A new chapter in ‘Twitter Files’ | World News - Hindustan Times
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A new chapter in ‘Twitter Files’

By, New Delhi
Dec 10, 2022 12:23 AM IST

American journalist Bari Weiss posted a Twitter thread to allege the company, under its old management, created secret blacklists of users whose reach was restricted, the second instalment in what is now being called the Twitter Files.

American journalist Bari Weiss posted a Twitter thread to allege the company, under its old management, created secret blacklists of users whose reach was restricted, the second instalment in what is now being called the Twitter Files.

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HT Image

The affair relates to internal documents and communications that Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk has allowed Weiss, and another journalist Matt Taibbi, to access and report. A look at what these involve and what they mean.

Part 1 – revelations relating to a story on Hunter Biden.

On December 2, Taibbi posted a thread that cited discussions that led to the banning of a New York Post story concerning the contents of current US President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

The story, published in the run-up to the US elections in 2020, was blocked by all media platforms over fears that it may be part of an election interference attempt – a concern that stems from what happened in 2016, when political ads and disinformation by organised operators were deemed to have swayed the presidential election.

Taibbi’s reporting, citing communications between Twitter employees, showed there was a debate over taking the story down. For a large part, the screenshots shared by Taibbi offer inside details on how the decision was taken, but not why. Taibbi alludes to possible pressure from Biden’s team, although the evidence for that included requests to take down four tweets that showed Hunter Biden nude.

But a crucially important piece of insider detail was the significant pushback from executives. This was a poser by Twitter communications chief Brandon Borrman, who in an email asked: “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?”

The question was significant because Twitter has normally been more liberal with speech.

It is still not clear whether Twitter acted out of collusion with Biden or on account of a bias towards Democrats, or simply erred excessively on the side of caution and ended up with a bad decision.

Part 2 – ‘secret blacklists’.

The second part was once again disclosed in a Twitter thread, this time by Weiss. “A new #TwitterFiles investigation reveals that teams of Twitter employees build blacklists, prevent disfavored tweets from trending, and actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics—all in secret, without informing users,” Weiss tweeted on Thursday.

Weiss went on to cite examples with screenshots of certain profiles that had additional tags mentioning “recent abuse strike”, “trends blacklist”, “search blacklist” and “do not amplify”. These, Weiss said, targeted right-wing voices more frequently (though she did not share data) and went against Twitter’s stated policy of not enforcing “shadow bans”.

Former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and legal counsel head Vijaya Gadde have in public said that the company “does not shadow ban”.

The reality is, however, more complicated than what Weiss seems to portray. The tags suggest Twitter was limiting the visibility of people’s accounts and tweets, removing them from the trending topics sections and suggestions for people to view or follow.

These, unlike what Weiss claims, are disclosed as actions Twitter may take under its “hateful conduct policy”, which says that accounts it deems as having disseminated hateful content can have their posts “downranked in replies”, their tweets or accounts “excluded from top search results” and make their posts ineligible for popping up on the timelines in a way that amplifies their posts.

In recent days, Musk has backed virtually the same policy: he has on multiple occasions reiterated that Twitter will guarantee freedom of speech but not freedom of reach which, in other words, implies similar action.

There is, however, a case to see these steps as “shadow bans” -- a phrasing the company denied in the past.

Cutting through the noise

The saga does indeed point to questions of fairness and possible arbitrariness in content moderation, including who decides what is hateful and if all content of similar degrees of illegality are acted on with uniform strictness.

The burying of the Biden story was particularly controversial since it was a news media report, and it highlighted the power large tech companies wield with little accountability. A “free speech” corporate mission that Twitter often espoused, such as when it let accounts by Hezbollah remain, was evidently undermined when it banned the NY Post story from being linked to on its service.

The two episodes have also raised concerns over safeguards in Twitter under Musk. The screenshots shared on Friday showed a dashboard that would allow anyone using the ability to access direct messages people generally privately share with other users. Twitter’s direct messages are not encrypted in a manner that, say, WhatsApp messages are, allowing the company to access these. Experts have indicated that if any journalist was allowed to access these, it could fall afoul of American law.

Given its outsized impact on politics and society, Twitter has been closely scrutinised by several governments, including India.

Under Musk now, the spate of controversies is already putting the company under a harsher spotlight. The German government said on Friday it was “monitoring very carefully and with a certain concern” developments at Twitter after Musk’s takeover, Reuters reported a government spokesperson as saying.

“We have decided against TikTok” as a platform for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the spokesperson added, speaking at a regular government news conference, referring to a social media platform under fire for the Chinese espionage risk some say it poses.

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