The gradual release of the Twitter Files is impressive in its scale and its revelations about the internal workings of Twitter over the past several years. The cooperative release of information was driven by new Twitter chieftain Elon Musk, via a collection of heterodox thinkers such as Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger.
It has a number of interesting things to tell us: about the process by which Twitter engaged in the mass shadowbanning of individual accounts whose views internal members found unseemly, about the jump to conclusions about Covid and the Hunter Biden laptop story that resulted in a direct assault on accounts directed by contrarians and conservatives, and about the overall Calvinball approach to rules and regulations where firm principles turned malleable in the interests of “protecting” users from speech deemed dangerous.
It’s also, as a method of storytelling, a bust.
The problem here is that Musk has gone about telling this internal story via his own newly acquired app, where threads are lengthy and difficult to follow. The headlines around these internal unveilings should be huge — but ask even the politically interested but not permanently online what it’s all about, and they’ll struggle to tell you. It’s a tale of unethical corporate behavior featuring players of little or no familiarity to the public, with threads that would put Charlie Day’s Pepe Silvia theories to shame. But because of the nature of the reporting about Twitter — apparently, by agreement for access, told via Twitter by writers more at home on the longer-form Substack — it stands at a remove from the traditional methods of journalism essential to grasping a story so complex.
Musk is ensuring these stories are told in the way that he himself likes to consume them — not in articles at the Wall Street Journal, but in a cascade of tweets at random intervals. That may appeal to the heterodox and the screen-obsessed, but it’s still not the way normal people consume news. Oddly enough, Rudy Giuliani was better at this than Elon: he just gave copies of Hunter’s laptop to a dozen media outlets and said “have at it” — and they did. That’s a better approach than this haphazard collection of dribs and drabs.
It’s a shame, because this is important. If you asked the average Fox News viewer to explain what happened and why, and what’s important about this, it might just be reducible to “they were looking for reasons to ban the Hunter Biden story and boot Trump off Twitter” — and that would be right. But that’s not the biggest element of this story, in terms of its broader implications.
What the Twitter Files truly reveal is that the debate about Twitter’s capacity as a platform vs a publisher is over. They were making constant editorial decisions about the material on their site, without any true motivation related to safety or criminality. They were actively restricting what people could read and see based on their own biases. They were routinely shoving certain material into a box to hide it from their users just because they disliked the conclusions people would draw. As a regulatory matter, they pretend to be a platform — but they are a publisher, no different in practice from editors at the Washington Post. Any claims to neutrality are lies — and any designs on being treated as a good-faith arbiter are right out.
It’s fun to play pretend. But Twitter can’t pretend any more, because we’ve seen the way these debates played out internally, and we know that Twitter was consistently lying about what it was doing. We also are only beginning to grasp how much Twitter was lying to itself, and its own board, about its professional workings, security and data — which seems like it is the next shoe to drop. The hypocrisy is just the surface-level issue of what was dysfunctional about this company.
Let’s hope other entities take up the Twitter Files as deserving of serious coverage. But in a sense, this meandering botched launch serves as a reminder that Musk personally may be with the contrarian anti-woke conservatives, not of them. In much the same way that he is clearly a natalist in his personal life, but also perfectly fine with abortion, his unique approach to gathering and processing information is a fascinating bit of his genius eccentricity — but it’s also a real drag on his ability to communicate a story to the public. On the Twitter front, that’s a real problem — because the public very much needs to know the truth about what happened, before it inevitably happens again.