Dec 8, 2022 - Technology

Musk's second "Twitter Files" claims "secret blacklists"

Illustration of the Twitter bird logo with emoji side eyes

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Outside journalists working with Twitter owner Elon Musk posted a new batch of internal communications from the company Thursday night with what they said was evidence the firm's employees "build blacklists, prevent disfavored tweets from trending, and actively limit the visibility of entire accounts."

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.

Driving the news: In a series of tweets, newsletter author and former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss highlighted cases where Twitter has limited the distribution and recommendation of tweets.

  • Weiss zeroed in on several specific accounts, including conservative activist Charlie Kirk, Stanford doctor Jay Bhattacharya, and Chaya Raichik, who operates the Libsoftiktok account.
  • Libsoftiktok has aggressively attacked providers of gender-affirming care for transgender youth, including Boston Children's Hospital, which became the subject of a bomb threat.
  • Libsoftiktok was temporarily suspended and other actions taken — though Twitter did not permanently ban the account, as some civil rights groups had called for.

Flashback: The previous "Twitter Files" installment, by newsletter author Matt Taibbi, focused on how Twitter handled a controversial decision, three weeks before the 2020 presidential election, to limit access to an article about the contents of Hunter Biden's laptop.

  • Weiss says she and Taibbi "have broad and expanding access to Twitter’s files."

Between the lines: Twitter has long made it clear that it might reduce the visibility of tweets by users who violate its rules. However, the company has not always been transparent about when it took such actions or who was making those decisions.

Yes, but: The company also denied it engaged in the practice of "shadow banning" users, as many on the right have charged.

  • But that term lacks an agreed-upon definition. While Twitter may not have considered what it did "shadow banning," others clearly do.

The intrigue: Musk says Twitter will double down on such tactics, suspending fewer users and taking down less content in favor of limiting the reach of some material.

  • "New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach," Musk said last month, adding, of negative and hate tweets: "You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet."
  • Following Weiss' report on Thursday, Musk tweeted, "Twitter is working on a software update that will show your true account status, so you know clearly if you’ve been shadowbanned, the reason why and how to appeal."

The big picture: Twitter was early to adopt policies that allowed content that wasn't banned outright to be limited in visibility.

  • Others in the industry have also moved in that direction, particularly Google-owned YouTube, which has made limiting distribution and recommendation of borderline content a key part of its efforts to limit the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

What's next: Weiss promised more to come from herself and Taibbi.

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