The censored town square
In a bid for transparency, Twitter CEO Elon Musk has been releasing files concerning the influence of outside actors on Twitter’s internal behavior in moderating content.
The “Twitter files” paint a picture of a censored platform under the prior management. Thus far, seven releases reveal emails and documents showing direct influence by the Government over content moderation tools. The tools in question were designed with the original intent to manage and remove spam, bots and explicit material, but evolved over time.
This corroborates earlier state lawsuits and leaks from the US Department of Homeland Security showing them working with the FBI, National Institutes of Health, Twitter and Facebook to censor politically sensitive information such as issues with COVID vaccines and the Hunter Biden laptop story.
Implications for New Zealand
A recent OIA request by independent reporter Chantelle Baker suggests similar activity in New Zealand. Evidence shows the Ministry of Health and the Government-funded group Netsafe conspiring to have individuals banned and a wide range of content removed from Facebook. As with the US Government and Twitter, they used the social platform’s content moderation portal directly – with a particular focus on activists at the Parliament occupation in February, 2022.
After sharing the OIA release online, Baker’s new media group “Project People” was also removed from Facebook, despite not mentioning anything healthcare related.
Prime Minister Ardern’s Christchurch Call seeks to censor “violent extremist content” presented to social media users in the name of safety. These documents show the extent to which social media companies and governments go to attempt to covertly control narratives.
Many key staff members have been let go since Musk stepped in, including those involved in the Christchurch Call; the PM says it is now in “unknown territory”. Given the recent findings, many are wondering how much influence Ardern’s Government has had over what Kiwis have been allowed to see on Twitter and other social media platforms.
Tools steer the conversation
The “Twitter files” documents show how US Government and Twitter employees were active in managing the perception of users. This is especially evident in regards to COVID related topics. Evidence also shows conservative leaning voices were targeted. Sometimes they were banned entirely, as was the case with the Babylon Bee, a site dedicated to satire. Twitter executives denied this was happening, despite evidence to the contrary.
Abuse of the system was often reliant on social connections of Twitter employees, who were overwhelmingly left-wing, creating a natural bias in favor of pushing the social media conversation to the left.
The documents show evidence of election interference and changing the historical record. Twitter removed posts of an article by the New York Post, pertaining to President Biden’s son, Hunter. The removal, as with much of their censorship, was done under the guise of ‘safety’. Citing a “hacked materials” policy, Twitter removed links to the post and even blocked the article from being sent in private messages –a measure used typically for extreme content such as child pornography. Documents show their efforts to protect political interests were only partially successful.