Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was one of the top news stories in the media in 2022. The takeover was an unmitigated disaster, saw more than half of its workforce laid off, massive cuts to content moderation teams, increased employee exploitation, unprecedented growth hate speech, censorship of dissidents and journalists, and technical malfunctions, among other ailments. In the maelstrom of chaos, damage and dysfunction, a distraction was needed.
Enter “Twitter Files”. In November, Musk announced that information about Twitter’s “suppression of free speech” would be released before he took over. In December, several journalists and writers began posting topics and articles on Twitter based on files they had access to, exposing pressure from governments and corporations to suppress certain stories or opinions.
While the revelations point to some disturbing practices, the way they were handled and published is quite problematic. Worse, they serve the agenda of a “digital dictator” who has no interest in changing the profit-driven digital colonial model that allows governments and corporations to arbitrarily restrict free speech on social media platforms.
The “Twitter Files” releases so far have largely supported right-wing complaints about how content moderation allegedly targets conservatives. These include Hunter Biden’s laptop fiasco, “visibility filtering” (i.e. suppression) of several conservative voices, Donald Trump’s deplatforming, pressure from liberals and the Democratic Party over Russiagate, and the alleged “rigging” of the COVID-19 Twitter debate.
They also found that Big Pharma pressured Twitter to censor activists who pushed to end intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines, and that the company’s content moderation team whitelisted fake Arabic-language accounts that push American interests on Middle East.
While the use of leaked material in press reports is standard practice, the handling of the “Twitter Files” is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons.
First, the public did not get access to the files, as platforms like Wikileaks did. Instead, Musk kept them hidden behind closed doors as company property. Writers can search the database only through Twitter’s attorneys.
The Intercept’s Lee Fang, who was one of the people working on the project, made it clear: “The searches were done by Twitter’s lawyer, so what I saw might be limited.”
Former Rolling Stones reporter Mark Taibbi, one of the project’s lead writers, also explained that Twitter’s lawyers must be careful not to release documents that could lead to a lawsuit against the company. However, there is no transparency behind the filtration process. We’ll never know if Musk is hiding search results that conflict with his interests or ideology.
Second, there were certain conditions for gaining access to the files. Musk demanded that all “Twitter Files” reporters publish their findings on the social media network first. According to Bari Weiss, one of the writers who was given access, this was Musk’s only request.
But Taibbi said he had to agree to “certain conditions”, which he says he cannot disclose to the public. These conditions could be problematic.
Third, it is also hard not to notice that most of the main writers who gained access to the files are Americans and have 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 may greatly skew public perception of Twitter’s pre-Musk content moderation practices and appear to confirm allegations that the “liberal establishment,” big tech companies, and “liberal media” dominate society and suppress conservative voices.
However, there is plenty of evidence of Twitter censorship of leftist, antifa and anti-colonial voices. For example, human rights organizations have documented how Twitter has repeatedly censored Palestinian writers and activists, including at the behest of the Israeli government. The writers of the “Twitter Files” have yet to investigate 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 of the company. It would be nice to know, for example, what happened when he censored journalists on Twitter or terminated the jobs of content moderators in the Global South.
But that archive will not be part of the “Twitter Files” because it does not serve Musk’s personal and ideological interests. And while he tries to present himself as anti-establishment, it’s impossible to see him that way. The second richest man in the world is the biggest establishment.
Digital capitalism and colonialism
While the “Twitter Files” make for interesting reading, the general story they reveal is already familiar. Governments, powerful interest groups and corporations have been trying to censor and shape the flow of content on social media networks for years.
And contrary to what Musk would have you believe, he is not part of the solution. He is not a benevolent dictator “concerned about the future of civilization” and will not fairly support 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 with the platform will not go away. This is because the ownership and business model of Twitter, as well as other major social media platforms, is an expression of digital capitalism and colonialism.
In fact, big social media is a project of American empire: TikTok aside, American transnational corporations own and control almost all of the world’s largest social media platforms operating outside of Russia and mainland China.
The failure to challenge American corporate ownership of social media—as if it were an insignificant phenomenon not worth mentioning—is an expression of American supremacy.
Taibbi, Weiss et al – as media policy individuals – have done nothing to challenge American ownership and the capitalist mode of social networking. In fact, they’re very much part of its user base—they’re amassing huge Twitter followings, which likely helped them attract paid subscribers on the publishing platforms they use.
One major story that “Twitter Files” helped distract from was the exodus of Twitter users to the open-source social media platform Mastodon, fueled by Musk’s takeover.
Musk himself mocked Mastodon in a tweet and briefly blocked the promotion of alternative social networks among Twitter users. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of users have created Mastodon accounts and posted their Mastodon profiles on Twitter.
Actions like these are key to disrupting the current model of enterprise-owned networks.
Fediverse, the collection of open source interoperable social networks that Mastodon is a part of, decentralizes social media and puts ownership in the hands of users and their administrators, who can maintain the networks themselves. Mastodon itself does not serve ads. Its developers refuse funding from private investors to protect its non-profit status.
As a working prototype, it proves that a socialist alternative to large publicly owned and controlled social networks like Twitter is possible. The “Twitter Files” distract us from these radical solutions that already exist.
Mastodon is a step in the right direction: turning social media into a digital asset. Networking 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 end this media ecosystem nightmare.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera