How social media companies can bounce back from their failings to the public.
The release of the Twitter Files over the past three months have contained some startling revelations. One thing that has stuck out to myself and the journalists covering the topic is the sheer bravado with which some in the US Congress attempted to influence the platform. Alongside the actions of members of Congress and the intelligence community, were the failings of some of the top executives who were first cautious then proceeded to relish in their actions.
The Twitter Files are a startling case of government overreach. There is often rhetoric stating that a private company like Twitter is just that, private, and therefore they are free to behave and act on their own will about the content on their platform, this is true. Now had Twitter over the six years during and after the Trump presidency been acting of their own volition, the Twitter Files would have been a nothing story. The problem arose when the Twitter Files revealed vast and intrusive government involvement into the day-to-day operations of Twitter’s executives. This involvement stemmed from “small” FBI requests such as restricting the reach of certain content creators to shocking requests from members of Congress asking Twitter executives to ban journalists.
The first instalment of the Twitter Files was published by journalist Matt Taibbi. Additionally, this initial thread detailed the policy and decision making behind the executives decision to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story published by the New York Post. Now, the whole Hunter Biden story is a difficult one to tackle. It is a cross-section of fact and fiction blended into something which dives into both baseless conspiracy and genuine report worthy events. However, Twitter executives were instructed to proceed with caution around the story. There was an indecisiveness present in the discourse around the decision to suppress the story. Twitter executives still presented a united front and hid the story for “safety” reasons despite internal concerns over violations of the First Amendment.
The problem that arises here is the executives' seeming belief in their own impunity. Who benefits from a story like the Hunter Biden one being restricted? There is no logical reason to hide a story like that from the public unless you are fearful of the conclusions they will draw. Furthermore, for what possible reason would there be to fear public reaction to such a story. By and large, the Hunter Biden laptop story just devolved into conspiracy which is where it belongs. The resulting effect of its suppression made it seem worse than it was, the opposite of its intended effect.
The Twitter Files go to show that in their attempt to monitor their platform and keep their site user-friendly they became puppets for the US intelligence community. I firmly believe that Twitter executives truly thought they were acting in the best interests of the public. Their decision making clouded by the intelligence community only continued to falter once the intelligence agencies saw the platform as their own plaything. The Twitter Files are more of an indictment of the intel community and their longstanding history of influencing public information. However, the people that got marched in front of the House Oversight Committee were the executives at Twitter, Yoel Roth, Vijaya Gadde and James Baker (being the only one with a direct affiliation with the intel community). This is not to say these individuals are free from responsibility, but their actions were heavily influenced by requests from the FBI. As a result, executives were often inundated by the sheer volume of requests they received.
Social media companies should not base content restriction on pressure from federal agencies. While the extent to which this was the case is up for debate, but it is undeniably a huge factor in the policy making decisions at Twitter. In the realm of high-level and unbelievably influential policy decisions, honesty should be top priority. It is difficult to find and perhaps more damaging is even harder to believe once we get it. I think it’s telling that a tendency to devolve into conspiracy across the political spectrum is the norm. We are in an era of post-truth and publications like the Twitter Files, while improving transparency will still hurt public trust.
While damaging in the short-term the Twitter Files can help develop responsible practices through social media. There needs to be efforts to stop these platforms becoming echo chambers. Helping them fulfil their original mission which is to be an unrestricted information sharing platform. The journalists responsible for breaking the Twitter Files have started an important fight for integrity. Hopefully, we can start to rebuild the trust in these platforms.
The actions of the intelligence community and their attempts to influence public information are far more damaging than the accusations of corrupt Twitter executives. It would be easy to scapegoat the executives alone here and the blame is easily placed on a tangible entity. Consequently, it cleanly ties up the story when responsibility is placed at the feet of the executives. The darker reality is understanding that the interference from the federal government did not stop with the Twitter Files and the lack of accountability they are afforded should worry the public, regardless of their political affiliation.
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