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'Twitter Files' Is a Callback to The Wire vs Meta Scandal: Here's 5 Reasons Why

Twitter has been caught in a political controversy before but perhaps not like this. 

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In a 34-tweet thread on 3 December, journalist Matt Taibbi alleged that Twitter was biased in its content moderation decisions and posted screenshots of purported emails shared between company executives as proof. He also claimed that he had accessed thousands of internal documents, obtained from sources, dubbed the ‘Twitter Files’.

But the kicker? The publication of Twitter Files has been egged on by the social media company’s owner himself, Elon Musk.

Part 1 of the “exposé” is basically this: In the run up to the 2020 US presidential elections, a report by The New York Post alleged abuse of power by Joe Biden based on emails retrieved from his son Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter allegedly removed links to the report, showed warnings that it was unsafe, blocked DMs, and locked out certain users.

Yet, Twitter Files may not be the smoking gun that Musk claims it is. In fact, the controversy that it has sparked in the US brings to mind another drama that unfolded in India recently – The Wire vs Meta saga.

Let’s take a look at how one content moderation row is reflected in the other.

First, why does it matter? Reporters overstating their case or not scrutinising the materials provided to them by "sources" could hurt valid criticism of social media platforms and make it easier for others to be dismissive of future reporting.

'Twitter Files' Is a Callback to The Wire vs Meta Scandal: Here's 5 Reasons Why

  1. 1. Similarity #1: Alleged Content Takedowns at a Political Party's Behest

    Taibbi has alleged that the Biden team and the Democratic National Party were “connected actors” who had a say in which tweets got removed or reviewed by the platform.

    “By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine,” Taibbi wrote.

    In reality, these tweets reportedly contained nude images of Hunter Biden and hence, they were reasonably flagged under Twitter’s policies on non-consensual nudity. For the record, Donald Trump's team similarly flagged tweets too.

    The Wire’s retracted reports had also alleged that Meta took down a user’s Instagram story only because Amit Malviya, IT Cell head of the ruling BJP, had said so.

    But, a Meta spokesperson had confirmed to Newslaundry that the Insta story at the centre of The Wire's reports was taken down by Meta’s automated tools, also because of nudity-related reasons.

    Expand
  2. 2. Similarity #2: Screenshots and Sloppy Due Diligence

    Taibbi put up screenshots that had the unredacted email addresses of Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and Democratic party politician Ro Khanna. The tweet that allegedly doxxed Dorsey was later deleted by the journalist.

    Moreover, Taibbi also revealed the names of low-level employees at Twitter who have reportedly received death threats since the Twitter Files were published.

    Screenshots containing names and email addresses were also what led to the undoing of The Wire’s reportage.

    Before retracting its reports, The Wire claimed that its findings had been corroborated by two cybersecurity experts. However, when Ujjwal Kumar and Kanishk Karan learnt that they were being cited as the experts, they categorically denied any involvement in the verification of the source material.

    Expand
  3. 3. Similarity #3: A Nothing Story

    The Twitter Files was hyped up as new evidence of government interference in social media platforms. What did we learn ultimately? Hardly anything new.

    • Twitter decided to restrict sharing of the Post report based on its hacked materials policy.

    • US politicians on both sides of the aisle criticised the move.

    • The decision was reversed two days later after Jack Dorsey called it “wrong”.

    • Twitter then updated its policy to reflect that only material shared directly by hackers or their accomplices would be restricted or taken down.

    This was all known and publicly stated back in 2020.

    The leaked emails just show several executives, including former head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth and ex-legal head Vijaya Gadde, internally debating whether they did the right thing. As for government officials trying to suppress a potentially damaging Biden story, Taibbi himself admitted that there was no evidence in this regard.

    Meta's decisions on content moderation in India were controversial and widely known much before The Wire published its reports.

    • Ankhi Das, Facebook's public policy head in 2020, was accused by The Wall Street Journal of being biased towards the BJP.

    • In 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the social media giant failed to take action against hateful content being spread on the platform ahead of the 2020 Delhi riots.

    Expand
  4. 4. Similarity #4: Questionable Provenance

    Both investigations got a start that came from characters whose motives remain unclear. What role did Elon Musk play in Twitter Files? A pretty big one by the looks of it.

    • The billionaire had teased the big reveal several hours before Taibbi actually published his tweet thread.

    • Musk also revealed that he was "double-checking the facts" in a journalist's investigative report against his platform

    • Then, in a Twitter Spaces, Musk reportedly said that he hadn't even read the Twitter Files.

    On the flip side, The Wire alleged in its police complaint that Devesh Kumar was the one who "got in touch with our reporter and told us that he had received information from a personal friend of his who is a senior executive at Instagram’s office in Singapore."

    He was allegedly the only one in contact with the executive who provided the "fabricated documents" that The Wire relied on for its reports.

    Expand
  5. 5. Similarity #5: Lack of Transparency Is a Separate, Existing Problem

    Musk criticising Twitter's previous team for its content moderation decisions is like the pot calling the kettle black.

    • With most of the Trust and Safety team as well as third-party moderators gone, there appears to be no clear approach to content moderation.

    • It seems like Musk has been taking moderation calls on his own ad hoc.

    • For instance, he decided to let American rapper Kanye West (or Ye) back on Twitter only to deplatform him soon after the latter tweeted a picture of a swastika.

    • While Musk had initially proposed setting up a content moderation council, there's been no updates on this so far.

    Even though The Wire has retracted its claims on XCheck, Meta couldn't explain why an Instagram story that didn't feature any nudity was taken down by its automated system for violating nudity guidelines. The Meta Oversight Board further found that XCheck "appears more directly structured to satisfy business concerns" and recommended an overhaul.

    Thus, such investigations shouldn't distract from the fact that social media platforms already have their work cut out on various issues.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Similarity #1: Alleged Content Takedowns at a Political Party's Behest

Taibbi has alleged that the Biden team and the Democratic National Party were “connected actors” who had a say in which tweets got removed or reviewed by the platform.

“By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine,” Taibbi wrote.

In reality, these tweets reportedly contained nude images of Hunter Biden and hence, they were reasonably flagged under Twitter’s policies on non-consensual nudity. For the record, Donald Trump's team similarly flagged tweets too.

The Wire’s retracted reports had also alleged that Meta took down a user’s Instagram story only because Amit Malviya, IT Cell head of the ruling BJP, had said so.

But, a Meta spokesperson had confirmed to Newslaundry that the Insta story at the centre of The Wire's reports was taken down by Meta’s automated tools, also because of nudity-related reasons.

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Similarity #2: Screenshots and Sloppy Due Diligence

Taibbi put up screenshots that had the unredacted email addresses of Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and Democratic party politician Ro Khanna. The tweet that allegedly doxxed Dorsey was later deleted by the journalist.

Moreover, Taibbi also revealed the names of low-level employees at Twitter who have reportedly received death threats since the Twitter Files were published.

Screenshots containing names and email addresses were also what led to the undoing of The Wire’s reportage.

Before retracting its reports, The Wire claimed that its findings had been corroborated by two cybersecurity experts. However, when Ujjwal Kumar and Kanishk Karan learnt that they were being cited as the experts, they categorically denied any involvement in the verification of the source material.

0

Similarity #3: A Nothing Story

The Twitter Files was hyped up as new evidence of government interference in social media platforms. What did we learn ultimately? Hardly anything new.

  • Twitter decided to restrict sharing of the Post report based on its hacked materials policy.

  • US politicians on both sides of the aisle criticised the move.

  • The decision was reversed two days later after Jack Dorsey called it “wrong”.

  • Twitter then updated its policy to reflect that only material shared directly by hackers or their accomplices would be restricted or taken down.

This was all known and publicly stated back in 2020.

The leaked emails just show several executives, including former head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth and ex-legal head Vijaya Gadde, internally debating whether they did the right thing. As for government officials trying to suppress a potentially damaging Biden story, Taibbi himself admitted that there was no evidence in this regard.

Meta's decisions on content moderation in India were controversial and widely known much before The Wire published its reports.

  • Ankhi Das, Facebook's public policy head in 2020, was accused by The Wall Street Journal of being biased towards the BJP.

  • In 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the social media giant failed to take action against hateful content being spread on the platform ahead of the 2020 Delhi riots.

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Similarity #4: Questionable Provenance

Both investigations got a start that came from characters whose motives remain unclear. What role did Elon Musk play in Twitter Files? A pretty big one by the looks of it.

  • The billionaire had teased the big reveal several hours before Taibbi actually published his tweet thread.

  • Musk also revealed that he was "double-checking the facts" in a journalist's investigative report against his platform

  • Then, in a Twitter Spaces, Musk reportedly said that he hadn't even read the Twitter Files.

On the flip side, The Wire alleged in its police complaint that Devesh Kumar was the one who "got in touch with our reporter and told us that he had received information from a personal friend of his who is a senior executive at Instagram’s office in Singapore."

He was allegedly the only one in contact with the executive who provided the "fabricated documents" that The Wire relied on for its reports.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Similarity #5: Lack of Transparency Is a Separate, Existing Problem

Musk criticising Twitter's previous team for its content moderation decisions is like the pot calling the kettle black.

  • With most of the Trust and Safety team as well as third-party moderators gone, there appears to be no clear approach to content moderation.

  • It seems like Musk has been taking moderation calls on his own ad hoc.

  • For instance, he decided to let American rapper Kanye West (or Ye) back on Twitter only to deplatform him soon after the latter tweeted a picture of a swastika.

  • While Musk had initially proposed setting up a content moderation council, there's been no updates on this so far.

Even though The Wire has retracted its claims on XCheck, Meta couldn't explain why an Instagram story that didn't feature any nudity was taken down by its automated system for violating nudity guidelines. The Meta Oversight Board further found that XCheck "appears more directly structured to satisfy business concerns" and recommended an overhaul.

Thus, such investigations shouldn't distract from the fact that social media platforms already have their work cut out on various issues.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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