On December 9, independent journalist Bari Weiss released a 31-tweet thread, titled ‘Twitter Files 2.0’. Her primary claim: “teams of Twitter employees build blacklists, prevent disfavored tweets from trending, and actively limit the visibility of entire accounts or even trending topics—all in secret, without informing users”.
Since the thread went up on Twitter, conservatives have doubled down on their criticism of the tech giant while liberal commentators have largely dismissed the revelations as “nothing new”.
What was the first “Twitter Files” story?
“Twitter Files 2.0” comes on the back of revelations released earlier this week on conservative podcaster’s Matt Taibbi’s substack which was heralded by Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk as “Twitter Files”.
The “Twitter Files” thread alleged that in 2020, during Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, Twitter actively censored a potentially damaging story about US President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and his alleged dubious business dealings in Ukraine.
Hunter Biden has long been targeted by America’s right-wing and the Republican Party, due to his alleged wrongdoings in Ukraine. In October 2020, three weeks before the 2020 US Presidential election, the New York Post published a report titled: “Biden’s Secret Emails: Ukrainian exec thanked Hunter Biden for ‘opportunity to meet’ veep dad”.
The report alleged that Hunter Biden had peddled influence with Ukrainian businessmen, and also included a 12 minute “raunchy video” of Hunter.
After the story was published, Twitter barred anyone from tweeting a link to it or sending it via direct message, labelling it “hacked material”. The company also suspended the New York Post’s account for multiple days, preventing it from tweeting further.
The Twitter Files story detailed how despite various misgivings from people within the organisation, Twitter went on to restrict the story as well as ban New York Post’s account, limiting the story’s reach to Twitter’s users.
Twitter Files 2.0: visibility filtering or shadow banning
What Weiss’s Twitter thread says is that Twitter’s employees have comprehensive control over the visibility of users or posts, control which they use to disproportionately target conservative or right-wing voices. This control is exercised through what employees call “Visibility Filtering’ (VF).
VF includes blocking searches about a particular user/post, limiting the scope of a tweet’s discoverability, blocking certain users from trending or appearing in hashtag searches, among other methods. All this is allegedly done without providing information or context to the affected user. Hence, a particular user’s reach on Twitterverse is seriously limited without them being officially and overtly banned.
Weiss alleges that VF was used to silence conservative voices on Twitter. Among others, Weiss gives the example of Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who repeatedly raised concerns about the consequences of long drawn-out lockdowns on children’s health and learning. Weiss alleged that Twitter secretly placed him on a “Trends Blacklist,” which prevented his tweets from trending.
Weiss also gave the example of popular right-wing talk show host Dan Bongino who at one point was slapped with a “search blocklist”. Quoting an unnamed Twitter engineer, Weiss tweeted, “We control visibility quite a bit. And we control the amplification of your content quite a bit. And normal people do not know how much we do.”
Who made these decisions to moderate Twitter content?
According to Weiss, “the group that decided whether to limit the reach of certain users was the Strategic Response Team – Global Escalation Team, or SRT-GET. It often handled up to 200 cases a day”. However, the most politically sensitive decisions were taken at a higher, unofficial level.
Weiss tweeted, “There existed a level beyond official ticketing, beyond the rank-and-file moderators following the company’s policy on paper. That is the “Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support,” known as SIP-PES. This secret group included the Head of Legal, Policy, and Trust (Vijaya Gadde), the Global Head of Trust & Safety (Yoel Roth), subsequent CEOs Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal, and others.”
According to Weiss’s revelations, a few top executives were effectively making major decisions regarding content moderation without following Twitter’s own standard procedures. Weiss shared an alleged direct message that Twitter’s Global Head of Trust & Safety Yoel Roth sent where he requested more research on “non-removal policy interventions like disabling engagements and deamplification/visibility filtering”.
The fallout of the Twitter Files 2.0
The American right has gone on the offensive following Weiss’s thread, with reactions ranging from memes to claims about the alleged illegitimacy of the 2020 elections. Many also took potshots at “mainstream media” for not covering these leaks.
Elon Musk himself tweeted “The Twitter Files, Part Deux!!” followed by two popcorn emojis. He later announced that “Twitter is working on a software update that will show your true account status, so you know clearly if you have been shadowbanned, the reason, and how to appeal.”
However, many have dismissed or played down the story’s implications. Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s former head of product, questioned Weiss’s characterisation of the platform’s policies, tweeting that “You (Weiss) are characterizing any de-amplification as equating to shadow banning which is either a lazy interpretation or deliberately misleading.”