Last week, on November 30, journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger testified before Congress about their alarming findings from the so-called “Twitter Files ” – internal Twitter documents detailing censorship and collusion with government agencies.
Their testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee shed light on the immense, unchecked power of social media platforms to control online speech. But one thing in particular alarmed the pair of them—the extent to which current and former government agents held sway at the company.
The Twitter Files, a collection of internal documents from Twitter (now called X), surfaced in late 2022. They revealed the platform’s content moderation practices, including instances of suppressing certain viewpoints and accounts.
Elon Musk shared files with some journalists following his acquisition of the platform. By doing so, he aimed to reveal previous moderation policies that he believed favored the U.S. government and specific political groups—specifically the Democratic Party.
At last week’s hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik questioned the two of the journalists involved—Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, and some disturbing revelations came to light. Taibbi pointed to Twitter’s “organized system” for flagging content in coordination with the FBI and DHS, involving blacklists with thousands of accounts. He called it “shocking” and believed it was likely a First Amendment violation.
Shellenberger highlighted Twitter employees working with outside groups to “pre-bunk” the Hunter Biden laptop story by pressuring media and platforms not to cover it, despite no evidence it was untrue.
When Stefanik asked if this collusion to censor certain speech is appropriate, Shellenberger gave an emphatic “absolutely not.” He argued the government shouldn’t covertly decide who can speak in the digital public square any more than they should decide who can speak in the physical one. Taibbi agreed it can constitute election interference given the overt partisanship they uncovered in censorship teams, who saw Trump‘s election as a doomsday scenario.
“I think the most alarming thing that we saw was the regular stream of organized communication between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the largest tech companies in the country,” said Taibbi. With the federal agencies regularly asking Twitter employees to remove content in enormous numbers.
The Twitter files also noted how the social media giant had hired numerous former FBI agents to work in Twitter’s top ranks. They included the former general counsel of the FBI, Jim Baker, and the former Deputy Director of the FBI. “There were so many FBI people at Twitter that they had their own internal group and their own little crib sheet to describe the difference between the terms that they use at the FBI versus at Twitter,” said Shellenberger.
Due to their significant presence in the company, former CIA employees had reportedly also formed their own internal group.
Whilst there is nothing explicitly illegal about former law enforcement employees taking up senior positions at Twitter, the continuing links between the company and their former employers meant the latter’s work culture and practices often encroached on the former. Until recently, there was also no public or congressional oversight of the frequent communications between federal agencies and one of the world’s biggest social media companies.
Wider society was sold a story that moderation decisions at Twitter were the result of commercial decisions and the tastes of advertisers. Now we know that wasn’t true.
You can read Matt Taibbi’s original Twitter (now X) thread detailing the Twitter Files here .