Enemy of the People? (Wikimedia Commons)

A British tech writer and UK technology editor for the Guardian took time away from covering the FTX cryptocurrency scandals to post an item today to the paper’s website with the intriguing headline: “I read Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ so you don’t have to.” That head’s a fair summary of the article, and the article is a fair reckoning of Musk’s contribution to — or detraction from — popular culture worldwide.

Also eminently fair is the Guardian’s subhead: “In this week’s newsletter: The leaks don’t reveal a hotbed of leftwing bias at the social media company – just a thin-skinned billionaire rehashing culture wars of years past.”

The article by the Guardian’s Alex Hern lives up to the headine. It analyzes threads posted to the internet by Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger, whom all broadly part of what Hern describes as “a wave of ‘post-liberal’ Substack newsletter writers.” I don’t keep up with these guys — what I’ve seen of their work seems driven by ideological narratives that often (in my opinion) get in the way of the facts — but I think they raise a serious ethical question. Says Hern:

I think it’s important to distinguish between the Twitter files, and the “Twitter Files”. The latter, a big, hyped, coordinated publication, has so far failed to achieve its apparent goals. The throughline of the whole exercise is that Twitter is a hotbed of leftwing bias, explicitly aligned with the US Democratic party, and taking unwarranted action to censor speech for politically motivated purposes.

The posts themselves show little of the sort. […]

After detailing each of the three document dumps, Hern raises several red flags. One that seemed especially compelling to me, as an old journalism teacher whose master’s thesis at Penn State touched on media ethics in trial coverage, is the cozy relation between Musk and the three journos whom he leaked on. Or dumped on. I’m not sure which verb applies here.

Cozy? It’s more blatant than that. Hern puts it like this: “One requirement, [… was] that everything they published be shared on Twitter itself […] At the same time, the reporting was done inside Twitter’s offices, with the assistance of Twitter staff,” Hern says.

If I’m writing an expose of oh, say, the Greater Springfield Area Possum Breeders Association to cite a hypothetical example, I would not want to publish it in the newsletter of the Greater Springfield Area Possum Breeders Association. Especially if the newsletter had recently been acquired by someone who bought into the theory that rogue possum breeders were grooming children to identify as possums and indulge in unspeakable practices in the Democrat-mandated litter boxes in their classrooms.

My example is hypothetical — at least, to my knowledge, so far — but that’s what Musk is doing. He’s using his media platform to bestow “scoops” on reporters who have demonstrated the ability to bend facts to fit his preferred ideological narrative. Says Hern of the Guardian:

The bulk of the material so far, then, has been focused on what are effectively two extremely high-stakes individual moderation decisions, one widely regarded as an error in hindsight (hiding stories about Biden’s laptop), and the other exactly as divisive as anyone would have guessed beforehand (Trump’s ban).

The documents shared by Taibbi and Shellenberger largely support that reading. Shorn of the conspiratorial framing of the two writers, the excerpts of internal emails and chat messages that they have posted appear to show staff tackling the enormous burden that has been placed on them with a rough mixture of panic and resolve.

In the days following the publication of the Post’s story on Hunter Biden, that wasn’t enough. The executives quoted by Taibbi are clearly aware of the prospect of a repeat of 2016’s WikiLeaks dump of hacked Democratic Party documents, and move quickly to discuss enforcing a policy against sharing hacked materials. But the materials weren’t hacked, and while the chain of custody of Biden’s laptop remains murky, it rapidly became clear that the policy was wrongly applied. Twitter’s most senior staff were too slow removing the ban as that became clear, and, in Taibbi’s words, “erred on the side of … continuing to err”.

Just two months later, the same group was convened to discuss Donald Trump. The president had used social media to egg on a protest in Washington DC that turned violent as his supporters decided to storm the US Capitol building. In the days since the election, Twitter had been aggressively applying its “newsworthiness” policy, slapping a label on posts that would be deleted were it not for the prominence of their author, but by 7 January, it was clear that was unsatisfactory in the case of Trump. [Links, ellipsis in the original]

Also eminently fair is the this statement by Marcus Hutchins, posted to a Twitter-like thread on infosec.exchange, a part of the decentralized social network powered by the German crowdfunded not-for-profit Mastodon GmbH: .

Marcus Hutchins, the ethical hacker who stopped the WannaCry ransomware infection, posted on Mastodon about the docs. “As a security professional, not much scares me,” he said. “I’ve seen my personal data stolen numerous times, watched nationstate hackers spray zerodays across the internet, and I’m a shameless user of TikTok.

“But now you have someone sitting on top of the personal data of several billion users, someone who has a long track record of vindictive harassment, someone who has the ear of the far right, and someone who has just shown us his willingness to weaponise internal company data to score political points. That scares me a lot.”

Hutchins, who now lives in Los Angeles, has a checkered history. A hacker since was 14, and he pled guilty to US federal charges of “conspiring to commit wire fraud, as well as distributing, selling, promoting, and advertising a device used to intercept electronic communications.” But he had cooperated with the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, in WannaCry ransom attacks, among other activities to promoted cybersecurity.

In the end, in 2019, Hutchins was sentenced to time served and one year of supervised release, on charges that carried a sentence of “up to five years in prison and $250,000; Wikipedia says the judge “recogniz[ed] that Hutchins had ‘turned the corner’ from using his skills for criminal purpose into beneficial uses well before he had faced justice.that Hutchi “turned the corner” from using his skills for criminal purpose into beneficial uses well before he had faced justice.”

Musk, I would submit, has turned a similar corner. But he’s headed, as far as I can see, in the wrong direction.

Cite: Alex Hern, “I read Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ so you don’t have to,” The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/dec/13/techscape-twitter-files-elon-musk.

[Published to Ordinary Time Nov. 13, 2022]

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