Twitter Files: How Elon Musk promotes conspiracy myths


As of: January 5, 2023 3:42 p.m

With great fanfare, Musk announced the so-called Twitter Files – alleged revelations about how unpleasant opinions had been censored on Twitter. According to experts, the findings are not new – but they reveal a lot about Musk himself.

“The public deserves to know what really happened,” wrote Twitter owner and multi-billionaire Elon Musk at the end of November on the platform, which he took over in October for $44 billion. Musk was alluding to the publication of the so-called Twitter Files – a series of internal documents from the social network that Musk made available to selected journalists.

But the big scandal has so far failed to materialize. The Twitter files attracted little attention, especially outside the USA – with the exception of conspiracy ideology circles. Musk is celebrated there as a supposed enlightener who exposed “the corruption of Twitter” in order to make the “Great Awakening” possible. But what are the Twitter Files all about?

“Most of it has been known for a long time”

The Twitter Files consist of twelve successively published reports (so-called threads) that were published on Twitter by the journalists chosen by Musk. In terms of content, they each deal with their own topic aspects, some of which, however, overlap. What they all have in common, however, is that they are intended to show how supposedly unpleasant opinions and users on Twitter were at least limited in their reach and how Twitter also worked with secret service organizations and state actors.

Musk is deliberately using this narrative, which has been spread in the USA by conspiracy ideology and right-wing circles for years, with the Twitter files, says Katja Muñoz, research assistant at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “In terms of content, they hardly bring any new insights. Most of it has been known for a long time.”

Hunter Biden’s laptop

Among other things, the Twitter files rehash the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the son of US President Joe Biden. During the 2020 presidential election campaign, the New York Post reported an article about explosive documents from a laptop that Hunter Biden dropped off at a computer store and never picked up again. Emails show Hunter Biden had business relationships in Ukraine and China that benefited from his family’s political influence. There has been heated debate for a long time about the authenticity of the laptop and the documents, but it is now considered certain.

However, links to the New York Post article were blocked on Twitter at the time and the newspaper’s account was temporarily blocked. The company justified the action with its own terms and conditions: The distribution of information that was obtained through hacking and contains private files is prohibited. There was then a hail of criticism for Twitter. Then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later apologized but denied taking political sides. The account was blocked and the link could be distributed again.

In connection with the publication of the Twitter files, Musk wrote that Twitter had acted on government orders. However, even according to journalist Matt Taibbi, who edited this part of the Twitter files, there is no evidence of this. In addition, Joe Biden was not yet US President at the time in question.

freedom of speech versus Combating disinformation

“What’s really interesting about the Twitter Files is that they provide an insight into the company’s internal debates during the really difficult moments,” says Muñoz. The files show how difficult it was for the company to make decisions such as blocking former President Donald Trump’s account after the storm on the Capitol. “The fact that there were some very heated discussions internally also shows that Musk’s allegations of political censorship by Twitter are in vain.”

Mareile Ihde, head of digital communication at the political consulting network polisphere, also considers the knowledge gained from the Twitter files to be manageable. “At a time when so much disinformation is being spread on social networks, it is logical that appropriate moderation takes place there.” It is hardly surprising that large social networks like Twitter are also in contact with secret services. It is also understandable that the Trump and Biden administrations turned to the company to combat disinformation about the corona pandemic, for example.

Rather, the Twitter files show how difficult it is for social networks to manage the balancing act between freedom of expression on the one hand and combating disinformation on the other.

Accusations of shadow banning

This also applies to the allegations of so-called shadow banning, says Miro Dittrich, senior researcher at CeMAS (Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy). “Shadow banning means that certain users or tweets are restricted in their visibility and thus their reach without them being informed about this.” Accusations of political censorship are often raised in this context, especially in conservative circles.

However, there is no evidence of political censorship in the Twitter files, says Dittrich. “The accounts that were restricted in visibility had previously violated Twitter’s policies.” All major platforms would use algorithms to sort content. They used many different markers to see what contributed to the discussion and what didn’t. “But the markers are not political beliefs. Unless you include conspiracy stories like the stolen elections.”

Dittrich explains the excitement about the topic primarily with the ignorance of many people about the mechanisms of social networks. Musk is apparently not aware of this either. After taking over Twitter, he himself wrote that the new Twitter policy was “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”

“This is exactly what has been and is being implemented on Twitter and other social networks,” says Dittrich. “It is, so to speak, a further development from the early phase of post moderation, where there was only the decision: delete the post or account or not delete it. The social networks have seen that they need more options.” The term shadow banning Twitter rejected it as inappropriate back in 2018, as the affected content can still be found. With “real” shadow banning, however, according to the definition, no one other than the user can see their content.

“This is a political campaign”

Dittrich believes that Musk is pursuing his own agenda with the Twitter files: “This is a very clear political campaign.” Instead of really relying on transparency, he only selected journalists for the Twitter files who shared his political views. On the other hand, he did not release all documents, but only selected ones.

“In principle, the journalists do PR for Musk,” says Dittrich. “It would be transparent if journalists could freely search for possible stories in the data.” Former CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey also criticized Musk for this and called on him to publish all internal documents at once and “without filters.”

Musk reactivated right-wing extremist accounts

In an email to Twitter employees, Musk threatened to sue any employee who leaks internal content to the media, like this Journalist Zoë Schiffer reported – exactly what he had done with the Twitter files. Musk also had accounts he disliked blocked on Twitter, including several journalists from established media outlets.

“Musk’s political positioning is actually relatively clear – from the more right-wing libertarian to the right-wing extremist and conspiracy ideological corner,” says Ihde from polisphere. “The publications fit into his worldview that governments are making secret agreements behind closed doors. In doing so, he supports the narratives of many conspiracy stories that are circulating in the USA.”

Among other things, Musk reactivated numerous accounts of right-wing extremists and anti-Semites such as those of Kanye West and Andrew Tate. One Investigation by the British NGO Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) According to him, the number of racist, homophobic and misogynistic tweets rose rapidly under his aegis. Ihde considers this development to be very dangerous: “It can lead to people becoming radicalized and the hatred ultimately leading to action.”

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