. To date, 15 Twitter Files have been published by 6 nonpartisan journalists. Musk’s release of the Twitter Files has given us a closer look at what exactly happened when the platform mass-censored the Hunter Biden laptop story, interfering in the 2020 election. The files have revealed Twitter’s deep entanglement with numerous federal government agencies and how those agencies used Twitter to censor speech that they themselves could not. Finally, the files pulled back the curtain on Twitter’s internal conversations about censorship and complete disregard for free speech.
“Twitter did everything they could to deliver the 2020 election to Joe Biden,” said Media Research Center President Brent Bozell. “Now we need Congress to investigate the rest of Big Tech and uncover the same for Facebook, Google, and the rest.”
The Hunter Biden Files: How Twitter and FBI Delivered Presidency to Joe Biden
The significance of Twitter censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story cannot be overstated.
A 2020 MRC poll found that 45 percent of President Joe Biden’s voters weren’t fully aware of the New York Post story precisely because the media and Big Tech whitewashed it. Had Americans been fully aware of the scandal, 9.4 percent of Biden voters would have abandoned him, flipping all six of the swing states he won to former President Donald Trump, giving Trump a victorious 311 electoral votes.
Twitter was one of the most aggressive censors of that story, and the Twitter Files show us what went on at Twitter in the years, months and hours leading up to Twitter’s decision to block the story.
The Twitter Files part 11 exposed that the road to Twitter censoring the Hunter Biden “laptop from hell” began in 2017 when the platform changed its content moderation policy to appease leftists hunting for alleged Russian propaganda.
Publicly, Twitter claimed it censored accounts at its “sole discretion.” But internally, employees were told to censor “any user identified by the U.S. intelligence community as a state-sponsored entity conducting operations associated with U.S. or other elections,” according to a screenshot posted by independent journalist Matt Taibbi. Three years later, the FBI would benefit from that policy when it framed the New York Post Hunter Biden laptop story as a Russian election interference operation.
From 2018 to 2020 Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth met weekly with the FBI, according to Roth’s 2020 sworn declaration. The Twitter Files part seven reveal that he had consistent contact with FBI assistant special agent in charge Elvis Chan who eventually gave Roth information on the Russian hacking organization, APT28, journalist Michael Shellenberger wrote.
24. Recently, Yoel Roth told @karaswisher that he had been primed to think about the Russian hacking group APT28 before news of the Hunter Biden laptop came out.— Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) December 19, 2022
When it did, Roth said, "It set off every single one of my finely tuned APT28 hack-and-leap campaign alarm bells." pic.twitter.com/RKoR4NtH1s
Roth admitted in an interview with New York Magazine podcast host Kara Swisher that when the Hunter Biden story came out he wasn’t immediately comfortable removing the content. “But it set off every single one of my finely tuned APT28 hack-and-lea[k] campaign alarm bells," he said. Finely tuned indeed. Finely tuned, it seems, by special agent Chan and the FBI.
At the consistent prompting of Twitter special counsel and former FBI agent James Baker, Roth ordered that the article be censored on the basis of “consensus from experts… that this looks a lot like a hack-and-leak,” according to Shellenberger’s screenshots in Twitter Files part seven.
Baker also appears to have tried to cover up the fact that federal agencies were intimately involved in censoring the story when he “vetted” the first installment of the Twitter Files without Musk’s knowledge, according to Matt Taibbi’s supplemental files. The more recent files have shown that the FBI was not only involved in censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story but the agency had a history of working with Twitter to censor users.
The Collusion Files: Twitter Took Requests for Censorship and Made Special Exceptions for the Feds
The Twitter Files also demonstrate how easily outside forces could manipulate Twitter to censor content on the platform.
The media, politicians, the intelligence community and so-called experts worked in lockstep to bully Twitter into making mass Russian platform manipulation materialize as far back as 2017, according to Twitter Files parts 11 and 14. “This cycle – threatened legislation, wedded to scare headlines pushed by congressional/intel sources, followed by Twitter caving to moderation asks – would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement,” Taibbi tweeted.
Failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Diane Feistein (D-CA) and Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) are among those who asked Twitter to censor a phantom problem of Russian election meddling and Russian bots on Twitter, according to Taibbi. From Twitter Files 14, and the latest supplemental file, it appears that the platform didn’t always capitulate to these demands. Eventually, Twitter stopped denying claims of Russian collusion on Twitter and the pressure opened the door to cooperating with federal government agencies, notably the FBI.
“Government agencies were treating Twitter the way mafia bosses shake down street vendors,” MRC Free Speech America Vice President Dan Schneider said. “Just by the tone of the FBI's emails, you can almost hear them saying 'It'd be a shame if something happened to your business.' The veiled threat is so clear and it’s disgusting.”
Taibbi reported in Twitter Files part six that the FBI had “constant and pervasive” contact with Twitter “as if it were a subsidiary.” He explained that he found “over 150” email communications between Roth and the FBI between January 2020 and November 2022.
“[A] surprisingly high number are requests by the FBI for Twitter to take action on election misinformation, even involving joke tweets from low-follower accounts,” Taibbi tweeted.
Twitter Files part nine highlighted that federal agencies “overwhelmed Twitter with requests, sending lists of hundreds of problem accounts” and content identified as “possible terms of service violation[s]." It soon became obvious to Twitter employees that the FBI was specifically looking for possible violations that Twitter could censor, according to Taibbi.
49. Often intelligence came in the form of brief reports, followed by long lists of accounts simply deemed to be pro-Maduro, pro-Cuba, pro-Russia, etc. This one batch had over 1000 accounts marked for digital execution: pic.twitter.com/zkf4QdUv3E— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) December 24, 2022
But the FBI wasn’t the only Federal agency meeting with Twitter; and Roth wasn’t the only Twitter executive meeting weekly with federal government employees. Taibbi uncovered screenshots of a September 2020 email from legal executive Stacia Cardille updating her colleagues on her “soon to be weekly” meeting with the “DHS, DOJ, FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” Unsurprisingly, “election threats” was the subject of these meetings.
The “Other Intelligence Agency (OGA),” better known as the CIA, also played a role. “CIA officials attended at least one conference with Twitter in the summer of 2020,” Taibbi summarized. “Companies like Twitter and Facebook received ‘OGA briefings,’ at their regular ‘industry’ meetings held in conjunction with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The FBI and the ‘Foreign Influence Task Force’ met regularly ‘not just with Twitter, but with Yahoo!, Twitch, Cloudfare, LinkedIn, even Wikimedia.’”
The White House didn’t miss a beat when it came to COVID-19 censorship. In Twitter Files part 10, journalist David Zweig wrote that both the Trump and Biden administrations made requests that Twitter “moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes.” He cited that the Trump administration expressed concern about “panic buying” and asked that the platform suppress content that could lead to “runs on grocery stores” at the beginning of the pandemic. But “[i]t wasn’t just Twitter. The meetings with the Trump White House were also attended by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others.” The Biden administration, meanwhile, asked Twitter to censor information on alternative treatments to COVID-19.
The Pentagon took a very different approach to asking Twitter for favors, according to Twitter Files part eight. It didn’t appear to explicitly ask Twitter to censor, but it did ask for special treatment.
The Intercept journalist Lee Fang reported in Twitter Files part eight that Twitter “claimed for years” that it made “concerted efforts to detect & thwart gov-backed platform manipulation.” Yet, the platform apparently allowed the Department of Defense’s “vast network of fake accounts & covert propaganda” and even “assisted” in the Pentagon’s “[c]overt [o]nline [p]syop [c]ampaign.” Fang clarified that in 2017 a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) official “sent Twitter a list of 52 Arab language accounts ‘we use to amplify certain messages.’ The official asked for priority service for six accounts, verification for one & ‘whitelist’ abilities for the others.”
The Censorship Files: Behind-the-Scenes on How Twitter Censored Views It Disagreed With
Conservatives have known of Big Tech’s bias and censorship for years, but the early Twitter Files offer a behind-the-scenes look at Twitter’s strategic censorship choices.
Twitter executives for years publicly claimed that Twitter did not shadowban user content, but according to Twitter Files part two, the platform simply renamed shadowbanning “visibility filtering” (VF).
“It used VF to block searches of individual users; to limit the scope of a particular tweet’s discoverability; to block select users’ posts from ever appearing on the ‘trending’ page; and from inclusion in hashtag searches. … All without users’ knowledge,” The Free Press founder Bari Weiss reported.
Twitter Files part two also showed that many of these decisions were made manually by the platform’s Strategic Response Team - Global Escalation Team, which, according to Weiss,
handled as many as 200 “cases” daily.
The platform used these tools to blacklist prominent figures like radio host Dan Bongino, the popular account Libs of TikTok and Turning Point USA Founder Charlie Kirk, according to screenshots tweeted by Weiss. Taibbi indicated in Twitter Files part three that former President Trump also experienced visibility filtering, or shadow banning, “as late as a week before the election.” But of course, the filtering was just the tip of the iceberg.
Twitter went beyond using its actual rules to censor Trump, and toward the end of the former president’s tenure on the platform, Twitter simply made up a reason to ban him, according to Twitter Files parts three, four and five.
Twitter’s Trust and Safety team determined that former President Trump’s infamous tweets from the morning of the January 6 Capitol riot constituted “no violation of our policies at this time,” according to screenshots tweeted by Weiss.
However, “[l]ess than 90 minutes after” that determination, former Twitter Head of Legal, Policy, and Trust Vijaya Gadde asked if Trump’s already approved tweets could still be “coded incitement to further violence.” Twitter’s “scaled enforcement team” suggested that Trump’s phrase “American Patriots” could be interpreted as meaning the January 6 “rioters.” The “scaled enforcement team” then specifically and ridiculously painted Trump as “the leader of a terrorist group responsible for violence/deaths comparable to Christchurch shooter or Hitler.”
Perhaps one of the most enlightening revelations in the Twitter Files was internal dissent at Twitter while the censorship tech giant debated how and whether to censor high-profile cases.
For example, a Chinese employee argued against banning Trump in order to preserve public conversation. Similarly, a “junior level” employee allegedly called the move a “slippery slope” that revealed Twitter’s ability to “gatekeep speech,” according to screenshots tweeted by Weiss and Shellenberger.
There is also evidence of employees struggling to understand Twitter executives' rationale for banning Trump for “incitement” to violence or for censoring the Hunter Biden Story under the platform’s “hacked materials” and "unsafe” link policies, according to screenshots tweeted by Weiss and Taibbi
Pfizer board member and former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb also made a COVID-19-related censorship request when he notified a Twitter lobbyist of a so-called “corrosive” claim that natural immunity “is superior to #vaccine by A LOT,” according to former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson. Berenson noted in Twitter Files part 12 that a Twitter Strategic Response analyst determined that the tweet did not violate the platform’s rules on misinformation, but Twitter placed a sharing restriction on the tweet anyway.
The Twitter Files show time and time again that Twitter would cave to just about any powerful force trying to push it around if it pushed long and hard enough. The platform folded to the media campaign looking for Russian propaganda, which seemingly opened the door for the alphabet soup of federal agencies–FBI, CIA, DOD, DOJ, DHS and the White House. But with leftists like Roth and Gadde leading the Twitter censor squad, the company has more than proven it didn’t need any help to censor users.
It seems new Twitter owner Elon Musk has his work cut out for him to strengthen the integrity and transparency of Twitter, but releasing these Twitter Files is a good start.
Contractor and former MRC Staff Writer and Researcher Catherine Salgado contributed to this report.
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