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In the last two weeks, revelations about the actions of Twitter under its former ownership have confirmed what many suspected but couldn’t prove until now. New owner Elon Musk allowed independent journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss access to heretofore secret files that demonstrated how the social-media platform’s “content moderation” worked.
What they learned made clear that a secret, yet massively influential, campaign was being waged against American democracy by Twitter and, as we now suspect, other Big Tech companies.
The irony is inescapable. We’ve been hearing a lot from the left in the last two years about an assault on democracy from the right, stemming from complaints by former President Donald Trump and his supporters about a supposedly “stolen” election in 2020.
You can be appalled by the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot and those who condoned it. But if you actually care about democracy, you should be equally outraged about the powerful forces that effectively control and censor our public discourse.
One would think that among the loudest voices denouncing the results of Taibbi’s and Weiss’s investigations would be those Jewish organizations, principally the Anti-Defamation League, which have been posturing non-stop about the need to defend democracy. Yet the ADL has remained silent about the revelations.
That’s unsurprising. As ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt recently boasted, during his hour-long interview with “Charlamagne tha God” on the syndicated radio program “The Breakfast Club,” he and his staff have been advising all the big Internet companies on their “content moderation,” and in coaching PayPal on how to demonetize groups it deems extremist.
It’s no wonder, then, that the ADL has already cried foul about Musk’s initial decisions to end bans on Trump and a host of other accounts—including satire sites like The Babylon Bee—that had been targeted by Twitter.
Rather than joining in the call for reforms to ensure that what happened at Twitter is never allowed to be repeated there or on any other major platform, the ADL is doing the opposite. Having applauded and even aided the efforts at political censorship, the ADL is certainly involved in the battle over the future of democracy. Indeed, instead of fighting for democracy, it is on the side of those fighting against it, in order to continue tilting the playing field leftward.
The files that Musk has now opened show that the company’s employees used their unique power to control what appears on what is, for all intents and purposes, the nation’s virtual public square. Algorithms and other mechanisms that were originally designed to keep Twitter free of pornography and child-exploitation, were used for political purposes, something that was of far more interest to the platform’s moderators.
As Taibbi and Weiss, who were assisted by a group of other journalists, reported (first on Twitter and then on Substack): Twitter’s actions in recent years reveal outrageous political bias. Its staff shut down coverage or commentary that didn’t conform to their own biases. They worked closely with the campaign of then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to ensure that, among other things, reportage on his family’s corruption, which had been found on his son Hunter’s laptop, was suppressed.
They also barred, shadow-banned (a method by which users can be blocked without their knowledge) or muted the accounts of prominent conservatives, while liberals were allowed to tweet unhindered. They took down the account of a sitting president—Trump—for supposedly advocating violence, when, as we now know, they themselves agreed he had done no such thing.
Meanwhile, they allowed other heads of state, who lead actual terrorist regimes that advocate genocide—such as Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and hatemongers like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, to continue tweeting.
The “Twitter files” are grim but important reading, not just because they rip the veil off the company’s hypocrisy and bias. Like it or not, Twitter is the main engine of political discourse in our time. Along with the other, much larger, Big Tech giants, such as Facebook, Amazon and Google, the development of the Internet and our dependence on it has put more power in the hands of a select few people than at any time in history.
Even at the height of their dominance of the newspaper and broadcast industries, the media moguls of the past couldn’t have dreamed of having the ability simply to silence one side of the political spectrum, or put their thumbs on the scale to influence elections, in this manner. Until now, no individual or firm has had the power to shut down the dissemination of information. Indeed, there is no greater threat to democracy than the prospect of those who control the public square acting in this manner.
This is why you don’t have to be a Trump supporter, or think that the 2020 election was stolen, to understand the significance of the “Twitter files.” Though the silencing of the Hunter Biden story was unprecedented in American political history, as was the muzzling of conservatives, the same power could be used against liberals and Democrats.
Yet the ADL doesn’t see it that way. Taking a cue from its liberal and partisan Democratic allies—who, despite their posturing about democracy, liked it just fine when their opponents were shut up—the prominent Jewish organization seems to think there’s something fishy about free speech.
The rationale for its stand is the way extremists and antisemites use the Internet to spread hate and even incitement to violence. But, as the “Twitter files” show, the slippery slope toward political censorship is not theoretical.
Those with whom the Big Tech powers disagree, or who raise arguments or even produce reporting that harms the chances of their political allies, can be silenced with the same methods that are aimed against extremists.
Greenblatt talks about the threat from violent antisemites. As we’ve seen, however, he’s primarily interested in censoring conservatives (many, if not most, of whom support Israel and the Jewish people), while at best paying lip service to the need to address the flood of hatred that comes from the intersectional left, radical Islam and African-American Jew-haters.
Those who argue that Musk—the richest person in the world—has too much power are correct. But the same is true of the owners of Facebook, Amazon and Google. The difference is that Musk, though clearly a flawed and somewhat mercurial figure, is at least interested in defending free speech. The others are not.
More to the point, groups like the ADL, who purport to represent the Jewish community and use their influence to push for more censorship, are aiding and abetting efforts that directly threaten the democratic values that they claim to defend and uphold. Musk, Taibbi and Weiss, the latter of whom has been battling eloquently against the way the woke left tolerates and foments antisemitism, warrant gratitude for their work.
Sadly, Greenblatt is on the other side of the barricades, and is as deserving of opprobrium as they are of praise.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.