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What are the Twitter Files? And why should you care about them?
To steal from my Stand Together colleague Neil Chilson, at some point last year the social media platform Twitter became the world’s leading place to get breaking news about Twitter — and it seemed as though Twitter was the topic of the day every day.
Why was that?
After SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk became owner and CEO of Twitter, he worked with independent journalists to share internal documents about the company’s content moderation policies and procedures under its prior ownership. These stories have become known as the Twitter Files.
Thus far, the documents have been released in eight installments. Topics covered have included:
In some cases, the documents simply seem to show Twitter’s policy team debating how to proceed with moderation. Even then, though, the decision-making seemed arbitrary and inconsistent.
However, some of the documents did show government officials privately urging Twitter to remove content from the site. As Reason’s Robby Soave put it:
“Social media companies have every right to moderate jokes if they really want to — and users can complain about the jokes or the moderation, of course — but the FBI’s role in all this raises the specter of a free speech violation, even if the government wasn’t literally forcing Twitter to take action. It is inappropriate for the FBI to report joke tweets to content moderators and take a what-are-you-doing-about-this tone. Social media companies might feel like they have little choice but to cooperate with law enforcement, given that political figures in both parties are constantly threatening to punish the platforms for making decisions that displease Republicans and Democrats.”
I had similar concerns last year when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would launch a Disinformation Governance Board to “focus on countering misinformation and disinformation.”
AFP quickly swung into action, highlighting the free speech concerns and mobilizing Americans across the country to speak up against this intrusion of privacy. In a victory for free speech, the DHS later backed down from these plans.
Another takeaway from the Twitter Files: Private actors are not the government and are not themselves bound by the First Amendment — which restricts the government. But the fact that private actors aren’t required by the First Amendment to protect free speech doesn’t mean they shouldn’t embrace it. And where government is pressuring or forcing private actors to restrict speech, it’s crucial to understand just who is really making the decisions.
This is one of the reasons Stand Together supported the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression as they developed their campus speech rankings: to create more specificity about which colleges are strong on free speech and which aren’t, and then to provide that information to consumers (faculty, parents, and students) to help them make the right decisions for themselves and to incentivize the universities to prioritize First Amendment rights.
FIRE’s data includes both public and private universities and allows parents and students (and lawmakers) to assess which universities are creating a culture of free speech — and in the case of public universities, complying with the First Amendment.
As FIRE has expanded its mission beyond campuses, it is now taking a similar approach to speech and social media platforms. It recently announced that it will “develop a rating system for major social media companies based on the extent to which they restrict speech, to inform users of the bargains they enter when engaging with each platform, and to ensure each platform is aware that their fidelity to free speech principles is being monitored and reported.”
This could be a real game-changer, helping to incentivize social media platforms to be transparent about their policies and encouraging them to create policies that protect more speech.
One last note: As I was finalizing this newsletter, Meta restored Trump’s accounts. Since MSNBC, CNN and other media outlets have continued to screenshot and talk about everything he posts on other platforms, it’s not clear just how much will change after this move. But in the long run, I think it’s best for platforms to move away from having complicated rules that treat political leaders differently than the rest of us. Just be clear about the rules and consistent in their application. That’s all that many of us ask.
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