Science & Tech

What are ‘The Twitter Files’ being promoted by Elon Musk, and why is it a total non-story?

Related video: Elon Musk confirms Kanye West’s Twitter account suspended after posting swastika

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Right-wingers are once again calling for the impeachment of US President Joe Biden – this time after author and journalist Matt Taibbi shared “Twitter files” which he claimed show “how and why Twitter blocked the Hunter Biden laptop story” – including requests from Biden’s campaign to delete a select number of tweets.

Except, nothing in the more than 30-tweet long Twitter thread from Taibbi – amplified by newish Twitter CEO Elon Musk – reveals information the public didn’t know already, or indicates wrongdoing from Mr Biden’s team.

The Biden presidential campaign team submitted a reasonable request to Twitter to remove pornographic images of Hunter Biden – shocking, we know

In one tweet, Taibbi shared two emails from Twitter employees. One listed five Twitter URLs and said there were “more [tweets] to review from the Biden team”, and a response later that day read “handled these”.

Several Twitter users would go on to report, following Taibbi’s thread, that the links pertained to pornographic images of Mr Biden’s son, Hunter – hardly an unreasonable request and in clear breach of the law and the platform’s own rules.

Nevertheless, Musk seemed to think this was significant, quoting the word “handled” with flame emojis and adding: “If this isn’t a violation of the constitution’s first amendment, what is?”

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Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The first amendment states Congress “shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech” – and as far as we can tell, Mr Biden wasn’t part of Congress or government in 2020.

Alejandra Carabello, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic – and therefore someone far more qualified on this sort of thing – tweeted: “For the millionth time, the First Amendment only applies to the government. Biden was a private individual and his campaign wasn’t the government.

“The links were literally to accounts that posted nude pictures of Hunter Biden, which is revenge porn and is unlawful in many states.”

Journalist Wesley Lowery added: “Someone who worked for candidate Joe Biden – who had no governmental authority at the time – requesting tweets contain leaked nude photos of Hunter Biden, a clear [terms of service] violation, is not only not a ‘violation’ of the 1st Amendment, it’s in no way scandalous or noteworthy.”

And another reporter, Kara Swisher, put it rather succinctly when she wrote: “D*** pics are not a smoking gun, no matter how many times you say First Amendment.”

OK, but what about Twitter limiting the circulation of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story?

Ah, this takes us to the right-wing conspiracy theory about a laptop handed into a Delaware computer shop in 2019, later obtained by the Post, which published a story about one single email from the computer in October 2020.

The main allegation – dismissed by most legitimate news organisations at the time – was that Mr Biden once arranged for his father to meet with an executive from Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company of which Hunter was a board member.

The Washington Post would later reveal it had independently verified some of the emails from the laptop’s hard drive, and that none of these suggested any illicit behaviour by either Biden.

Nevertheless, it’s still a theory pushed by those on the right, and things started to bubble up again when Taibbi tweeted: “Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe’. They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.”

Interesting, perhaps, if the suppression of the Post story by Twitter hadn’t already been admitted by ex-CEO Jack Dorsey during a hearing with US lawmakers last year.

He said it was a “total mistake” and that the action taken by the platform was “not to do with the content, it was to do with the hacked materials policy” – measures relating to the sharing of hacked material on Twitter which was updated following a backlash over the blocking of the Post story.

“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,” Dorsey said.

Nevertheless, Musk wanted all internal discussions about the limiting of the Post story to be made public, responding to one tweet last month to say it is "necessary to restore public trust".

It’s also worth noting, though, that Taibbi pointed out “requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign” in 2020 to remove material from Twitter were “received and honoured”, but of course, it’s Biden who gets more of the attention from the right.

So the ‘files’ don’t breach the first amendment, and reveal information we knew already?

Yep.

Ah. What does Trump make of all this?

He’s taken to his social media platform, Truth Social, to continue parroting the unsubstantiated claim that the 2020 presidential election was “false” and somehow illegitimate.

In a caps lock-heavy post (which we’ll write normally for the sake of your eyeballs), he wrote: “So, with the revelation of massive and widespread fraud and deception in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC and the Democrat Party, do you throw the presidential election results of 2020 out and declare the rightful winner, or do you have a new election?

“A massive fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the constitution. Our great ‘founders’ did not want, or would not condone, false and fraudulent elections!”

Totally normal behaviour and not a troubling attack on democratic institutions, of course.

So what happens now?

According to Musk, we’re apparently due an “episode two of The Twitter Files” on Saturday.

God help us all…

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