The Media

The Finale of the Great Internet Grievance Wars Is Here

What Elon Musk wants from his hand-picked journalists—and what the “Twitter Files” actually reveal.

Engineer and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk of The Boring Company listens as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about constructing a high speed transit tunnel at Block 37 during a news conference on June 14, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Musk said he could create a 16-passenger vehicle to operate on a high-speed rail system that could get travelers to and from downtown Chicago and O'hare International Airport under twenty minutes, at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake and Joshua Lott/Getty Images.

On Thursday night, the journalist Bari Weiss posted an article on the online magazine she edits, the Free Press, that purported to tell the story behind the “Twitter Files”—the investigatory series, based on a strategic leak, that Weiss has helped to author. “At dinner time on December 2, I received a text from Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, founder of SpaceX, founder of the Boring Company, founder of Neuralink, on most days the richest man in the world (possibly history), and, as of October, the owner of Twitter,” Weiss wrote. “Was I interested in looking at Twitter’s archives, he asked. And how soon could I get to Twitter HQ?”

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These archives were a trove of internal company documents left behind from the previous corporate administration. They purported to show that, before Musk bought the company for $44 billion this fall, Twitter had engaged in surreptitious strategies of content moderation that suppressed certain right-leaning statements, opinions, stories, and individuals on its platform. Throughout the month of December, Weiss and a few other journalists—including former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, the author of 2021’s San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities—have been surfacing and interpreting these files in a sequence of Twitter threads that happen to confirm many conservatives’ prior assumptions. So far, there have been six installments, pertaining to Twitter’s alleged practice of “shadow-banning” certain right-oriented accounts, its working relationship with various U.S. government departments, its moderation strategies in response to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and its decision to boot then-President Donald Trump from the platform. They have inspired headlines on Fox News and cries of “I knew it!” from the kind of Twitter personalities who say things like “woke mind virus” without a hint of irony.

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In other words, the Twitter Files’ authors and their ideological counterparts have framed this material as evidence that Twitter, in thrall to its woke workforce and progressive politics more generally, had become an anti-democratic tool that extended the privilege of free speech only to those who held the proper political opinions. “Twitter’s former leadership curtailed public debate; drew arbitrary lines about what’s fake and what’s real; and gaslit ordinary Americans,” Weiss wrote in her Thursday night article. “Musk says he won’t do that.”

Right around the same time that Weiss’s piece went up, several mainstream journalists learned that their Twitter accounts had been suspended. Ostensibly, this was done in response to the journalists’ linking or referring to the Mastodon page for an account called @elonjet, which posts publicly available flight data about Musk’s private plane. Musk suspended @elonjet from Twitter earlier this week (reversing an earlier promise), and on Thursday night he justified all these media suspensions by claiming that @elonjet’s posts were the equivalent of “assassination coordinates.” It just so happened that all of these journalists had reported or commented critically on Musk’s tenure as Twitter’s boss; it also turned out that the story Musk had shared to justify the ban, involving a supposed threat to his son, had some glaring holes, too. By Saturday, after polling his Twitter followers about how long the bans should last, Musk had reinstated many of the suspended accounts. Later that day, Twitter suspended Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz after she asked Musk on Twitter to comment on a story she was working on regarding the original suspensions. (She’s since been reinstated.)

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It is not at all surprising to watch Musk preen about exposing his predecessors’ alleged abuses of power while simultaneously engaging in the exact same behaviors that he had promised to avoid. Musk has always been too rich and too grandiose to care about following through on his promises. To hear Weiss tell it, Musk pitched her on his recent takeover of Twitter as his attempt to secure “the future of civilization.” While it is easy to believe that Musk thinks of himself in messianic terms, there’s no reason why the rest of us should rush to join his apostolate.

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Even so, I am reluctant to dismiss the Twitter Files out of hand. The Twitter Files are inherently interesting if only because they help to illuminate the inner workings of one of the world’s most prominent tech companies during several pressure-cooker episodes. You don’t have to like Weiss, Taibbi, Musk, or the term “San Fransicko” to acknowledge that the documents do seem to illustrate certain contradictions between what Twitter professed in public and how some of its employees acted in private. How did Twitter make the call to ban Donald Trump? Why did it decide to block the Hunter Biden laptop story? And if it did act inappropriately during these episodes, is it fair to extrapolate malice, institutional cowardice, and systemic partisan bias from this data?

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But also: Why did Musk choose these particular journalists to receive and report on the files? Taibbi, Weiss, and Musk—I’m not as familiar with Shellenberger’s work—make a real era-appropriate team, insofar as each has become very prominent online by deliberately missing the forest for the trees. All three are notable critics of what they deem left-wing groupthink, and all three seem to take pleasure in surfacing and/or pandering to strains of cultural and political thought that fall outside the sphere of current liberal consensus.

They do this from the standpoint of insiders who have chosen to portray themselves as outsiders. Musk is the richest man in the world and yet comports himself online like a pustulous incel on a Mountain Dew bender. Though Taibbi and Weiss were each once ensconced at the absolute top of the American mainstream media—Weiss at the opinion section of the New York Times, Taibbi as a star writer for Rolling Stone—both have since migrated to Substack, where they each run popular and lucrative newsletters that exist to bite the hands that once fed them.

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Their shared thesis, to oversimplify, is that the mainstream media, Big Tech, and other important cultural institutions now follow a shared set of ultra-liberal speech codes that have been imposed from within by woke young employees. Cowed by their strident staffers, executives at these institutions have allegedly abdicated their leadership responsibilities and have, so to speak, allowed the inmates to run the asylum. Dare to express opinions that transgress these implicit speech codes—dare to say anything that might offend even a single “social justice warrior” within these spheres—and you’ll quickly find yourself excommunicated. The broader implications of this alleged ideological uniformity, Taibbi and Weiss argue, are devastating for speech and democracy.

And actually, fair enough. There is ample historical precedent for leftist political movements using speech codes as tools to empower repressive regimes, just as there are countless moments in history when right-wing dipshits have stoked moral panics rooted in cultural revanchism and risible claims of conspiracy in order to consolidate power and influence for their own curdled ends. The challenge and obligation of citizenship in a democracy involves, in part, remaining alert to the various strains of demagoguery that are circulating at any given period of time, accurately assessing the relative threats that they pose to democratic principles, and taking notice when prominent voices seem intent on deflecting your attention from mountains while warning endlessly about molehills.

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American democracy has indeed taken a bit of a beating over the past few years, but the most violent blows have been landed by the Trumpist right and its opportunistic enablers. While neither Taibbi nor Weiss is blind to the threats that Trumpism has posed to democracy, their recent output sure does make it seem as if the predominant crisis facing America today is one of creeping illiberalism and ideological uniformity in tech, media, and the Democratic Party. Though Taibbi and Weiss do not self-classify as conservatives, the drum that they’ve been banging for a few years now is functionally indistinguishable from the one that the American right wing has been banging for as long as I’ve been alive—a concordance that matters intensely when attempting to parse the import of the Twitter Files.

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For decades now, American right-wing discourse has been rooted in two bedrock principles. The first is that the American right is under attack, constantly, from all leftward angles. The second principle is that there is a lot of money to be made in convincing low-information values voters that they are under attack, and that Hollywood, government, the academy, big business, and the media are now and always have been conspiring against them. Conspiracy is the cornerstone of the modern conservative movement. The premise that the entire world is aligned against the right in an ongoing effort to demote their values, their freedoms, and their right to use ethnic slurs in public is a tribal identifier for contemporary conservatives, and surfacing evidence of these conspiracies is right-wing media’s most important work.

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This endless fanfare of grievance, innuendo, and motivated misprioritization colors most of the content you’ll find on the most popular conservative news and opinion outlets: vast edifices of bullshit constructed atop small kernels of verifiable information. But this ongoing victim narrative is undermined by the plain fact that, far from being marginalized and undervalued, by most available metrics, right-wing news and opinion is very popular and profitable. Fox News consistently tops the cable news ratings. Conservative radio shows and podcasts top the leaderboards in their respective disciplines. Right-wing Facebook pages are consistently among the most popular issues-based Facebook pages. Substacks dedicated to the proposition that divergent political opinion has no home in the American media earn their proprietors better livings than they ever would have made at the publications they once called home. We are literally living in the Golden Age of Getting Rich and Wielding Influence by Pretending That Your Voice Has Been Silenced—which brings us back to the Twitter Files, and the people to whom they were handed by the wealthiest man in the world.

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Over the course of six long Twitter threads thus far, Shellenberger, Taibbi, and Weiss have used selections from archives of internal company communications, augmented by interviews with unnamed current and former Twitter staffers, to spotlight instances in which conservative-aligned stories, users, posts, and points of view were silenced on the platform. In the first of these threads, Taibbi delved into Twitter’s decision to initially suppress circulation of an October 2020 New York Post story about emails found on Hunter Biden’s laptop—and to even go so far as to mark the story “unsafe.”

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In the second thread, Weiss implied that the files show that Twitter discriminated against prominent right-wing pundits such as Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk, and Chaya “Libs of TikTok” Raichik, even as company executives claimed that they “certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”

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In the third thread, Taibbi suggested that before and after the 2020 presidential election, Twitter executives may have manipulated their own rules in order to create “pretexts” for constraining the visibility of certain accounts, while enjoying “intensified relationships with federal agencies” that may have exerted influence on Twitter’s moderation policies.

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In thread four, Shellenberger dove into the discussions surrounding the removal of Donald Trump from Twitter soon after the Jan. 6 riots, and focused on the role played by ex-Twitter executive Yoel Roth in that decision:

In the fifth thread, Weiss played an old tune and suggested that Twitter’s woke employees pressured the company to ban Trump from the platform even though he may not have strictly violated any of the company’s rules:

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Finally, in the most recent thread, Taibbi dug into Twitter’s “constant and pervasive” contact with the FBI:

If you count yourself a conservative, you may well see what Weiss, Taibbi, and the rest see in the revelations of the Twitter Files. For the past several years, concomitant with the rising furor surrounding so-called cancel culture, many right-leaning pundits have alleged that they have been discriminated against by various social media platforms because of their political orientation. They have charged that Big Tech has worked to suppress their voices and constrain their influence, either surreptitiously by processes such as “shadow banning,” or directly by preventing them, temporarily or permanently, from using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. To these pundits and their enablers, Big Tech’s alleged anti-anti-woke bias has been a major, major story, and the Twitter Files have now brought the boogeyman out into the light.

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But there’s not really all that much to see. Take the Hunter Biden laptop story, for instance. While the New York Post article in question probably shouldn’t have been suppressed in the first place, Twitter’s decision to do so touched off a storm of internal and external debate, leading to the Post story’s being restored to circulation the next day and Twitter’s “hacked materials” policy—which the Post piece had purportedly violated—evolving as a result of the uproar. This sequence of events doesn’t reveal some huge partisan conspiracy so much as a group of people apparently struggling in real time to make good decisions, while being responsive enough to reverse course when they got those decisions wrong.

The six threads we’ve seen thus far show that Twitter had a clear, albeit evolving system for content moderation, and that it took that system seriously. The system seems to have existed to ensure that content moderation decisions were not made arbitrarily, and it also seems that only in chaotic or extraordinary circumstances was the system superseded by other considerations. Take, for example, the Libs of TikTok account, run by Raichik, which gets a lot of attention in Weiss’ first Twitter Files thread. As my Slate colleague Evan Urquhart wrote earlier this month, “Libs of TikTok has repeatedly highlighted specific individuals, events, and institutions with inflammatory language, often falsely suggesting they are guilty of heinous acts against young children. The account’s spotlight has repeatedly resulted in harassment and violent threats toward the individuals involved, in a process typically referred to as stochastic terrorism.”

That’s pretty terrible! For Weiss, though, even more terrible is the fact that Twitter suspended Raichik’s account at least seven times, even though on at least one of those occasions Raichik may not have technically violated the platform’s Hateful Conduct policy.

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But as Urquhart wrote, and as Weiss herself revealed in the relevant thread, far from this being a case of aggressively woke Twitter moderators firing from the hip to silence an account they didn’t like, Twitter took extra-special care with Raichik’s account, forbidding moderators to take action without first consulting with high-level Twitter executives. The Twitter Files show that the company’s executives were exquisitely sensitive to conservative charges of bias, and that they treated the most volatile prominent right-leaning accounts with kid gloves—even as those accounts were almost exclusively dedicated to flooding the platform with malignant garbage.

Take Donald Trump’s Twitter account, for instance, which in the two months preceding its ultimate ban was primarily devoted to posting outright lies about the validity of the 2020 presidential election, lies that helped precipitate a violent riot at the Capitol. In her Twitter Files thread pertaining to Trump’s ban, Weiss attempted to discredit Twitter’s decision to ban the then president by observing that the company had allowed other world leaders to remain on the platform after posting incitements to violence. But not only is this line of argument ultimately irrelevant to the specific circumstances of @realdonaldtrump’s post-insurrection ban from Twitter, it shows that the previous Twitter regime was, if anything, incredibly reluctant to take sustained action against prominent account holders.

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It seems obvious to me that the fact that Twitter intervened with some of these accounts anyway has less to do with those accounts’ conservative leanings than it does with the fact that these accounts were run by unscrupulous trolls who excel at exploiting good-faith rules to their own bad-faith advantage. Their whole shtick involves posting the dumbest, least credible arguments imaginable, and then demanding that their output be treated no differently than material from reputable, fact-based sources. If you note that there is a difference between an argument sourced from the New York Times and one that is sourced from some right-wing fever-dream Facebook page, they will scream partisan bias and gamble that you will respond by backing down.

It is not necessarily to Twitter’s discredit that it may have maneuvered its own internal rules to counteract this rhetorical brinksmanship. Privileging credible content over maniacally inaccurate content isn’t anti-conservative bias: It’s bias against malevolent trolls. It isn’t Twitter’s fault that so much conservative discourse in the Trump era is so deeply, fundamentally dishonest; in response to that tilted dynamic, Twitter’s moderation personnel still went out of their way to give bad-faith pundits the benefit of the doubt.

But the rest of us don’t have to extend these pundits the same courtesy. Taibbi and Weiss have made a very good living in recent years yelling about the chilling effects of wokeness, and about purported bias in tech, business, politics, and the media. Elon Musk, too, has risen to cultural prominence and increased his own personal wealth by convening a rabid fandom around his own anti-woke and deeply annoying Twitter persona. (The persona is deeply annoying even aside from its anti-woke aspects; watch what happens to your Twitter mentions if you dare post a negative word about Tesla.) Their ongoing cultural influence is in part contingent on their forever burnishing their own brands by self-identifying as heroic apostates who aren’t afraid to call out left-wing thought suppression and who are tireless in their efforts to document and expose all the realms in which the woke mobs have achieved cultural capture.

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But another way to describe wokeness is accountability, and it is perhaps telling that many of those who yell the loudest about the perils of wokeness are so clearly trying to dodge accountability for their own words and deeds: like Elon Musk, who tried and failed to wriggle out of his initial attempt to buy Twitter once the deal started to look like a horrible idea, and who now, contra his “free speech for all” public persona, is apparently unilaterally moderating certain accounts that irritate him personally or have reported critically on Tesla; or Bari Weiss, who hopped on a plane to Twitter HQ within two hours of being summoned there by Musk but took at least 15 hours to tweet a wan, smarmy condemnation of Musk’s pretextual journalist suspensions, and who, in her thread about Twitter’s allegedly surreptitious practices of “shadow banning” and “visibility filtering,” did not link to the 2018 company blog post in which two Twitter executives carefully defined shadow banning and explained the company’s process for filtering tweets from ill-meaning actors; or Donald Trump, who went from using his Twitter account to take potshots at Rosie O’Donnell to using it to set the stage for a violent Capitol riot meant to impede the certification of a presidential election that his ego would not allow him to admit he lost, and whose subsequent Twitter ban made him a cause célèbre for all those who think freedom of speech means never having to answer for their own bullshit.

As per Steve Bannon’s dictum to neutralize the mainstream media by flooding the public sphere with shit, the anti-woke crusaders spend their days spinning anecdotes of illiberal overreach and generalized fears of cultural change into self-aggrandizing specters that have come to loom large over right-wing political discourse. That does not mean that these people can never have a valid point. And indeed, Taibbi and Weiss are right about one thing: Silicon Valley does wield functionally unchecked power over people’s lives these days. Massive platform providers such as Facebook and Twitter exert significant influence over the scope, tone, tenor, and impact of social and political discourse, and reporters should strive to hold these companies accountable with critical, skeptical, and scrupulous work. As anyone who has not chosen to ride or die with the term fake news already knows, lots of excellent reporters already do this. Not for nothing has it emerged that many of the Twitter Files disclosures have been previously reported or acknowledged in some form—just not with the facile, manipulative framing that revs the engines of the alt-right.

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In her Free Press piece that ran Thursday night, Weiss, to her credit, did sound a few skeptical notes about Musk. They were subsumed by the story’s dominant themes of grievance over Old Twitter’s allegedly pervasive bias and ingenuousness about Musk’s ultimate intentions. “But if the story of Old Twitter is about the biases and prejudices and power trips of the company’s former overlords, the question is what Musk will now do with the powerful tools they created?” Weiss wrote. “What does it mean when the owner of Twitter tweets that his pronouns are ‘Prosecute/Fauci’?”

The answers to these questions are blindingly obvious to anyone who does not have a vested interest in missing the point. What it means is that Musk has chosen to make common cause with the idiot trolls and unapologetic bigots who cheer and emulate mercurial, unscrupulous strongmen. He will dismantle the accountability structures at Twitter and will wield his power there unilaterally, while his hand-picked muckrakers focus on his predecessors’ “power trips.” He will safeguard “the future of civilization” for those, like himself, who would gladly destroy it in order to secure their own short-term advantage.