Image: Souvik Banerjee / Unsplash
Image: Souvik Banerjee / Unsplash

The Twitter Files and journalistic integrity

Since Elon Musk announced that he was planning to buy Twitter, it’s hardly been out of the news. The billionaire’s approach to governance has been interesting, to say the least, and every day has brought a new headline – Musk bringing a sink to Twitter HQ, Musk sacking half the staff, Musk restoring the account of President Donald Trump, Musk banning journalists, Musk running Twitter polls to determine big staffing decisions (including, ultimately, his own future as CEO). It seems you’d struggle to find a Twitter – or Musk-related story that the media wouldn’t cover. 

Yet there’s story one that has received practically no coverage at all, and it’s potentially one of the biggest corruption scandals in US history. My objective here is not to weigh in on the impact of the so-called Twitter Files, Musk’s release of documents about the ways that Twitter was run, but rather explore the disgraceful lack of journalistic interest in what is by any metric a major story. 

First, a little summary of some of the information Musk has presented, which has come in (at the time of writing) eight drops. The information details decisions by Twitter execs to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story and to ban Trump’s account, often with very sketchy interpretations of the platform’s rules, in the first case using algorithms used to block child pornography to limit the reach of the story for made-up reasons of national security. Many conservative commentators and politicians were put on secret blacklists, limiting the reach of their posts and recommendations of their accounts (something that was suspected for years and always denied by Twitter). 

This was a level of state censorship unthinkable in a free society

Most worryingly, the Files also discuss links between the government and the social media giant. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns asked Twitter to take down content during the 2020 election, but due to their contacts at the company, the Biden team’s requests were particularly favoured. Astonishingly, there was massive collusion between the FBI and Twitter. The FBI provided Twitter executives with Top Secret security clearances and even paid them to take down posts, often obvious jokes by low-follower accounts. This was a level of hidden state censorship unthinkable in a free society and in direct contravention of the Constitution. 

Now, there are questions raised about these revelations, not least because of Musk’s method of disseminating the information. Rather than make public all the data, he instead released it to individual journalists, who then presented their summaries on Twitter. Thus, it’s difficult to make the conclusion that shadow banning was only really a problem on the political right, say, when we essentially only have anecdotes to run on. Yet, on the face of it, this is a total scandal, indicating massive government overreach that might have swayed a presidential election. 

The FBI paying Twitter millions of dollars is certainly begging for investigation

So, obviously, a media institution that for years has shouted loudly about speaking truth to power is all over this, right? Nope, far from it. While more obviously right-wing news networks have run with the Twitter Files, the left-leaning platforms have mostly pushed it under the carpet. So-called ‘journalists’ have instead attacked those who made the revelations, dismissing respected news gatherers as partisan cracks and raised the Twitter Files only in passing to rubbish them. The BBC, which has covered everything related to Twitter since Musk’s takeover (from the vote on his future to Elton John quitting the platform to the corporation’s unhappy cleaners), has put out a single article on the Files – a fact-check that shrugged its shoulders. 

Both in America and around the world, the media is increasingly seen as biased and one-sided, and trust in journalists has collapsed as a result. Poll after poll is showing record levels of distrust in the media, and stories like this are not helping. By not even noting the story, the mainstream media is helping to fashion two competing and contradictory narratives about Twitter – one in which it functioned as the extension of government in corrupt ways, the other in which it has become a narcissistic billionaire’s playground. It seems that, broadly, there’s no interest because Twitter was targeting the right people under the previous regime, a pattern that we’ve seen throughout the Brexit and Trump years. When CNN finally ‘addressed’ the Files, their sarcasm and scorn said it all about the value they assigned to this story. 

But this matters for many reasons, and not just because there’s so clearly a story here – it may not be the governmental overreach that it appears to be, but the FBI paying Twitter millions of dollars for services is certainly begging for investigation. It’s a cliché, but good journalists are curious, ready to hold the powerful to account and follow a story wherever it leads – if they don’t do that, they become propagandists and activists, batting for one side and shunning their obligation to truth and fairness. There are so many good journalists out there, working without fear and favour, and they don’t deserve to have their work maligned by people who only chase the politically expedient narratives. 


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