“The Twitter Files”: It’s Not About Free Speech

A few days ago Matt Taibbi began publishing “The Twitter Files,” a summary of documents apparently handed over to him by Elon Musk. The documents thus far amount to a recap of the Hunter Biden saga—a story whose legitimate merits have been overshadowed by years of right-wing obsession—a look at how Trump’s and others’ tweets were moderated around the election and January 6, and, broadly, a selective look at what censorship and content moderation have meant at Twitter. But given Taibbi (and Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger) are doing this in coordination with Musk, it’s impossible to seriously evaluate the “release” on its face.

That of course is the point: whatever Matt Taibbi may or may not tell himself, “The Twitter Files” is explicitly intended as right-wing political project. Any potentially significant information it includes doesn’t really matter—not only because the report is singularly meant to bolster one narrative—but also because any meaningfully ameliorative changes to the issues theoretically raised, like publicly and transparently managing Twitter, are not going to happen.

So it is difficult not to see this as particularly pathetic for Taibbi, if the latest in a years-long downward slide. Of course, it’s not just him (though for more, Yasha Levine’s write-up of Taibbi’s cowardice and willingness to jettison his past collaborators, like Mark Ames—presciently written in 2020—reads as one of the best explanations of what led him here).

The attendant conversation around “free speech,” years old now, and amplified by Musk’s recent purchase, has just become insufferable. Nevermind that it’s got a terribly bad-faith origin point—the idea that this reactionary society in any serious way “censors” conservative speech—it’s not even truthful in its basic pretensions. Musk and his pals don’t want free speech: just look at the left-wing accounts he’s canceled from Twitter. Many of his collaborators are openly anti-democratic, and Musk’s own hostility to workers is well documented. Given the opportunity, these people will censor and cancel as much as they are allowed.

I recall about a decade ago, before I’d ever used Twitter, in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring, people liked to talk about social media’s democratizing potential. Turns out, it wasn’t exactly that. But there is something perversely democratic in seeing the way powerful people expose themselves on Twitter, and how this behavior is continually self-reinforced and reified in what is fundamentally a feedback machine—in Musk’s case, via a kind of astounding adolescent stupidity, or in journalist-turned-conservative-pundit Taibbi’s, by lazily accepting and running cover for right-wing power, while entertaining the most noxious ideas in this society (what “free speech” really means to these people).

And being a feedback machine, social media really is by design always conservative, sort of inherently unable to “favor” anything that radically challenges power. And now this machine is accelerating, like the rest of society, in its lurch to the right. Of course, if you want to see it, you have to be willing to look.

Will Solomon writes a newsletter, Nor’easter, on climate and environment in the Northeast US. He can be found on Twitter and elsewhere at @wsolol.