by Antônio F. Oliveira
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
US election manipulation and public debate on the platform orchestrated by Twitter managers, the CIA, FBI, the Democratic Party, the Pentagon and Big Pharmas
Between December 2022 and January 2023, confidential Twitter documents were leaked by the initiative of Elon Musk, the CEO who had acquired the platform. Along with notable personalities such as Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Lee Fang, Michael Shellenberger, David Zweig, and Alex Berenson, the files revealed surprising information about the internal workings of the social network. Taibbi and Weiss led the disclosure in collaboration with Twitter management, covering a wide range of topics relevant to the platform, including issues that were previously considered conspiracy theories but have now been confirmed by the documents.
Part 1: Concealment of Information on Hunter Biden’s Laptop. The first part of the Twitter Files describes the controversy surrounding the platform’s algorithmic moderation of a New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter employed detection measures for “hate speech” and “disinformation” and used user and algorithm behavior analysis techniques to inhibit the spread of the story, temporarily blocking accounts and censoring the sharing of links. The platform even restricted the use of direct messages, which are typically reserved for extreme cases, such as the dissemination of child pornography.
Part 2: Invisible Censorship: The Shadowbanning Controversy on Social Media. The second part deals with “shadow banishment,” a practice of selectively limiting the reach of certain political groups on Twitter, carried out through machine learning algorithms. The company uses blacklists to prevent unfavorable tweets from becoming trends and actively limits the visibility of entire accounts and trending topics. “These actions are carried out in secret, without informing users,” reports journalist Bari Weiss, who had access to the files.
Part 3: Permanently Suspending a Sitting President 1/3. The third part highlighted events within Twitter that led to the suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Two days after the United States Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, Trump made two tweets: one praised his supporters, calling them “American patriots” who “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way” and the other stated that he would not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration. Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account on the same day, without due process or broad defense, citing the two tweets as a violation of the “glorification of violence” and “hateful conduct” policies. Some computer science experts argued that Trump’s suspension can be seen as an example of the application of machine learning algorithms to identify and remove accounts that allegedly violate platform policies.
Part 4: Permanently suspending an acting president 2/3. The fourth segment of the mentioned files, written by Michael Shellenberger, discusses how the Twitter team reacted to the attack on the US Capitol. Internal conflicts arose within Twitter regarding tweet moderation, resulting in discussions about banning Trump, justifying such action, whether this policy should only apply to Trump or to other political leaders, as well as showing little to no concern about the democratic implications of such prohibition for freedom of expression and democracy itself. Additionally, Twitter used the Capitol attack to selectively moderate conservative profiles. The FBI reported several accounts to Twitter’s Trust and Safety team for allegedly spreading election misinformation. However, many of these reported accounts had few followers and were making seemingly satirical tweets, such as the case of user Claire Foster, who tweeted: “I am a ballot counter in my state. If you’re not wearing a mask, I’m not counting your vote. #safetyfirst”.
Part 5: Permanently suspending an acting president 3/3. The fifth part covered how 300 Twitter employees influenced the decision to ban Trump from the platform.
Part 6: The relationship between the FBI and technology companies: a case of mutual dependence? The sixth part describes how the FBI contacted Twitter to suggest measures against several accounts that allegedly spread election misinformation, raising questions about the privacy and security of the platform’s users, as well as the ethics and transparency in cooperation between technology companies and government agencies. Taibbi stated: “Twitter’s contact with the FBI was constant and widespread as if it were a subsidiary. Between January 2020 and November 2022, there were over 150 emails between the FBI and Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth… Surprisingly, many of these requests were for Twitter to take action on election misinformation, even involving satirical tweets from accounts with few followers.”
Part 7: The FBI’s censorship operation” to control the narrative on the Hunter Biden scandal. In part seven of the Twitter Files, writer Michael Shellenberger explores the actions of the FBI and the US intelligence community, called the “IC,” regarding the suppression of factual information about foreign business dealings involving Hunter Biden. The theme, discussed in detail on Twitter, exposes what Shellenberger calls an “influence campaign” by the FBI, which culminated in the censorship of Hunter Biden’s laptop by Twitter. According to Shellenberger, “Twitter Files 7 presents evidence of a coordinated strategy by members of the American intelligence community (IC) aimed at influencing top executives in news companies and social media, with the goal of discrediting leaked information about Hunter Biden, both before and after it was published. This action began in December 2019, when John Paul (JP) Mac Isaac, owner of a computer repair shop in Delaware, contacted the FBI after Hunter Biden left a laptop in his store. On December 9 of that year, the FBI issued a subpoena and seized Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
Part 8: Covert tactic: Twitter collaborates with Pentagon’s online military influence campaign. Investigative journalist Lee Fang presented the eighth of the files, shedding light on the discreet contribution of social media in the Pentagon’s secret online PsyOp campaign. Despite promises to close state propaganda networks, Twitter documents show that the social media company cooperated directly with US military influence operations. Additionally, Twitter granted approval and special protection to the US military’s online psychological influence operations. “Despite knowledge of the use of secret identities by Pentagon propaganda accounts, Twitter did not suspend many of these accounts for approximately two years. Some accounts remain active to the present day,” Fang reported.
Part 9: Collaboration of government agencies: CIA, Pentagon, and State Department in social media censorship and social engineering. In the ninth installment, Taibbi argues that the FBI is only the “guardian” of a comprehensive social media surveillance and censorship program involving agencies across the federal government, from the State Department to the Pentagon and the CIA. After the FBI statement that labeled the Twitter Files as “disinformation” spread by “conspiracy theorists” with the “sole purpose of discrediting the agency,” Taibbi published a new installment that reveals much more widespread government involvement in censorship than was previously known. The Twitter Files demonstrate aggressive efforts by the CIA and other state security agencies to force Twitter’s hand in censoring various political opinions and speech, through constant contact with the company’s executives, one of whom is a former CIA member himself. According to Taibbi, the FBI acted as the main intermediary between the intelligence community and Twitter, playing the role of “guardian” to allow other agencies to connect with the platform. “The files show the FBI acting as a guardian of a broad social media surveillance and censorship program,” writes Taibbi.
Part 10: The White House “combats” “disinformation” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the tenth segment, independent journalist David Zweig gained considerable attention with his article published in Bari Weiss, revealing how the US government pressured Twitter and other social media platforms to influence the dissemination of certain content and suppress others related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zweig alleges that internal Twitter files demonstrate that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressured company executives to moderate pandemic- related content according to their political interests. The tactics used to exert such pressure are not precisely known but may include threats of regulatory sanctions, financial incentives, and other forms of influence. In the second part of the series published by Bari Weiss, information was exposed regarding the existence of a “blacklist” compiled by Twitter, containing the names of prominent conservative figures, including Fox News presenter Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk from Turning Point USA, as well as Dr. Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford University, a sharp critic of COVID-19 combat measures who expressed opposition to lockdowns. Internal communications also revealed that company employees admitted that the popular right-wing account, Libs of TikTok, never violated their “hateful conduct” policy, despite being punished several times for allegedly doing so.
Part 11: Post-2016 election: public relations crisis. In the eleventh segment, author Matt Taibbi portrays the reputation crisis faced by Twitter in 2017, when it was pressured by Democrats for not taking adequate measures to investigate alleged Russian influence on the platform, while Facebook publicly disclosed the removal of suspected foreign accounts after the 2016 presidential election. In response to intense pressure, Twitter created a “Russia Task Force” to investigate possible Kremlin interference on the platform, despite having already suspended several suspicious accounts linked to Russia without due process, once again.
Part 12: Twitter, the FBI’s “hub”. In the twelfth part of the Twitter Archives, the disclosure deepens the discussion about the pressure that various government agencies exerted on Twitter, using the FBI as a channel to accumulate censorship requests. Faced with a media campaign, the company was inundated with government censorship orders, causing frustration and leading it to request that the FBI centralize requests through a single cable connected to the company’s “hub.” This edition of the archives reveals the power dynamics between government and social media platforms and how demands from government authorities can influence freedom of expression in the digital age.
Part 13: Pfizer: seeking cure, profit, or censorship? In the thirteenth installment of his disclosure series, independent journalist Alex Berenson, banned from Twitter for his criticisms of COVID-19 vaccines’ safety and efficacy and the government and academic response to the pandemic, exposes how a Pfizer board member secretly urged Twitter to apply content filtering and hiding mechanisms to posts critical of the pharmaceutical company. This case highlights the complexity of content filtering and hiding algorithms, which can be triggered by requests from individuals and companies with great influence on the social network, thus obscuring free debate and access to information. Berenson shared a summary of his report on Twitter, as follows:
1/ How @scottgottliebmd – a top Pfizer board member – used the same Twitter lobbyist as the White House to suppress debate about Covid vaccines, INCLUDING A COLLEAGUE HEAD OF @US_FDA! Thank you @elonmusk for opening these files.
2/ In August 2021, Gottlieb told Todd O’Boyle – senior manager of Twitter’s public policy department – that a tweet from @drgiroir CORRECTLY alleging natural immunity was superior to vaccine immunity was “corrosive” and could “go viral.”
3/ Twitter put a deceptive tag on the tweet, preventing it from being shared. Gottlieb then went after a tweet about the low risk of Covid for children from @justin_hart. Pfizer would soon gain approval for its mRNA vaccines for children, so keeping parents afraid was crucial…
4/ In October 2022, @scottgottliebmd claimed on Twitter and CNBC that he wasn’t trying to suppress the jab debate. These files prove that Gottlieb – a board member of a company that earned $70 billion from the shots – did exactly that.
Elon Musk shared Berenson’s post and tweeted, “More Twitter files. Some conspiracies are really true.”
Part 14: The Russian bots hoax and the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign. In the fourteenth installment, journalist Matt Taibbi presented, in a series of tweets titled “Twitter Files #14 RUSSIAGATE LIES,” the Democrats and mainstream media’s refusal to accept Twitter’s findings that there was no evidence of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. This crucial moment in a years-long frenzy had Democrats denouncing a report on flaws in the Trump-Russia investigation, claiming it was fueled by Russian “bots” and “trolls.” Twitter officials were dismayed at the lack of evidence of Russian influence, stating that they were “feeding Congress trolls” and that there was “no significant activity tied to Russia.” In this sense, it can be said that those involved put the cart before the horse, assuming that the report was propaganda and bots. Democrats in Congress and the mainstream media spent much of Donald Trump’s presidency spreading the narrative that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump’s candidacy.
Part 15: Pfizer and BioNTech exerted their influence to censor criticism of vaccines on Twitter. Lee Fang highlights the power of the pharmaceutical industry over social media and how it shaped vaccination policies. This effort included lobbying techniques and direct pressure on social networks to suppress activists advocating for low-cost generic vaccines. The global lobbying campaign was able to influence the filtering and classification algorithms of social media content using computer science concepts, sabotaging any efforts to share COVID-19 related drug patents/IP, including therapies and vaccines.
BioNTech, a partner of Pfizer, used its position of influence to contact Twitter and request direct censorship of users tweeting about low-cost generic vaccines, demonstrating how global pharmaceutical giants saw the COVID-19 crisis as a unique profit opportunity. The BIO lobby group, representing the biopharmaceutical industry, including Moderna and Pfizer, wrote to newly elected administrator Biden, asking the US government to sanction any countries attempting to violate patent rights and produce generic medicines or vaccines. The pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the vaccination policy narrative reflects the need to consider the intersection between policy and artificial intelligence in the information age.
The “Stronger” campaign funded by the BIO lobby group of Pfizer & Moderna worked with Twitter to define content moderation rules around “disinformation” about COVID-19. The campaign was funded with $1,275,000 and included creating content moderation bots, verifying public health accounts, and removing content. Some of the tweets focused on by the campaign included truly unbalanced misinformation, but others were a gray area, such as vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. The campaign included regular emails to take down and verify tweets, many of which focused on the @zerohedge account. This effort to censor COVID-19 disinformation did not apply to pharmaceutical companies but only to industry critics.
For more in this article, see:
- Prologue and Section 1: Literature Review
- Section 2: Data and real examples
- Section 3: Abuse of Power on Social Networks
- Section 4: Elon Musk exposes Twitter files
- Section 5: Behind the scenes of manipulation: techniques used to influence public opinion
- Section 6: Exploring solutions to the challenges presented: a critical review
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