When Elon Musk took over Twitter last October, he made available to reporters a large number of internal company emails relating to content moderation, deplatforming, and other interventions that the firm has done at the request of, or under the influence of, the US government. Like most people, I was dimly aware of these revelations, but the news coverage of them was intermittent and depended greatly on the political orientation of the media outlet reporting it. And I’m sure that remains the case today.
But recently I came across one report that summarizes the facts in a chilling and alarming way. If what this report says is true, we indeed have a major problem that involves not only electronic social media, but the government and fundamental constitutional issues.
In all such cases, one should consider the source. The source of this report is John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor at The Federalist, a conservative website which Wikipedia says has carried false and misleading information at times. The particular report I refer to did not appear in that website, but in a newsletter called Imprimis issued by Hillsdale College, a private college that is one of the few serious colleges in the US that refuses to take federal funds on principle. Adapted from a talk Davidson gave at the college, the report is entitled “The Twitter Files Reveal an Existential Threat.”
Davidson details three examples of how the FBI, working both on its own behalf and as a liaison between a number of other federal agencies and Twitter, directed the firm to flag, suppress, or suspend numerous accounts such as those of the New York Post, whose offence was to break the news of the Hunter Biden laptop; President Trump, whose suspension after the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot was sui generis in its disregard for internal suspension policies; and during the Covid-19 epidemic, in which Twitter was asked to, and did, squelch information that did not follow the official line on the pandemic that prevailed at the time.
The main point of Davidson’s article is summed up in these words toward the end of the piece: “the entire concept of ‘content moderation’ is a euphemism for censorship by social media companies that falsely claim to be neutral and unbiased.” Davidson presents evidence that in 2017, Twitter publicly announced that all content moderation took place “at [Twitter’s] sole discretion,” but internally, they would censor anything that “US intelligence identified as a state-sponsored entity conducting cyber-operations,” whether the intelligence community was right or not.
As later events proved, the suspected Russian influence on US elections was largely a smokescreen for allowing the federal government to suppress a wide variety of actors, most of which were not sponsored by any state, in direct violation of the First Amendment.
Currently, the US Supreme Court is considering two cases that involve Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The basic thrust of the section is to allow social-media companies to claim immunity from prosecution regarding material posted on their sites by third parties—namely, anybody but the company itself. It also exempts the companies from lawsuits involving content moderation as long as the company can show such moderation was a good-faith effort to remove “objectionable” material.
This law was passed in the very early days of social media, when it was not at all clear that internet-based systems such as Facebook and Twitter would ever make money. Those days are long gone, and the pipsqueak upstarts of the 1990s have become the 900-pound gorillas of the 2020s.
Far from being a minor sideshow in the ways the public learns what their elected officials and the rest of the government are up to, Twitter is arguably the primary source of breaking news from officialdom, equivalent to the Associated Press wire service of the long-ago day when news really travelled mainly over copper wires to teletype machines.
As publishers, the newspapers, radio, and TV outlets of yore (yore being any time before about 1980) knew that they were legally responsible for what they printed or broadcast and made careful distinctions between what was news and what was analysis or opinion. They had the freedom to print what they wanted to print, courtesy of the First Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But they also had the responsibility of standing behind what they printed as facts, and so they stressed fact-checking and accuracy, plus an effort to present all the significant news and suppress none of it, no matter how far it strayed from the newspaper’s own political position.
Granted, this was an ideal that was only approached in practice. But if you transpose what Twitter has done in the last few years to the register of how news was produced in, say, 1970, the results can be shocking.
Suppose the 1970s Watergate break-in, Deep Throat’s revelations, and the secretly recorded Nixon White House tapes had been systematically expunged from all newspaper, radio, and TV coverage through the intervention of the FBI, saying that it was all a plot by the Russians?
After Nixon told the news media that they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore following his 1962 loss to Pat Brown in the California governor’s race, suppose all the networks agreed to ban him from ever appearing on radio or television again, again at the behest of the federal government?
I am no fan of Richard Nixon. But my point is that none of these acts of censorship happened back then because the reigning media companies kept their distance from the government, no matter who was running it.
Needless to say, the situation is different now. Davidson’s summary of the Twitter Files is an indictment of the hand-in-glove way that the federal government, using the channel of the FBI, has succeeded in manipulating the media landscape to suit its purposes, and not the best interests of the American people at large. It is far past time to restore a responsible distance between social media and the government, but doing that will require a well-informed public, and the media we have may not be up to the job.
This article has been republished with permission from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics.