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shocking revelations or storm in a cup of tea?

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After Elon Musk took over as Twitter helm in late October 2022, he gave select journalists and authors access to the social networking site’s archives. The result is the ‘Twitter Files’. What do they show?

Some freelance journalists such as Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger and David Zweig have been able to access internal chat logs, emails and other documents from Twitter employees over the past month. Based on this, ten stories have now been published – the Twitter Files – in which we get a picture of how Twitter as a platform has dealt with certain controversial decisions in the past, such as the banning of Donald’s profile Trump after storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Shocking revelations did not emerge from the Twitter files. They confirm a lot of things. So it turns out that Twitter is activated visibility filtering did so, with profiles that had recently broken the rules no longer receiving algorithmic boosts or appearing in trending tweets or search results lists. Moderation — content monitoring — involved bots that automatically detected and deleted certain tweets — where mistakes were regularly made — and human moderators who weren’t always fluent in the language and also made mistakes. We also got a glimpse of internal discussions on high-profile cases, such as the temporary banning of a story about the laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the editorial staff and Enforcement of Substantive Rules on Covid-19 and Vaccination, or Suspension of Trump.

Musk’s Twitter files and background show how difficult it is to moderate consistently.

But the view remains limited. The Twitter files focus on the United States and the alleged suppression of conservative or coronaskeptic American voices. The question is also to what extent the journalists chosen have had a full behind-the-scenes insight and how honestly they present their findings. Some interpretations in the Twitter files are speculative and not supported by the evidence provided. Other media that requested access to the same documents received no response. Many of the claims circulating about the Twitter files are nonsensical or overly sensationalized — often by Musk himself. For example, it does not show that the FBI or the US government imposed “censorship” on Twitter for political or ideological reasons.

Moderation

The heart of the Twitter Files is the tension between free speech and moderation. Each social media is obliged – legally or not – to do moderation to keep the platform viable. It formulates a number of terms of use that everyone must agree to in order to participate in conversations on the platform. Those who violate these terms may have their posts – or even their profile – deleted. Without moderation, every social media quickly finds itself in a pool full of scammers, spammers and distributors of child pornography and extremist propaganda. And advertisers – the lifeblood of social media – rarely want to do anything with it.

Twitter’s politics seem to revolve mostly around Elon Musk’s freedom of speech. ©GF

The Twitter Files mainly show that moderation is a minefield in which small and large mistakes are constantly and inevitably made, and in which technology companies must navigate between the wishes and expectations of their users, governments, advertisers and social groups. pressure.

stalker

Has anything changed in Twitter’s moderation rules since Musk’s takeover? Yes. Twitter’s Covid-19 policy, which was intended to tackle misinformation about the coronavirus, has been scrapped altogether. Under Musk, several prominent profiles who were suspended for misleading messages about corona vaccines – such as Robert Malone, Peter McCullough or Naomi Wolf – also came back online. And the Trust and Safety Council, an advisory board for moderation, was shut down after some of its members already resigned spontaneously.

The ban on doxpublishing confidential information about individuals without their consent, has been extended to live flight trackers – mainly because of @ElonJet, a profile that tracked the movements of Musk’s private jet. Musk linked this new ban to the story that a car carrying his son to Los Angeles was followed by a “stalker”. It later turned out to be an incident unrelated to Musk’s private flights. In the aftermath of the ElonJet affair, much attention was paid to the suspension of a number of prominent journalists who had covered it, including big names such as CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan and Ryan Mac of The New York Times. Also journalists critical of Musk such as Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post and Linette Lopez of Business Intern were temporarily suspended by Twitter for no apparent reason.

Critical journalists have also been temporarily suspended by Twitter.

Fanciful approach

Musk bought Twitter as a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, a supporter of the widest possible freedom of expression. He wanted to make Twitter the “world’s village square”, with discussions and conversations for all of humanity. But his track record at the helm of Twitter shows an erratic approach to moderation, consistent with his personal and professional preferences and interests.

Musk himself gives that impression through his many ideologically charged tweets. In recent weeks, he has used his platform to provide voting advice to the Republican Party, share messages and memes about the fight against the awakened mind virus, to advocate for the prosecution of US corona adviser Anthony Fauci, and to converse with all sorts of alt-right profiles almost daily. The promised moderation board that Musk announced in October has not materialized. Some decisions, like the return of Donald Trump or a short-lived new rule that suddenly banned linking to your profiles on other social networks, Musk submitted “the voice of the people” via Twitter polls. But these polls are totally unreliable and highly susceptible to manipulation.

The Twitter files on the old Twitter and Musk’s track record as head of the new Twitter primarily show how difficult, if not impossible, it is to moderate consistently. This is even more true during exceptional events, such as a global pandemic or a US president who keeps tweeting that the election was “stolen”.

A big tech platform like Twitter will always be forced to balance freedom of expression with user safety. However, now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, Twitter’s policy seems to be primarily concerned with free speech and the safety of Elon Musk himself.

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