Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was one of the top stories across the news media in 2022. The takeover has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to the firing of over half its workforce, massive cuts to its content moderation teams, increased employee exploitation, unprecedented surges in hate speech, censorship of dissidents and journalists, and technical glitches, among other ills. In a whirlwind of chaos, harm, and dysfunction, a distraction was needed.
Enter the “Twitter Files”. In November, Musk announced that information was going to be released regarding “free speech suppression” at Twitter before his takeover. In December, several journalists and writers started publishing Twitter threads and articles based on files they were given access to, exposing pressure from governments and corporations to suppress certain stories or opinions.
While the revelations do point to some disturbing practices, the way they have been handled and released is quite problematic. Worse still, they serve the agenda of a “digital dictator” who has no interest in upending the profit-driven digital colonial model that allows governments and corporations to arbitrarily restrict freedom of speech on social media platforms.
To date, the “Twitter Files” releases predominantly support right-wing grievances about how content moderation allegedly targets conservatives. These include the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco, “visibility filtering” (i.e. suppression) of several conservative voices, the de-platforming of Donald Trump, liberal and Democratic Party pressure over Russiagate, and the alleged “rigging” of the COVID-19 debate on Twitter.
They also revealed that Big Pharma pressured Twitter to censor activists pushing to abolish intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines and that the company’s content moderation team white-listed fake Arab-language accounts pushing US interests in the Middle East.
While using leaked material in journalistic reports is standard practice, the way the “Twitter Files” have been handled is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons.
First, the public has not been given access to the files, the way they were by platforms like Wikileaks. Instead, Musk has kept them hidden behind closed doors as company property. The writers are only able to search the database through Twitter’s lawyers.
The Intercept’s Lee Fang, who was one of the people working on the project, has made clear: “The searches were carried out by a Twitter attorney, so what I saw could be limited.”
Former Rolling Stones journalist Mark Taibbi, one of the main writers of the project, has also explained that Twitter’s lawyers have to be careful not to release any documents that can get the company sued. However, there is no transparency behind the filtration process. If Musk is withholding search results that clash with his interests or ideology, we will never know.
Second, there have been certain conditions for gaining access to the files. Musk has required that all “Twitter Files” reporters publish their findings first on the social media network. According to Bari Weiss, one of the writers given access, this was Musk’s only requirement.
But Taibbi has stated that he had to agree to “certain conditions”, which he says he cannot disclose to the public. Those conditions could be problematic.
Third, it is also difficult not to notice that the majority of the main writers who were given access to the files are American and hold predominantly conservative or anti-liberal leanings.
This has been reflected in the stories published so far many of which have focused on issues championed by the American right.
These stories can heavily skew public perceptions of Twitter’s pre-Musk content moderation practices and appear to confirm allegations that the “liberal establishment”, Big Tech companies and the “liberal media” dominate society and suppress conservative voices.
Yet, there is quite a lot of evidence of Twitter censorship of left-wing, Antifa, and anti-colonial voices. For example, human rights organisations have documented how Twitter has repeatedly censored Palestinian writers and activists, including at the behest of the Israeli government. “Twitter Files” writers are yet to dig into these incidents, and even if they do, can we trust Team Musk to give us the full story?
Finally, the project conveniently excludes access to documents from Musk’s disastrous reign over the company. It would be nice to know, for example, what transpired when he censored journalists on Twitter or terminated the jobs of content moderators in the Global South.
But that archive will not be made part of the “Twitter Files” because it does not serve Musk’s personal and ideological interests. And while he is trying to present himself as an anti-establishment, it is impossible to see him this way. The world’s second-richest man is as establishment as you get.
Digital capitalism and colonialism
While the “Twitter Files” provide for an interesting read, the general story they reveal was already known. Governments, powerful interest groups and corporations have sought to censor and shape the flow of content on social media networks for years now.
And unlike what Musk would have you believe, he is not part of the solution. He is no benevolent dictator “worried about the future of civilization” and he will not justly uphold our “freedom of speech”.
Under his rule, Twitter’s moderation practices will not improve and the overarching problem of allowing governments and corporations to interfere in the platform will not go away. That is because the ownership and business model of Twitter, like other big social media platforms, are an expression of digital capitalism and colonialism.
Factually speaking, big social media is an American Empire project: TikTok aside, US transnational corporations own and control almost all the world’s top social media platforms operating outside of Russia and mainland China.
The failure to challenge US corporate ownership of social media – as if it’s an insignificant phenomenon not worth mentioning – is an expression of American supremacy.
Taibbi, Weiss, et al – as individuals concerned with the politics of the media – have done nothing to challenge US ownership and the capitalist mode of social networking. In fact, they are very much part of its beneficiaries – amassing an enormous following on Twitter, which likely has helped them attract paid subscribers on the publishing platforms they use.
One important story that the “Twitter Files” helped distract from was the outflow of Twitter users to the open-source social media platform Mastodon, prompted by Musk’s takeover.
Musk himself mocked Mastodon in a tweet, and he briefly blocked the promotion of alternative social media accounts among Twitter users. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of users created Mastodon accounts and listed their Mastodon handles on Twitter.
Actions like these are the key to overthrowing the current model of corporate-owned networks.
The fediverse, an open-source collection of social networks that can talk to each other, which Mastodon is part of, decentralises social media and places ownership into the hands of users and their administrators, who can maintain the networks themselves. Mastodon itself does not serve ads. Its developers reject funding from private investors to protect its non-profit status.
As a functioning prototype, it proves that a publicly owned and controlled socialist alternative to big social media networks like Twitter is possible. The “Twitter Files” divert our attention away from these radical solutions already in place.
Mastodon is a step in the right direction: transforming social media into a digital commons. Socialising the networks is the most democratic, egalitarian solution – and the biggest threat to Elon Musk, the US government, and the capitalist ruling class.
Indeed, only system change will bring this nightmare of a media ecosystem to a close.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance