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Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ ignite divisions, but haven’t changed minds

The company’s new chief executive detailed Twitter’s decision-making around a controversial story

Elon Musk released what he called the “Twitter Files” on Friday, delving into the company's decision to block the Hunter Biden laptop story. In this 2019 photo, Musk speaks during a gaming convention. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

It was billed as a bombshell: Elon Musk, after rifling through his new company’s internal files, would finally expose how Twitter engaged in “free speech suppression” in the critical run up to the 2020 election.

“This will be awesome,” Musk tweeted, teasing the announcement with a popcorn emoji.

But by the time the dust settled Saturday, even some conservatives were grumbling that it was a dud. Musk’s Twitter Files produced no smoking gun showing that the tech giant had bent to the will of Democrats.

A handful of screenshots from 2020, posted over the course of two hours Friday evening in a disjointed, roughly 40-tweet thread, show the San Francisco company debating a decision to restrict sharing of a controversial New York Post story about the son of then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The Twitter thread, based on internal communications posted by Substack writer Matt Taibbi, showed the company independently decided to limit the spread of the article, without Democratic politicians, the Biden campaign or FBI exerting control over the social media network. In fact, the only input from a sitting politician that Taibbi noted was from Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna (D), who told Twitter executives they should distribute the story, regardless of the potential consequences for his party.

“I’m not persuaded these are anything close to a bombshell,” said Jameel Jaffer, the director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, in an interview.

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In the process, Musk took the extraordinary step of promoting the leak of internal company communications to Taibbi, exposing the names of several rank-and-file workers and Khanna’s personal email address.

The online mob descended on the Twitter workers on the chain, threatening them and circulating their photos online.

“Publicly posting the names and identities of front-line employees involved in content moderation puts them in harm’s way and is a fundamentally unacceptable thing to do,” former Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth, who was among the employees named in the tweets, said in a social media post.

Musk, Taibbi and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Musk acknowledged on a Twitter Spaces audio chat Saturday afternoon some missteps including “a few cases where I think we should have excluded some email addresses.”

“The idea here is to come clean on everything that has happened in the past in order to build public trust for the future,” Musk said during the Twitter Spaces which was plagued with technical difficulties. Musk said he joined via a Starlink satellite connection from his private jet.

Musk also criticized the media’s coverage of the files.

“Rather than admit they lied to the public they’re trying to pretend this is a nothingburger,” he said. “Shame on them.”

Musk and Taibbi both tweeted that they would reveal more information in a second chapter Saturday. Musk also said on the Spaces that he shared the documents with another Substack writer, Bari Weiss, and suggested he may share them with the public in the future.

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The spectacle capped off another week of chaos at Musk’s Twitter, after the “chief Twit” spent Friday afternoon meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and batting back reports about the rise of hate speech on the Twitter platform. He also attracted attention for suspending the rapper Ye, who had tweeted the image of a swastika combined with the Star of David. And the relaunch of a paid check mark system expected for Friday was delayed again, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision.

During the Twitter Spaces, Musk said, “I personally wanted to punch Kanye,” explaining how Ye’s swastika post was incitement to violence. He said he made the decision to suspend him.

Musk’s “free speech” agenda has defined his tumultuous takeover of Twitter, as he has argued since the early days of the deal that the platform serve as a “de facto town square” where people are “able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” He has asserted that the company has a “strong left wing bias.” And in recent days, he has granted amnesty to a number of previously suspended accounts, including far-right influencers and people associated with the QAnon extremist ideology.

Though Musk has said he agrees with some Democratic Party and some Republican policies, he increasingly appears to be courting the GOP. In the run-up to the midterm elections, he encouraged his millions of followers to vote Republican. And he recently said he would lean toward backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in a potential 2024 presidential bid.

Musk’s promotion of the internal screenshots including employees’ names is largely unprecedented, and comes as he repeatedly says he will bring transparency to the platform. Taibbi said that he had to “agree to certain conditions” in exchange for the opportunity to cover the files in a message to his Substack subscribers, asking for their patience and acknowledging that his customers may be angry that the information appears on the social network first.

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On Friday night, Musk retweeted the thread by Taibbi, which focused on Twitter’s decision in the lead up to the 2020 election to prevent the sharing of the article on leaked content from a laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden. The New York Post story alleged that emails show he gave a Ukrainian executive the “opportunity” to meet the former vice president.

Biden’s campaign at the time and Hunter Biden’s lawyer denied that such a meeting occurred, and the White House has pointed to those previous denials, which The Washington Post has examined in detail. The Post later confirmed the veracity of thousands of emails from the device, citing experts, and used it as a basis to explore other business arrangements that Hunter Biden pursued in China.

At a November 2020 congressional hearing, then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the company had erred in limiting the article’s spread under its policy against the dissemination of hacked materials, a 2018 rule that aimed to discourage the unauthorized exposure of private information. Dorsey said that the company considered feedback and changed its policy on hacked materials.

“We made a quick interpretation, using no other evidence, that the materials in the article were obtained through hacking, and according to our policy, we blocked them from being spread,” he said. “Upon further consideration, we admitted this action was wrong and corrected it within 24 hours.”

Facebook and Twitter take unusual steps to limit spread of New York Post story

Facebook took similar steps, preemptively limiting the spread of the story while sending it to third-party fact-checkers.

The measures taken by Twitter to restrict the sharing of the New York Post story were highly unusual, posting warnings that it may be “unsafe” and locking accounts that shared it, including those of the newspaper and then White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. The moves drew widespread criticism from conservatives, who used the controversy as ammunition in their claims that tech companies censor their viewpoints.

According to Taibbi’s screenshots, most of which could not be independently verified by The Post, Twitter received an angry email from a Donald Trump campaign staffer, saying that the company needed to provide an answer on when and how McEnany’s account would be unlocked.

The Trump campaign email was escalated internally, and an employee explained that the account was “bounced” for violating the hacked materials policy. Mike Hahn, the former Trump staffer who signed the email, praised Musk for bringing transparency to Twitter with the document release.

“It certainly feels great to be vindicated, regarding Twitter’s war on free speech,” he said.

Taibbi also shared screenshots that showed communications employees asking Twitter executives for guidance about how they should explain the decision. One employee shared concerns that the action would become the focus of a Capitol Hill hearing where Dorsey was scheduled to appear.

Khanna, the Silicon Valley Democrat, contacted then-Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde with an offer to discuss the “huge backlash on hill re speech.” Gadde responded saying that the company had put out a Twitter thread explaining the decision.

Khanna responded saying the move appeared to be “a violation of the 1st Amendment principles.” He added, “But in the heat of a Presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if N.Y. Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.”

Khanna’s office confirmed the veracity of the emails. In response to the release of his personal email, Khanna reiterated his support for the First Amendment.

“Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle for me, but I’ve taken the appropriate security measures,” he said.

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Both political parties had access to tools to flag content to Twitter for review, according to Taibbi, and the company “received and honored” requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign.

Replying to a tweet with fire emoji, Musk highlighted one specific exchange in which a Twitter employee says they “handled” a review of tweets flagged from the Biden team. Internet Archive records show that the tweets included apparently nude photos of Hunter Biden.

The Friday night event — which started roughly an hour late after Musk said they were doing additional fact checking — drew a mixed response.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson called it “one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of social media,” and the New York Post called it a “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell” in a headline. #TWITTERGATE trended in the United States on Saturday.

But the thread left even some of Twitter’s critics wanting more.

“Look, I think we’ve seen quite a bit that’s useful. It’s not really the smoking gun we’d hoped for,” said New York Post columnist Miranda Devine on Carlson’s show. She claimed without evidence that Musk “held back some material.”

“So far I’m deeply underwhelmed,” tweeted Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to Trump.

The entire episode only further strained tensions between Musk and the workers at the company he took over.

“We’re furious,” said one recently departed staffer. “It’s absolutely abhorrent they would release names to the public. It can get someone killed.”

Matt Viser contributed to this report.

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