Conservative columnist Bari Weiss became the second person to receive “Twitter Files” documents from Twitter’s then-new CEO Elon Musk in December 2022.
This generated quite a lot of exceptionally vague controversy, as well as discussions about the role of social media platforms in handling potentially sensitive content streams.
In practice, whatever its intent, the “Twitter Files” combined a wide-ranging set of practices, people, accounts, and news stories in order to create yet another disinformation narrative.
What Are the ‘Twitter Files’? What Was ‘Part One’?
On December 2 2022, journalist Matt Taibbi published a Twitter thread prefaced with “1. Thread: THE TWITTER FILES.” It was followed by many more tweets:
1. Thread: THE TWITTER FILES
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) December 2, 2022
What followed was a thread about the contents of “Twitter Files” documents provided by Musk to Taibbi. Most (not all) of the tweets were prefaced with a number, going up to 32.
Sequential tweets contained Taibbi’s summary of the documents, and read in part:
2. What you’re about to read is the first installment in a series, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter.
3. The “Twitter Files” tell an incredible story from inside one of the world’s largest and most influential social media platforms. It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer.
4. Twitter in its conception was a brilliant tool for enabling instant mass communication, making a true real-time global conversation possible for the first time.
5. In an early conception, Twitter more than lived up to its mission statement, giving people “the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
6. As time progressed, however, the company was slowly forced to add those barriers. Some of the first tools for controlling speech were designed to combat the likes of spam and financial fraudsters.
7. Slowly, over time, Twitter staff and executives began to find more and more uses for these tools. Outsiders began petitioning the company to manipulate speech as well: first a little, then more often, then constantly.
Broadly, Taibbi tweeted about requests sent to Twitter executives from political interests. Taibbi stated that both major American political parties “had access to these tools,” and that “in 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored” by Twitter.
Taibbi concluded the “both parties” tweet with a dangling “However,” and then began tweeting about a debunked 2020 controversy involving the New York Post‘s coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop:
Rolling Stone (a publication for which Matt Taibbi once worked) accurately explained that most revelations from the first “Twitter Files” had been reported, analyzed, cross-examined, and largely were not “new news,” describing the thread as a “snoozefest”:
What followed after was a series of tweeted snippets detailing what the public has known—and what Twitter executives themselves have detailed over the past two years—about the company’s deliberation surrounding the New York Post’s publication of files from Hunter Biden shortly before the 2020 election … Twitter made “a total mistake” handling the Post story, former CEO Jack Dorsey said when questioned by lawmakers during a 2021 hearing about the company’s handling of the story.
“It was not to do with the content, it was to do with the hacked materials policy,” Dorsey explained during the 2021 hearing. “We had the incorrect interpretation. We don’t write policy according to any particular political leaning. If we find any of it, we write it out.”
Per Rolling Stone, materials that Musk had given Taibbi added “little” to public knowledge about Twitter’s “confused and bungled response” to the Post story in 2020.
Bari Weiss and the Twitter Files, Round Two
In the same vein as Taibbi, Bari Weiss published a December 8 2022 thread to Twitter to introduce her own analysis of materials provided to her by Elon Musk:
THREAD: THE TWITTER FILES PART TWO.
TWITTER’S SECRET BLACKLISTS.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) December 9, 2022
Weiss utilized the same numbered tweets format as Taibbi, with a total of 30 tweets in the thread (not counting the first tweet above). Among Twitter-centric processes described by Weiss was “SIP-PES,” Twitter’s “Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support” team.
Weiss briefly established the scope of her thread, before detailing specific accounts and individuals purportedly affected by SIP-PES policies. She began by largely mentioning established disinformation purveyors (such as Charlie Kirk, Dan Bongino, and @LibsOfTikTok/Chaya Raichik):
1. A new #TwitterFiles investigation reveals that 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.
2. Twitter once had a mission “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Along the way, barriers nevertheless were erected.
3. Take, for example, Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya (@DrJBhattacharya) who argued that Covid lockdowns would harm children. Twitter secretly placed him on a “Trends Blacklist,” which prevented his tweets from trending.
4. Or consider the popular right-wing talk show host, Dan Bongino (@dbongino), who at one point was slapped with a “Search Blacklist.”
5. Twitter set the account of conservative activist Charlie Kirk ( @charliekirk11 ) to “Do Not Amplify.”
6. Twitter denied that it does such things. In 2018, Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde (then Head of Legal Policy and Trust) and Kayvon Beykpour (Head of Product) said: “We do not shadow ban.” They added: “And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”
7. What many people call “shadow banning,” Twitter executives and employees call “Visibility Filtering” or “VF.” Multiple high-level sources confirmed its meaning.
Like Taibbi, Weiss described practices introduced to accommodate the rapidly expanding role that social media played in political discourse, messaging, and the spread of disinformation narratives. In her thread, Weiss interspersed technical explanations (like the existence and action of SIP-PES) and specific outcomes related to “barriers erected” to shape the flow of information on Twitter.
@LibsOfTikTok was a prominent feature of the 31 tweets published by Weiss. For additional context, a Wikipedia entry for @LibsOfTikTok explained in its introduction why that particular account warranted sincere concern among Twitter employees tasked with limiting real-world violence originating on its platform; TikTok also took action to limit potential harms caused by Raichik’s activity:
Libs of TikTok is a far-right, anti-LGBT Twitter account owned by Chaya Raichik, a former real estate agent, that reposts content created by liberals, leftists, and LGBT people on TikTok and on other social media platforms with hostile, mocking, or derogatory commentary. The account, also known by the handle @libsoftiktok, [had] over 1.5 million followers as of November 2022, and has become influential among American conservatives and the political right. Raichik says she runs the account by herself full-time and lives in Los Angeles. Libs of TikTok’s social media accounts have received several temporary suspensions and a permanent suspension from TikTok.
The account promotes harassment against teachers, medical providers, and children’s hospitals, and spreads false claims and hateful commentary against marginalized groups. Libs of TikTok slurs supporters of LGBT youth, including those who teach about sexuality to children, as groomers. Fans and supporters of Libs of TikTok describe the account as simply reposting content showcasing “sex and gender ideology” that was already publicly available.
In August 2022, Libs of TikTok received substantial media attention after falsely claiming that gender-affirming hysterectomies were being provided to minors at the Boston Children’s Hospital and at the Children’s National Hospital. This resulted in a harassment campaign against both hospitals, including bomb threats.
In other words, it would have been inarguably negligent of Twitter’s staff to ignore Raichik’s behavior on the platform — an aspect never addressed, even obliquely, by Weiss in her thread. One threaded tweet in particular circulated widely in part due to disagreement over whether @LibsOfTikTok had received excessive scrutiny as claimed, or whether the account had actually been granted special privileges:
16. One of the accounts that rose to this level of scrutiny was @libsoftiktok—an account that was on the “Trends Blacklist” and was designated as “Do Not Take Action on User Without Consulting With SIP-PES.” pic.twitter.com/Vjo6YxYbxT
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) December 9, 2022
Weissalso posted what appeared to be a reproduction of an internal system at Twitter, and she noted that a prominent flag warned Twitter employees not to “take action on [the] user without consulting with SIP-PES.” Taking that evidence into context, it looked as if @LibsOfTikTok was, unlike other accounts, actually shielded from direct suppressive action by moderators.
Additional tweets in the thread included direct statements from Twitter employees about moderation practices. Weiss concluded the thread, indicating that her colleague Taibbi would publish the third “Twitter Files” installment.
As indicated, Weiss focused repeatedly on @LibsOfTikTok without informing readers that the account was linked with real-world threats of violence.
Likewise, the thread did not really touch on anything about the information landscape of the preceding years. Unexpected events and violent incidents such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple attempts to overturn the 2020 election created an abrupt, but high-stakes, series of risks.
In one very notable example, Twitter was forced to take action on the account of former United States President Donald Trump in January 2021:
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
Trump was banned from Twitter on January 8 2021, two days after his supporters breached the Capitol in a deadly insurrection attempt. While Weiss painted a picture of overcautious moderation, multiple people died at the Capitol on January 6 2021 — as the former president used Twitter to incite angry supporters to become violent.
Columnist Bari Weiss was the second of two people to participate in the “Twitter Files,” an open analysis of internal materials provided by Twitter chief executive Elon Musk to Weiss and Taibbi. Taibbi’s first installment largely covered the debunked “Hunter Biden’s laptop” narrative and communications between Twitter and “both [political] parties” in the United States.
Bari Weiss’ “Twitter Files” thread was published on December 8 2022, and primarily focused on Twitter’s moderation policies. Weiss emphasized purported “secret” actions by Twitter, providing several examples of accounts subjected to restrictions for the spread of disinformation. Chaya Raichik of the @LibsOfTikTok account was the most referenced, but Weiss made no mention of relevant and crucial background, not limited to Raichik’s content having faced similar sanctions on TikTok.
Weiss concluded her “Twitter Files” installment with an indication that Taibbi would publish a third thread based on additional internal Twitter documents, and at Musk’s behest.