The Industry

Why Is James O’Keefe Going After Twitter?

Conservative media activist James O'Keefe has released two undercover investigations of Twitter.
Conservative media activist James O’Keefe has released two undercover investigations of Twitter.
Stewart F. House/Getty Images

For the second time in two weeks, Twitter is responding to a sting operation meant to embarrass it from Project Veritas, the group run by conservative gadfly James O’Keefe. On Monday, Project Veritas released a video purporting to show Twitter engineers telling “undercover journalists” that hundreds of the social network’s employees view and analyze all direct messages between users and sell the compiled data to advertisers. The engineers, who are seated at restaurants and bars and do not appear to know that they are being recorded, further inform Project Veritas’ operatives that they have seen private sexual images transmitted through the platform’s direct message feature.

Twitter quickly issued a statement disputing the video’s characterization of its internal operations: “We do not proactively review DMs. Period. A limited number of employees have access to such information, for legitimate work purposes, and we enforce strict access protocols for those employees.” A former senior employee from the company further told BuzzFeed that the claims in the video are “technically accurate to a degree, but exaggerated for effect by drunk idiots.”

Project Veritas also released a sting video targeting Twitter this past week, which appears to show senior network security engineer Clay Haynes discussing Trump’s account. Haynes tells an undercover investigator that he is a “bleeding-heart liberal” and notes, “We’re more than happy to help the Department of Justice in their little investigation [into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives or Trump obstructed justice] … Giving them every single tweet that he’s posted, even the ones he’s deleted, any direct messages … ” As the Daily Dot points out, however, the pretense for and context of the meeting are unclear from the footage. Plus, Haynes in a later conversation refuses to disclose whether Twitter is actually cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation at the moment. (Twitter has provided information about accounts belonging to Russian operatives to a Senate investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, although one senator criticized the company’s initial disclosures as “inadequate.”)

Twitter also released a statement responding to that video: “The individual depicted in this video was speaking in a personal capacity and does not represent or speak for Twitter. Twitter only responds to valid legal requests, and does not share any user information with law enforcement without such a request. We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative. Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”

Project Veritas’ campaign against Twitter is part of what looks to be a wave of conservative activists striking out against Twitter and other major internet companies. On Jan. 8, former Google engineer James Damore filed a lawsuit against the company for discriminating against conservative white men after it fired him for authoring the “Google Memo,” in which he argued that biological differences account for the low number of women in the tech industry. That same day, right-wing troll Charles Johnson filed a free-speech suit against Twitter, which banned him in 2015 for using the platform to solicit donations to “take out” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson.

Then, two days later, Republican politico and informal Trump adviser Roger Stone again indicated that he is readying an antitrust lawsuit against Twitter, which banned him in October 2017 for tweeting obscene insults at a number of CNN anchors. He also claimed that former Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, whom Twitter banned for directing a racist campaign against comedian and actress Leslie Jones, will be joining the suit.

Why are James O’Keefe and his peers targeting technology companies with the fervor they usually reserve for Democratic politicians and “deep state” bureaucrats? Wired argues that this surge of lawsuits and exposés was probably inevitable given the recent attempts by tech companies to purge abusive behavior from their platforms—a pivot from years of a hands-off enforcement in the name of free speech. While Twitter, Facebook, and other companies frame their new rules around hate speech and harassment as a move to crack down on the most toxic elements of social media, right-wing provocateurs seem to see these regulatory actions as a form of thinly veiled persecution—one that has even led members of the alt-right to build their own competing internet services.

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Aaron Mak

Aaron Mak writes about technology for Slate.