Althouse | category: Bari Weiss



an endless succession of beans and nuts.

"The 'Twitter Files' Is What It Claims to Expose."

Asserts Eric Levitz at Intelligencer. 

All right. We have seen the "nothingburger" response to the Twitter Files. This is the I'm-rubber-you’re-glue response: You are the very thing that you denounce.

Let's see how we'll this argument works. I'll cut as close to the core as I can for this excerpt:

[The Taibbi and Weiss] reports featured a couple genuinely concerning findings about pre-Musk Twitter’s operations. But they were also saturated in hyperbole, marred by omissions of context, and discredited by instances of outright mendacity....

To appreciate how unhinged the conservative narrative about the “Twitter Files” is, and how irresponsible Musk’s presentation of them has been, one must first understand the flimsiness of the [New York Post] article that kicked off the whole controversy....

There is little question that Hunter Biden was an influence peddler who sought to monetize his access to the American vice president. Burisma... was paying to be one-degree of separation away from Hunter’s father.... But... Hunter monetizing his last name is not a noteworthy scandal....

[The] story consisted of ill-gotten emails fed to the Post by Donald Trump’s lawyer, who’d spent months consorting with Trump sympathizers in Eastern Europe. The platform responded by taking the extraordinary step of suppressing the story on its platform, marking it as unsafe and even preventing Twitter users from sharing it via direct message

In “The Twitter Files, Part One: How and Why Twitter Blocked the Hunter Biden Laptop Story,” Matt Taibbi sheds light on Twitter’s internal deliberations over this decision.

Taibbi frames his findings as a demonstration of Twitter’s bias in favor of Democrats. But his reporting does little to support that claim....

Both [Yoel] Roth and [Jim] Baker acknowledged that they did not actually know that the Post’s piece was based on hacked materials. “Given the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016,” however, Roth explained, “we’re erring on the side of including a warning and preventing the content from being amplified.”...

... Taibbi’s documents actually reveal internal skepticism of the decision, and expressions of ambivalence even from those who endorsed it. Taibbi quotes an anonymous former employee as saying, “Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it.”...

... Taibbi produced no actual evidence that the decision was motivated by anything beyond concern that Twitter would find itself complicit in promulgating hacked materials.

The closest thing Taibbi has to evidence of untoward partisan influence is an email from the Biden campaign flagging several Hunter-related tweets for Twitter’s content moderators, who then “handled” them. But all of these tweets appeared to feature nude photos of Hunter Biden that were nonconsensually shared, an unambiguous violation of Twitter’s terms of service...

“If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” Musk tweeted, going on to explain, “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.” Of course, nothing in Taibbi’s reporting indicated that Twitter had suppressed the Post story at the request of the Biden campaign, let alone of government officials.

And even if it had, so long as the government did not coerce Twitter into suppressing the Post story, there would still have been no constitutional violation; the government is allowed to ask private actors to keep information secret....

The second installment of the Twitter Files had a bit more substance than the first. But like its predecessor, it affirmed conservative narratives of persecution by omitting key pieces of context, while also including one outright lie. Bari Weiss’s exposé sought to illuminate Twitter’s policy of secretly reducing the reach of certain accounts and tweets....

Since at least 2018, Twitter’s help page has said, “When abuse or manipulation of our service is reported or detected, we may take action to limit the reach of a person’s Tweets.”... Twitter’s current ownership has openly embraced this form of content moderation. Last month, Musk tweeted: “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach. Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.”

Nevertheless, after reporting that the conservative commentator Charlie Kirk had been put on a “Do not amplify” list, Weiss bizarrely claimed that Twitter had long “denied that it does such things.” Weiss did not try to reconcile that claim with Twitter’s long-standing terms of service; in fact, she did not even inform her readers of the existence of those terms....

[Weiss] led her readers to believe that she’d caught Twitter in a lie. In other words, she deliberately misled her audience....

[S]he suggests that the conservative personalities Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk were placed on blacklists because of their political views. Yet both those commentators are provocateurs who quite plausibly might have violated the platform’s rules regarding abuse at one point or another....

Weiss suggests that these blacklists disproportionately harmed conservatives. But she doesn’t actually provide any information about the ideological breakdown of blacklisted accounts....

[P]re-Musk Twitter’s content curation policies made rightwing content more visible — and leftwing content, less — than a purely neutral hosting of tweets would have done. A journalist interested in impartially reporting on the political implications of Twitter’s content moderation policies might have mentioned this reality....

The Twitter Files provide limited evidence that the social media platform’s former management sometimes enforced its terms of service in inconsistent and politically biased ways. The project offers overwhelming evidence that Twitter’s current management is using the platform to promote tendentious, partisan narratives and conservative misinformation....

"Why it matters: Musk has framed the 'Twitter Files' as an effort to show that his predecessors at Twitter engaged in censorship. Others, including experts in online platforms..."

"... say the documents just depict Twitter executives imperfectly but conscientiously struggling to apply complex policies in difficult cases."

Says Axios, seemingly trying to present things in a fair and balanced way. 

But who are these experts who are offered to counterbalance Weiss? And what did they say? Weiss presents evidence of her position, showing specific examples and methods. 

No experts are named or quoted.

The New York Times finally put up a story about the Twitter files. (Really, it's a story about the reaction to the release of the files.)

This went up yesterday. It doesn't have a time stamp, but I believe it went up in the evening, that is, 2 days after the files were released:

"Elon Musk, Matt Taibbi, and a Very Modern Media Maelstrom/A release of internal documents from Twitter set off intense debates in the intersecting worlds of media, politics and tech," by Michael M. Grynbaum.

Let's do a close read: 

It was, on the surface, a typical example of reporting the news: a journalist obtains internal documents from a major corporation, shedding light on a political dispute that flared in the waning days of the 2020 presidential race. But when it comes to Elon Musk and Twitter, nothing is typical. The so-called Twitter Files, released Friday evening by the independent journalist Matt Taibbi, set off a firestorm among pundits, media ethicists and lawmakers in both parties.

Even more atypical was the way the NYT contributed nothing at all.

It also offered a window into the fractured modern landscape of news, where a story’s reception is often shaped by readers’ assumptions about the motivations of both reporters and subjects.

The NYT ignored the initial story, but it's deigning to cover it now because of its larger and more general meaning: It's "a window into the fractured modern landscape of news." You mean, a news "landscape" not controlled by the NYT?

Well, they tried to control it by not seeing this story at all. They waited until it could be understood as a different story — the story of how fractured media reacted to Taibbi's tweets.

In this "modern landscape," readers make "assumptions about the motivations of both reporters and subject." That suggests that in the earlier "landscape," the one controlled by the NYT, we readers just believed what we were told.

I've been reading the NYT since the 1960s, when it was required reading at my Wayne, New Jersey high school, and we teenagers were taught, from Day 1, to read critically. Here's a specific example of bias, remembered more than half a century later: There's a front-page story about Richard Nixon's inauguration with a sentence that begins "In a gloomy drizzle that mantled the city" and ends with "President Kennedy's grave."

My history teacher made a lot of "assumptions about the motivations of both reporters and subjects," and though I'll critically read him too — as I think he would prefer — I'd say he deftly demonstrated that the NYT has a distinct liberal bias. I'm still reading it after all these years, though. I enjoy writing about the gloomy drizzle that mantles the slain President's grave whenever right-wingers come into power. 

So let's get on with it. Back to the new article:

The tempest began when Mr. Musk teased the release...

Oh! Ha ha. Immediately, I run into weather metaphor. Forget the mantling drizzle, this is a tempest!

I'll resist musing out loud about "teased the release."

The tempest began when Mr. Musk teased the release of internal documents that he said would reveal the story behind Twitter’s 2020 decision to restrict posts linking to a report in the New York Post about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter. Mr. Musk, who has accused tech companies of censorship, then pointed readers to the account of Mr. Taibbi, an iconoclast journalist who shares some of Mr. Musk’s disdain for the mainstream news media.

Published in the form of a lengthy Twitter thread, Mr. Taibbi’s report included images of email exchanges among Twitter officials deliberating how to handle dissemination of the Post story on their platform. Mr. Musk and Mr. Taibbi framed the exchanges as evidence of rank censorship and pernicious influence by liberals.

The stress is not on what was in the files — the story the NYT didn't even cover — but the wilful framing of the story by Musk and Taibbi. They wanted to make mainstream media and Twitter insiders look biased and unprofessional. If that was their motive — it's not news, it's a vendetta — that may be why NYT insiders chose to withhold attention. Let's not help them seize the modern media landscape. We should be the arbiters of what is news.

But then other news developed — the reaction to what Musk and Taibbi did:

Many others — even some ardent Twitter critics — were less impressed, saying the exchanges merely showed a group of executives earnestly debating how to deal with an unconfirmed news report that was based on information from a stolen laptop.

That's a great sentence. I'll bet a large percentage of NYT readers stop right there. Yep. That's good enough for me. The story is nothing. I'm as done with it now as I was when the NYT was just not talking about it at all. The executives were earnestly debating. And that laptop — it wasn't something voters could absorb and process right before the election. What the execs did was at least one acceptable resolution of the problem: Don't let us see it at all. We couldn't handle it. 

That's just what I'm imagining a large percentage of NYT readers thinking. I myself will go on:

And as with many modern news stories, the Twitter Files were quickly weaponized in service of a dizzying number of pre-existing arguments.

That is true. It's a shift away from what happened at Twitter. We're off and running on the real topic of the article: The reaction to Taibbi's tweets.

The Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who often accuses liberals of stifling speech, made the claim that the “documents show a systemic violation of the First Amendment, the largest example of that in modern history."...

I'm skipping a couple things. 

The next topic is Taibbi, "a polarizing figure in journalism circles." Polarizing, apparently, because he began on the political left but then was "skeptical of claims of collusion between Russia and Mr. Trump’s campaign."

On Friday, shortly before Mr. Taibbi’s report, Mr. Musk wrote, “This will be awesome” and added a popcorn emoji, the universal online symbol of fervent anticipation. Mr. Taibbi also said he agreed “to certain conditions” in exchange for the documents, but did not provide details.

That was bad. It didn't feel as though professional journalism was to come. And we were being elbowed to see it as a bombshell. I know it put me off. As I blogged on Saturday morning, I wanted a clear, orderly presentation of the information, not a popcorn event.

Skeptics of Mr. Taibbi seized on what appeared to be an orchestrated disclosure. “Imagine volunteering to do online PR work for the world’s richest man on a Friday night, in service of nakedly and cynically right-wing narratives, and then pretending you’re speaking truth to power,” the MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan wrote in a Twitter post.

I like that NYT is pointing out the apparent orchestration of the response and quoting those words — "PR work for the world’s richest man" — that were repeated by too many people who ought to have felt compelled to do their own original writing. [CORRECTION: The thing I liked didn't happen! The word "orchestrated" refers to what Musk and Taibbi did, not what their critics did.]

Mr. Taibbi clapped back on Saturday, writing: “Looking forward to going through all the tweets complaining about ‘PR for the richest man on earth,’ and seeing how many of them have run stories for anonymous sources at the FBI, CIA, the Pentagon, White House, etc.”

Next, the article addresses the Times's own refusal to cover the story:

On Saturday, in a live audio session on Twitter, Mr. Musk said he was disappointed that more mainstream media outlets had not picked up Mr. Taibbi’s reporting. The New York Times requested copies of the documents from Mr. Musk, but did not receive a response.

The Times wanted their own access to the original materials and didn't get it. Musk insists that they take it second-hand as filtered through Taibbi. Come play on my media landscape. The Times didn't want to do it. The real media landscape is the one they have shaped and worked over all the long decades.

Mr. Musk said on Saturday that he had also given documents to Bari Weiss, a former editor and columnist at The Times whose Substack newsletter, Common Sense, bills itself as an alternative to traditional news outlets. Ms. Weiss declined to comment on Sunday....

That's got to be annoying. Weiss is doing her own work, and her departure from the NYT stands as a criticism of the way the Times has mucked up the old media landscape. We're all waiting to see how Weiss handles the documents. 

Perhaps the only universally accepted takeaway from the release of the Twitter Files was a sentiment that Mr. Taibbi himself expressed, in a headline on his Substack page that offered a preview of his upcoming posts. “Note to readers,” Mr. Taibbi wrote. “It’s about to get weird in here.”

That was bad, though. Taibbi leaned into the "popcorn" attitude that divided readers into partisan camps. He did not signal that he was going to provide professional journalism. If you want to rival old media, do better.

As for old media, they need to do better too.

"A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution."

Wrote Donald Trump, at Truth Social, quoted in "White House rebukes Trump’s suggestion to suspend Constitution over 2020 election" (WaPo).

The post came a day after Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, claimed he would expose how Twitter engaged in “free speech suppression” in the run-up to the 2020 election. But his “Twitter Files” did not show that the tech giant bent to the will of Democrats. 

Trump's "truth" is so hyperbolic and disrespectful of the rule of law that it's idiotic clickbait, only worthy of attention because the man is running for President, and apparently, as polls go, the leading candidate. Sorry, I'm not going to spend every day agonizing over that. We will move on... I hope... I trust... He's so over-criticized that I don't see the point of jumping on him one more time. That doesn't work, and it drives some dedicated believers more deeply into his sphere.

I want to move on to the link in the indented quote — on "did not show" — which goes to "Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ ignite divisions, but haven’t changed minds/The company’s new chief executive detailed Twitter’s decision-making around a controversial story" (WaPo). 

Yesterday morning, I was critical of The Washington Post for not having an article on the "Twitter files," but by the end of the day, they had that. Let's read:

It was billed as a bombshell: Elon Musk, after rifling through his new company’s internal files, would finally expose how Twitter engaged in “free speech suppression” in the critical run up to the 2020 election....

A handful of screenshots from 2020, posted over the course of two hours Friday evening in a disjointed, roughly 40-tweet thread, show the San Francisco company debating a decision to restrict sharing of a controversial New York Post story about the son of then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The Twitter thread, based on internal communications posted by Substack writer Matt Taibbi, showed the company independently decided to limit the spread of the article, without Democratic politicians, the Biden campaign or FBI exerting control over the social media network. In fact, the only input from a sitting politician that Taibbi noted was from Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna (D), who told Twitter executives they should distribute the story, regardless of the potential consequences for his party....

In the process, Musk took the extraordinary step of promoting the leak of internal company communications to Taibbi, exposing the names of several rank-and-file workers and Khanna’s personal email address....

Musk and Taibbi both tweeted that they would reveal more information in a second chapter Saturday.

Yeah? What happened? I go to Twitter and see that last night Musk tweeted "Looks like we will need another day or so." I hope that means he/Taibbi are trying to incorporate the criticisms of the Friday tweet-dump and will make a clearer, cleaner presentation in Part 2.

Back to WaPo:

Musk [said in a Twitter Spaces audio chat Saturday afternoon] that he shared the documents with another Substack writer, Bari Weiss, and suggested he may share them with the public in the future.

Bari Weiss didn't want to do what Matt Taibbi did?

WaPo proceeds to put the Twitter files bombshell/"bombshell" in context, and I really appreciate this concise summary:

The spectacle capped off another week of chaos at Musk’s Twitter, after the “chief Twit” spent Friday afternoon meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and batting back reports about the rise of hate speech on the Twitter platform. He also attracted attention for suspending the rapper Ye, who had tweeted the image of a swastika combined with the Star of David. And the relaunch of a paid check mark system expected for Friday was delayed again, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision.

I still hadn't seen that swastika-with-a-Star-of-David image, and WaPo didn't reproduce it. I had to go looking and found it — here — at The Times of Israel. I had thought the swastika was stamping out the star, but I see that the 2 symbols have been interwoven in a way that makes it even harder to see how the image could be adjudged a direct incitement to imminent violence, which was Musk's reason for suspending Ye. 

From WaPo:

During the Twitter Spaces, Musk said, “I personally wanted to punch Kanye,” explaining how Ye’s swastika post was incitement to violence. He said he made the decision to suspend him.

So Musk is allowed to explicitly refer to violence — punching — but Ye gets suspended based on Musk's stretched inference. And are we still supposed to be celebrating Musk as a hero of fairness and freedom?

Musk’s “free speech” agenda has defined his tumultuous takeover of Twitter, as he has argued since the early days of the deal that the platform serve as a “de facto town square” where people are “able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” He has asserted that the company has a “strong left wing bias.” And in recent days, he has granted amnesty to a number of previously suspended accounts, including far-right influencers and people associated with the QAnon extremist ideology.

Though Musk has said he agrees with some Democratic Party and some Republican policies, he increasingly appears to be courting the GOP. In the run-up to the midterm elections, he encouraged his millions of followers to vote Republican. And he recently said he would lean toward backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in a potential 2024 presidential bid....

Yes, hold Musk's feet to the fire — metaphorically only! — if he wants to be the Czar of Free Speech. He'd better be scrupulously viewpoint neutral. It's got to be about our freedom, not his power and wealth.

Taibbi said that he had to “agree to certain conditions” in exchange for the opportunity to cover the files in a message to his Substack subscribers....

What were the conditions? Maybe Bari Weiss can tell us. 

The next section of the WaPo article recounts the Taibbi thread in detail and adding context. I'm not going to quote all of that. There's also, at the very end, a little bit about the response.

Tucker Carlson called it “one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of social media,” and the New York Post called it a “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell” in a headline....

But not everyone bought the "bombshell" spin.

"So whether the staffers and editors at places like the Times and the Post ignored the riots of summer 2020 while genuflecting to the lunatic idea that op-eds are violence..."

"... because they were true believers in the new dogma or because they were careerists or because they were just plain scared only meant that some of them broke your heart more than others. But knowing that wasn’t enough to untether me, even after I left. The real way I finally left old media is through the thrill of building something new. The moment I began this publication was the moment everything changed for me. As someone who was used to sitting in the bleachers with the other critics, I finally understood what all that talk about building new things was about. I’m making something that I am proud of with people I admire.... If the best journalism right now is fractured between hundreds of Twitter feeds, newsletters and podcasts, making it impossible for normal, busy people to discover it, we ultimately want to bring it all together in one place. We want to be your algorithm."

Writes Bari Weiss in "The Washington Post’s Descent Into Middle School Antics/And why we're building something new" (Common Sense).

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