In the newest batch of documents released by Elon Musk, it has been revealed that various Democrats’ vocal and public accusations against social media companies ultimately led Twitter to embrace greater censorship.
Among the claims was that these companies failed to stop “misinformation” on their platforms in the lead-up to the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, the role of social media in his campaign quickly came into focus. At the time, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, credited social media for the victory.
“Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” Parscale said in the weeks following the November election. “Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
Democrats quickly turned their focus to Facebook and the alleged prevalence of Russian accounts orchestrating “misinformation” and “disinformation” on the platform.
This attention reached its peak in April 2018 when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Committees on Judiciary, Science, and Transportation.
Under a line of questioning from California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, Zuckerberg said that one of his “greatest regrets in running the company” was that Facebook was “slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016.”
During this period, Twitter was happy to let Facebook be the focus of the national conversation being led by Democrats.
Colin Crowell, a vice president at Twitter, acknowledged in an email that “we did not see a big correlation on our platform that [Facebook] found on theirs.”
Another correspondence said that while Facebook may “take action on hundreds of accounts” allegedly linked to Russia, Twitter “may take action on ~25.”
The official public relations stance of Twitter soon became to say nothing and redirect the press to Facebook.
“Twitter is not the focus of inquiry into Russian election meddling right now – the spotlight is on [Facebook],” Crowell wrote in an email to senior Twitter employees.
In late 2017, Twitter quietly informed the U.S. Senate that it had manually reviewed 2,700 accounts and suspended 22 accounts possibly linked to Russia and another 179 that were linked to them.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) immediately held a press conference denouncing Twitter and its findings as “frankly inadequate on every level.”
Crowell then met with congressional leaders and sent an email to then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others explaining Twitter’s problem.
“Warner has political incentive to keep this issue at top of the news, maintain pressure on us and rest of industry to keep producing material for them,” Crowell wrote.
Crowell went on to say that Democrats were “taking cues from Hillary Clinton,” who had lost to Trump in 2016.
Clinton had publicly reprimanded Twitter in the press that week, stating, “It’s time for Twitter to stop dragging its heels and live up to the fact that its platform is being used as a tool for cyber-warfare.”
Twitter then formed a “Russia Task Force” to self-investigate its platform and further explore the issue to alleviate pressure from Democrats.
Its findings were again paltry.
“Finished with investigation… 2500 full manual account reviews, we think this is exhaustive… 32 suspicious accounts and only 17 of those are connected with Russia, only 2 of those have significant [advertising] spend one of which is Russia Today…remaining <$10k in spend,” the task force reported.
Russia Today is an international television news network funded by the Russian government.
A flurry of bad press followed with calls for legislation affecting social media platforms from congressional Democrats. Twitter attempted to respond but was overwhelmed by the pressure from the media and lawmakers.
Reporter Matt Taibbi, who released these findings, explained, “This cycle — threatened legislation, wedded to scare headlines pushed by congressional/intel sources, followed by Twitter caving to moderation asks — would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement.”
As the intelligence and law enforcement communities began to take an interest in Twitter’s content, senior leadership was resigned to their new fate.
In an email to top executives, Crowell wrote, “We will not be reverting to the status quo.”