From Shadow Bans to Black Lists, Musk Forces a Free-Speech Reckoning for Politicians and Pundits

Twitter LogoBelow is a slightly augmented version of my column in the Hill on the latest release of the Twitter files, confirming long-denied use of shadow banning and other techniques to suppress conservative and dissenting viewpoints.

Here is the column:

“We don’t make exceptions for jokes or satire.” That line from a third tranche of company documents released by Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, captures the social media giant’s censorship culture. Its humorless, officious tenor is all too common with state censors throughout history. Censorship creates an insatiable appetite for more censorship, where even jokes become intolerable.

Censorship apologists are running out of room for evasion. They first insisted that Twitter was not censoring disfavored views and then said that claims of secret throttling or shadow banning were “conspiracy theories.” They then insisted that there was no evidence of meetings with the FBI or other agencies.

These latest Twitter files shatter all of these past spins. This includes confirmation of “shadow banning” and other suppression techniques despite denials by former CEO Jack Dorsey under oath before Congress and public denials by top corporate executives.

The legal ramifications will become clearer as more information emerges. Yet, a far more significant problem already is confirmed in these files: the existential threat of corporate censors to free speech.

In the new material released late Friday, journalist Matt Taibbi confirmed that Twitter executives met weekly with FBI, Homeland Security and national intelligence officials to discuss “disinformation” they felt should be removed from the site. Those discussions apparently included the Hunter Biden laptop story.

You don’t need a state ministry of information if the media voluntarily maintains official narratives and suppresses dissenting views. And what emerges from these files is the notion of an effective state media in America — an alliance of media, business and political figures who act, not out of government compulsion, but out of personal conviction.

The notion of a privately-run state media is reinforced by the response to these disturbing disclosures — a virtual news blackout, with most major media offering little coverage of the disclosures. Just as Twitter suppressed dissenting or opposing views in a myriad of ways, many in the media are minimizing coverage of this scandal.

To use a favorite term of Twitter executives found in these files, the media “amplifies” certain narratives or views while “deamplifying” stories that contradict those accounts.

Some of these files reflect specific subjects or measures long pushed by powerful politicians to get private companies to do indirectly what they themselves are barred from doing under the First Amendment.

In a Senate hearing where Dorsey apologized for blocking the Hunter Biden laptop story, for example, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was more concerned about Twitter “backsliding or retrenching” on censorship and warned that Congress would not tolerate any reduction of “robust content modification.” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) reminded Dorsey that he expected censorship of misinformation on climate change as well as other areas.

Others, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called on social media companies to use enlightened algorithms to protect people from their own bad reading choices. As shown in the recent Twitter releases, these algorithms manipulate what someone sees in searches or trending stories.

What these files suggest is an utter license to control political speech on social media platforms. Twitter executives often sound like overlords determining what the public should be allowed to read or say. This is hardly surprising, given the constant stroking by many politicians and pundits who say they are saving democracy by limiting free speech.

In speaking to media figures in April, former President Barack Obama called upon “our better angels” to shape voters’ opinions. Similarly, President Joe Biden has said social media editors are vital to protecting citizens from their own misguided values or assumptions. Without enlightened editors, he asked, “How do people know the truth?”

Such comments show total contempt for the ability of people to make up their own minds on subjects ranging from elections to vaccinations.

Yet social media executives readily embraced their role in framing “the truth.” Former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal pledged to “focus less on thinking about free speech” and more on “who can be heard.” While some of us denounced his anti-free-speech agenda, others rose in defense of Twitter maintaining one of the largest censorship systems in history.

Now, these Twitter files show precisely what it means to manipulate “who can be heard” — a process that went beyond controversial suspensions of users to include a broader, secret effort to suppress disfavored viewpoints. The new documents show Twitter using blacklists and “visibility filters” to interfere with user searches or to shadow-ban individuals and prevent their tweets from trending. The new material also indicates that “visibility filtering” was directed at various Republican campaigns, throttling or reducing candidates’ visibility before the 2020 election.

Most striking in the latest documents is how Twitter censors knowingly discarded even their own policies to hamper then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In one tweet, Trump referenced a mail-in voting problem in Ohio that was found to be true. Nevertheless, Twitter executives were praised for their speed to impose “visibility filters” so the tweet could not be “replied to, shared, or liked,” and the staff received a censorship “attaboy”: “VERY WELL DONE ON SPEED.”

There was even a long debate over whether to censor a joke about mail-in voting by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) because Twitter staff insisted they “don’t make exceptions for jokes or satire.” After all, the censors noted, a joke “could still mislead people” — the same logic that appeared to be the basis for suspending conservative satirical site The Babylon Bee. The only reason Huckabee’s joke wasn’t censored was a concern that “we’ve poked enough bears.”

Of course, Twitter long ago exceeded its bear-poking quota with the public.

A record number of users are signing up with Twitter and a recent poll shows a majority of Americans supporting his efforts to restore transparency and free speech on the site.

Thus, Musk seems to be forcing a reckoning that few in Washington relish — and one which the media can’t continue to ignore, given an expected investigation by a Republican-controlled House. Political and media figures will be forced to dispense with any pretense of support for free speech in defending censorship, election manipulation, blacklisting and shadow banning.

Twitter’s former executives were correct about one thing: There is nothing humorous about any of this — if you value free speech.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

157 thoughts on “From Shadow Bans to Black Lists, Musk Forces a Free-Speech Reckoning for Politicians and Pundits”

  1. In an attempt to smear Musk, some are ignoring and misrepresenting the financial realities of Twitter and of the social media industry.

    In 2020, Twitter had a net loss of some $1.1 *billion*. In 2021, the net loss was some $220 million.

    In addition, in 2022 there has been a well-documented drop of ad revenues for social media companies. As just one illustration: Meta’s (Fbook’s) stock price has plummeted some 65% in 2022.

    And, so, the Left’s MO: Excuse Biden for disasters that are in fact in his control. Blame Musk for conditions that are in fact outside his control.

    1. And what about his other companies? Take TSLA for example. Doesn’t he have a fiduciary responsibility to share holders? How have his public rants been perceived by those who want to buy a Tesla? Or buy the stock? The stock is a disaster since his take over of Twitter. I am no legal expert, but I would guess lawsuits will soon be filed against Elon and the Board of Tesla for dereliction of duty with regard to the amount of good will they have squandered, very publicly. Many people have lost big money because Elon shoots of his mouth denigrating people, and fewer people want to own a Tesla. Seems like a shareholder lawsuit is in Elons future. Oh yea, pay the rent you dipsh**.

  2. Jonathan: Elon Musk is showing his true colors and it’s not pretty. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety, can tell you all about it. He worked on the permanent suspension of Donald Trump. Roth is gay and originally supported Musk’s purchase of Twitter but he resigned on Nov. 10 after he saw an escalation in hate speech. It was after he left that things went downhill for Roth.

    It appears a woman alerted Musk to Roth’s 2016 Phd dissertation at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. On 12/10 Musk posted a copy of Roth’s dissertation and commented: “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult internet services in his Phd thesis.” The implication was clear–Roth is a pedophile. That was a gross mischaracterization of Roth’s thesis. But Musk’s tweet took off in the QAnon world and Roth received numerous death threats. One retweet was a meme of SongeBob showing a prescription bottle filled with bullets that reads “Pedocillin” with the caption “You dropped your medication”. The deaths escalated and Roth finally had to flee his home.

    Now the owner of Twitter could have done the responsible thing. He could have contacted Roth and have him explain his Phd thesis. Musk didn’t do this. He wanted to stir the pot of anti-LGBTQ+ hysteria. Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic, reacted to Musk’s tweet: “Watching Elon launch a digital mob against his former head of Trust and Safety, Joel Roth, an openly gay Jewish man, is one of the most vile and disgusting things I’ve ever seen, He’s putting Yoel’s life in danger and he knows it. It’s sick, twisted, and sociopathic”.

    What can we conclude from this episode of Musk’s tweets? Musk’s concept of “free speech” is that Twitter will no longer be safe from death threats. In fact, Musk is encouraging such threats. Musk is also welcoming back users like MTG who says she and Steve Bannon would have been more successful on Jan. 6 because the insurrectionists would have been better armed, and such anti-semitic luminaries like “Ye” and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. Musk is sounding more and more like QAnon. that falsely portrays gay teachers and advocates as “groomers”, praying on young children. Is this your idea “transparency” and “free speech” on Twitter?

    1. After actually reading the dissertation, and having a different perspective on what the dissertation asserts, I come to different conclusions than you. Musk put out the portion of the dissertation that pulls strongly for the idea that there is no undoing the fact that children access inappropriate sites like Grindr and that maybe that fact could be used to foster like spaces for LGBTQA+ kids. Personally, I don’t like the idea of providing “dating/hook up” sites for any kid (whom I define personally as anyone under the age of 16-arbitrary but based on my experience with adolescents). Roth never said he was “grooming” kids and Musk never said he was “grooming kids”. People being idiots read that into it and the crazies reacted as crazies do – one group screaming Roth is a “groomer” and another group screaming Musk is causing the problem. This is the point, as far as I am concerned to the whole mess. You can’t control what people are going to react to whatever information they are exposed to as people define what they see/read/hear through filters that confirm their prior beliefs. You can’t control that. I wouldn’t want to be the keeper of the keys in this zoo.

      1. Carole: We may have different “conclusions” on how Roth’s dissertation should be interpreted. But there is nothing in it that warrants the conclusion that Roth is encouraging “grooming”. Musk did not use the term but his post encouraged the QAnon end of the political spectrum to believe he had their backs. QAnon and related groups have falsely accused the LGBTQ+ community of “grooming” underage kids. Musk’s post simply opened the floodgates of such spurious claims and prompted death threats against Roth. If you don’t accept my conclusion then explain why Musk didn’t ask Roth what he meant in his Phd thesis. Musk has indicated he wants to protect children from online pornography but what visible steps has he taken to actually do that? Did he condemn the death threats against Roth? He hesitates because he claims he is a “free speech absolutist”. You can’t have it both ways.

        But I agree with you that kids under 15 should not have access to “dating/hook up” sites. Unfortunately, they are exposed to it every day. I know from personal experience. One of my three granddaughters is 15 . Her mother, who monitors her online activity, found her daughter had hooked up with some low-life in Washington state. The girl sent the guy a nude selfie and he replied telling her he would send her a ticket to come and visit him. My daughter-in-law put an end to the on-line exchange and filed a police report. That was my up close and personal experience with this kind of stuff. The problem is how do you prevent this kind of stuff from happening. Taking away my granddaughter’s phone is almost a futile exercise because all her friends have cell phones she could probably use. I am only thankful I did not have to raise my kid in such an environment.

        1. Dennis,

          Sorry to hear about your family’s experience with that kind of sexual exploitation.

          To be clear, Musk isn’t a “free speech absolutist.” If he were, he wouldn’t suspend Twitter accounts for posting legal speech (e.g., the account that was posting public information about where Musk’s jet was traveling).

          1. “Musk isn’t a “free speech absolutist.” If he were, he wouldn’t suspend Twitter accounts for posting legal speech ”

            What you are saying is that you don’t know what a free speech absolutist is. You only know what you want it to be which in your case changes based on the debate you are having. You are too hypocritical to be a discussant on this question.

            There is no firm definition of free speech absolutist. Some believe that only political speech deserves unfettered rights. With that in mind and counting up the number of times you have been wrong on this subject, has it reached 100 times or have you already exceeded that number?

  3. The biggest story of the year or decade is just coming into focus. Half the media is reporting what happened internally for years at twitter. Half the media doesn’t even mention the Twitter files. If they do, it’s not about the content, it’s an attack on Musk and Twitter. So the biggest story is… Who’s “THE DON”? Maybe he/she/they Hillary? Bill? Obama? Sussman? THE DON put a contract out on Musk and Twitter… and “the made media” is out to collect…

  4. “. . . Matt Taibbi confirmed that Twitter executives met weekly with FBI, Homeland Security and national intelligence officials to discuss ‘disinformation’ they felt should be removed from the site.” (JT)

    The FBI is not supposed to be the enforcement agency for the DNC. And a social media company is not supposed to a fascist mouthpiece for government censors. At least not in a society ruled by a government of laws. And not in one whose corporate executives value honesty and individual liberty.

  5. Jonathan: Some on this blog don’t like me parodying Elon Musk for his appearance on the Dave Chapelle show. In fact, some applaud Musk for standing before a hostile audience and saying basically nothing. It turns out Twitter deleted the video of the episode put up by the original poster. One person commented: “I wondered how long Elon would allow the videos to remain up…expect this to ‘disappear’ soon too…”. Another observed followed up: “How can you say such a thing. The above video will merely have its reach diminished just a little. This is how dictator-wannabees work,…” Anyone seen the full video in the last 24 on Twitter?

    It’s beyond me Musk would show up at what he should have known would be a boo-fest. Oh well, Musk and Trump are alike–willing to face the masses, even if only to get some attention. That’s what narcissists do.

    1. Dennis McIntyre: You are either incredibly naive or intentionally selective in your recollection of what happened that night. Although media focused on the boos (of course), Musk received a great deal of cheers as well—before they were drowned out by the rising crescendo intended to drown them out. Marketwatch’s earlier mention of this suddenly disappeared from the Internet so I cannot attach the link. Perhaps you may be able to find it…
      I say “naive” because, as the old saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” This is something you should know. Getting attention in this way appears to be the modus operandi of the Woke community, knowing only how to loudly drown out opposition with their voices, and selectively repeat, broadcast, or publish only that selective news/opinion/perception which supports its/their cause.
      -Notice the title of the attached link regarding Twitter: Is it ‘an encouraging day for free speech’ or ‘a platform where only the loudest voices can be heard?’ That is quintessentially the microcosmic/macrocosmic question of today’s political rhetoric.

  6. Some comments from Twitter employees.

    “Maybe because I am from China, I deeply understand how censorship can destroy the public conversation,”

    “It’s important to understand that censorship … by a government … is very different than censorship … of the government.”

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