Behind the Curtain at Twitter

L.A. Progressive - Behind the Curtain at Twitter

When cognitive dissonance intrudes regarding the news, triggers might be the unnatural uniformity of the delivery or assertions based on anonymous sources.

However, to jump from a queasy feeling about the news to considering the scale required to sculpt consensus about topics of national interest is a huge leap. Nonetheless, recent revelations, based on Twitter’s own internal communications, allow us (if we have the gumption) to see the mechanisms by which such manipulations have been carried out by Twitter with implications for other tech giants - like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Wikipedia – also named in these documents.

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On Matt Taibbi’s weekly podcast with Walter Kirn, they discussed what Taibbi and other journalists who were given access to tens of thousands of Twitters’ internal communications had just reported on Twitter about Twitter. After discussing both the government-driven censorship documented in the Twitter Files and the amplification of these restricted narratives by mainstream media, Taibbi elaborated on “the meta meaning of all of this when we stand back” as shown in the box above:

Matt’s comment on the Twitter Files bears a closer look. But before we examine it, I want to provide you with access to those Twitter Files he references. Matt has conveniently summarized the first twelve Twitter Files (everything released up to January 4) with links to the tweeted report as well as a much-needed glossary here.

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 Taibbi and the other journalists have insisted they experienced no editorial interference by Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk. However, Taibbi notes that a Twitter lawyer has continued to vet responses to the reporters’ database searches, and Musk fired Twitter’s deputy general counsel and former FBI general counsel, Jim Baker, who secretly vetted the first batch. Even with those caveats, the revelations are informative.

In the first part of the quote highlighted above, Taibbi is saying that these reports show that Twitter (which incidentally is the gathering place for journalists) is able to alter reality through its “visibility filtering” mechanisms (to use the internal Twitter jargon) and with media amplification take something that “had almost no evidentiary basis” and turn it into “the most important thing in the world.”

If true, that is truly Orwellian.

How ironic that based on a study published in Nature Communications, the Washington Post posted this headline as I was writing this, “Russian trolls on Twitter had little influence on 2016 voters.”

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When Dana Priest came to Milwaukee to claim the Russians’ Facebook campaign had bamboozled Black voters into not supporting Hillary, I questioned her conclusion. I reminded her that those juvenile ads cost only $44,000 (based on Congressional testimony) with only a small percentage of that focused on either candidate, a drop in the bucket compared to that spent by the candidates and their parties.

This study about Twitter's influence similary concluded that Russian content on Twitter was dwarfed by “content from news media and U.S. politicians” and “[t]here was no measurable impact on political attitudes, polarization, and vote preferences and behavior from the Russian accounts and posts” as shown below:

from Tim Starks, Washington Post, January 9, 2023


-Matt Taibbi’s summary of Twitter Files 11 and 12

-Matt Taibbi’s summary of Twitter Files 11 and 12

Chapters 11 and 12 provide information about the censorship mechanism, the role of the intelligence community and other government agencies in identifying those who should be censored (and Twitter’s lying about that,) the role of Congress and the media in coercing that censorship, and the expansion of censorship topics to include foreign policy.

Over Christmas, my son asked me which topics were being censored on Twitter. By then, I was aware of evidence for requests: to censor negative information about Biden; to remove among others: the New York Post and Trump from Twitter; and to monitor election and COVID information - largely at the behest of the Democratic establishment. In these more recent threads, one finds evidence for the curating of narratives around Venezuela, Russia, China, and Ukraine. Of course, many of us who use Twitter and Google searches have been aware of “visibility filtering” for years on a variety of topics including all the above as well as Palestine, Bolivia, Syria, etc. and Julian Assange. But now we have some proof of the mechanisms by which this has been done.

Twitter was brought into compliance with requests for censorship from: the DNC, Congress, FBI, DHS, ODNI, NSA, CIA, DOD, HHS, Treasury and State, the Trump and Biden White Houses, FBI offices around the country, and others. Taibbi found that bulk data from Twitter was routed via a data-mining company hired by Twitter to the FBI. Then government agencies, meeting with Twitter executives themselves or using Twitter’s (and Facebook's) regular meetings with the FBI and DHS as a conduit, would send a “firehose” of requests back to Twitter for either outright account removal or “visibility filtering” of individuals, often with tens to hundreds of accounts listed on Excel spread sheets per memo. The State Department tried to become a regular meeting participant by threatening to leak 5500 accounts from a list of 250,000 the DHS had originally identified as problematic. While the FBI could provide Twitter with requests from the U.S intelligence agencies, the DHS agency CISA would “know what was going on in each state.” For correspondence from Twitter, FBI agent Elvis Chan asked if the FBI could be the “belly button of the USG [U.S. government].” The assertion of coordinated Russian cyber activity for which Twitter could find no or scant evidence was the rationale most often given for censorship.

The requests came so often and in such volume that Twitter senior attorney Stacia Cardille complained, “My in-box is really F***ed up at this point.” Although we see that Twitter was paid for their efforts by the FBI, their motivation to comply came through repeated requests from the FBI if compliance was not immediate, and through economic and reputational pressure via leaks to the media from Democratic Party operatives, Congress, the intelligence community, think tanks and academia - that Twitter was not doing enough to censor. (Perhaps you’ve already noticed that corporate media is either not reporting this story or refers to it as a “nothingburger.”)

Turning something that “had almost no evidentiary basis” into “the most important thing in the world” is no small feat that diverts attention from issues that matter, inflames tensions at home and abroad, and diverts tax-payer dollars to corporate donors and transnational elites. It undermines the very basis of democracy, which is the free exchange of ideas so citizens can call power to account.

It is disconcerting that some very well-educated people I’ve discussed this with openly favor censorship and “visibility filtering” because they assume that the government agencies and partisan officials pushing a crafted narrative have their best interests at heart. What do we call a society where the government becomes the gatekeeper for information?

Isn’t the ability to dissent and provide contrary evidence essential to a democracy? What has happened to traditional liberal support for freedom of speech? Or traditional liberal skepticism of the intelligence community?

That community was exposed in the 1970s by the Church Commission as infiltrators of dissent and newsrooms in America, and as thugs who carried out coups and assassinations. In 2007, the CIA was exposed by John Kiriakou to torture at its black sites around the world. In 2010, the Washington Post described “a Top Secret America, hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” More recently, the CIA and NSA were exposed by Ed Snowden and Julian Assange to surveil the American people through our phones, computers, and with the help (sometimes witting and sometimes not) of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, and AT&T.

If highly educated people become champions of censorship crafted by the intelligence community and government officials, who are the authoritarians? Who is left to stand up for our civil liberties and democracy itself? 

Ann Batiza

Ann Batiza is a retired academic with a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology who is a concerned citizen. Besides her peer-reviewed research articles, she is the author of the trade textbook for young adults, Bioinformatics, Genomics and Proteomics: Getting the Big Picture.

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