The 11th and 12th installments of The Twitter Files came out on Tuesday of this week, revealing a new round of startling details of how Twitter executives conspired to censor or otherwise muzzle thousands of accounts at the behest of government officials.
All along, one question gnaws at me: Why didn’t they Just Say No?
The clearest explanation I can find is that Twitter brass hats abided this rampant violation of the First Amendment because they agreed with it. Ultra-liberal Twitter execs were eager to silence conservative or contrarian voices, including President Trump, the New York Post, radio host Dan Bongino, former New York Times reporter and vaccine sceptic Alex Berenson, lockdown doubter Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, and reporter Paul Sperry.
This is corroborated by the latest release of the Twitter Files, showing Twitter agreed to act as the “belly button of the USG (U.S. Government),” as FBI agent Elvis Chan put it in one email. It silenced accounts and tweets that were factual and accurate, from credible sources. Twitter banned people from publishing publicly available CDC data on Covid-19 cases. It strangled accounts with teensy followings and scant activity—and it even deleted jokes because they might be “election disinformation.”
None of this was done to investigate a crime, or prevent some terror plot, or protect the American people. Most of it was done to suppress unwanted opinions and silence Republicans—even as the Trump administration itself was making its own censorship demands.
And for 32 days since the first Twitter Files release, the media have been all but silent on it. This is my fifth Mediaverse column on this scandal—more coverage than the entire staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post have provided. #ShamelessShills.
The censorship “requests”—which Twitter, government and the media euphemistically label as “content moderation”—escalated in early 2017, in response to criticism about social media’s role in electing Donald Trump. The intervention continued under the Biden administration, as well.
This started at the FBI and soon spread to the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, State Department, Department of Defense, Treasury, Foreign Influence Task Force, the Democratic National Committee, the Trump administration, the Biden administration, members of Congress, dozens of police departments, state elections offices, and various think tanks.
Now that is your slippery slope, writ large.
But one government agency was told to go pound sand by the folks at Twitter: the GEC or Global Engagement Center, the de facto intelligence arm of the State Department.
Journalist Matt Taibbi reports that in early May 2020, in the last year of the Trump presidency, the GEC sent Twitter a list of 5,500 “suspicious” accounts that were helping China bury information on the Covid-19 pandemic.
This put Twitter executives “in a lather,” Taibbi says. They noted that the accounts included those belonging to government entities in Canada and the Americas, and western NGO’s, human rights organizations, and journalists, including a CNN account.
While Twitter’s leaders were fine bowing to dozens of government actors, they viewed the GEC as “a weak sister of the intelligence community, and also ‘political,’” Taibbi writes, “which in Twitter-ese was code for ‘pro-Trump.’”
The clincher: One former defense intelligence source said Twitter preferred the FBI because it was “less Trumpy.” Separately, a senior Twitter legal exec, Stacia Cardille, said in one email that GEC “cannot be trusted, particularly if they can score political points.”
Finally, Twitter execs grew some courage and said no to just one government agency. And even then, they relented. Ultimately, they agreed to let the GEC monitor a listen-only communications line during their regular briefings with the FBI and other intelligence agencies.
They should have told the feds to jump off, from the very first request, and then gone public with the rejection. That is what journalists proudly did for decades when government officials tried to stop them from printing information they disliked.
Twitter executives aren’t journalists, yet, tech companies have been known to flatly reject government intrusion. In December 2015 in San Bernardino, Calif., a husband-and-wife terrorist team, ISIS supporters, shot and killed 14 people at the husband’s holiday work party. They died later in a shootout with police.
Yet Apple refused the pleas of law enforcement officials to help them crack open the iPhone used by the husband—even though it was owned by his employer, who consented to the search. In that case, Apple CEO Tim Cook went way too far. No terrorist, alive or, especially, a dead one, has any right to privacy after he murders 14 people and fires 76 rounds at the police.
But Apple’s response shows the braver course that Twitter executives could and should have taken. Big Tech was okay with protecting a terrorist—and all too eager to crack down on the free speech rights of thousands of Americans.
Something is woefully out of whack here.
Dennis Kneale, @denniskneale on Twitter, is a media strategist and writer in New York. He spent more than 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, and Fox Business. His podcast is called “What’s Bugging Me.”