by Alex Berenson
For years, Twitter’s executives promised they would not let their own political or ideological views interfere with Twitter’s corporate – and societal – commitment to free speech.
They understood Twitter’s importance as a place to break and discuss news. They understood its value as a free megaphone available to all. They understood that it had become a global town square and should not be subject to their whims.
So they told the world. Repeatedly, publicly, and explicitly.
We now have proof they didn’t mean a word they said.
Last night, Bari Weiss – a former New York Times opinion writer, now building a conservative-leaning news site – published internal Twitter documents showing the breadth and depth of Twitter’s censorship. Elon Musk gave Weiss the documents, which he obtained when he bought Twitter in October.
As I wrote yesterday, Musk has not yet made Twitter the free speech haven I hoped it would become after his purchase (though he still may!). But all by itself, the release of these documents comes close to vindicating his decision to spend $44 billion to buy the little bird.
Before Musk took Twitter over, the company insisted its censorship and suppression decisions rose mainly from concerns for the safety of its hundreds of millions of users, it said.
In an October 2020 interview with Politico, Vijaya Gadde, a lawyer who at the time was Twitter’s head of “legal, policy, and trust,” promised that her own left-leaning views would not affect Twitter users’ ability to speak:
“We’re always going to take positions on things that we think are important, that our employees think are important,” she said. “But that’s very different than how we necessarily operate the platform.”
Under Gadde, Twitter devised complex policies that included graduated penalties – strikes – for tweets about Covid or elections it viewed as problematic.
Sure, Twitter was betraying its founding principles in moving towards censorship. But at least the decisions would not be arbitrary, the guidelines that underlay them would be public, and users had a theoretical right to appeal them.
But the documents Weiss and Musk released yesterday show Twitter deliberately misled the public. It acted against users even when it knew they hadn’t broken its rules.
Even worse, beneath its public rules lurked a second, hidden layer of censorship.
Twitter “shadowbanned” users it did not like, hiding them and their tweets. It had several levels of shadowbanning, and it applied them arbitrarily and in secret. Users had no way to learn about them, much less argue or appeal them.
Worst of all, perhaps because they would not create the controversy that outright bans did, Twitter punished a much broader group of users with shadowbans than it did with account suspensions.
Many of those people had opinions that no one could possibly view as dangerous, hateful, or even rude. They merely expressed views that Twitter executives and employees did not like.
To take just one example in the documents, Twitter downregulated tweets from Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford University epidemiologist who in 2020 spoke out against lockdowns and school closures.
Dr. Bhattacharya is the very stereotype of a measured, thoughtful academic. When my wife tells me that I can make my points on Twitter while being less sharp-tongued, she uses him as a counterexample.
Did Twitter ban him? No. But it did prevent his tweets from “trending,” thus limiting their potential influence.
Other types of quasi-censorship included search bans, preventing Twitter users from finding suppressed accounts in Twitter’s own search engine, and a category called “do not amplify,” which went still further.
None of these policies are okay. They are the equivalent of Verizon putting static on your phone line or slowing your Internet connection speed because its executives don’t like your views. They are further proof that Twitter must be regulated as a common carrier open to all.
But even without that protection, these policies may violate Twitter’s own terms of service.
A Twitter account is a valuable asset, especially for journalists, politicians, and other public figures with large followings. Just because Twitter claims its terms of service give it the right to do whatever it wants to its users, no matter how unfair, doesn’t mean a judge will agree.
I speak from experience on this issue. I was in a San Francisco courtroom in April when federal Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California compared Twitter’s treatment of me to an abusive landlord trying to evict a tenant for being a few days late on rent after the landlord had verbally promised to accept the rent late.