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Musk reveals how Twitter has handled some high-profile decisions

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Twitter owner Elon Musk says he's pulling back the curtain on how the social network has handled some high-profile decisions on what you can and cannot tweet. He released internal documents to a handpicked group of journalists who have been digging through them and posting excerpts on Twitter. But is this corporate transparency or just the latest attention-grabbing stunt by the billionaire CEO? NPR correspondent Shannon Bond joins us. Shannon, OK, for listeners who might not be familiar, what are the Twitter Files?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Yeah, as you said, they're internal documents. These are emails and Slack chats. And they show Twitter employees, most of whom are no longer at the company, discussing the company's policies and some of these really fraught calls they've had to make in recent years, including the decision to ban then-President Donald Trump after the January 6 Capitol attack, as well as some details about how Twitter limits the reach of some users, including well-known right wing accounts that have broken its rules. Now, many Republicans have long claimed they are being censored on social media, even though Twitter's own internal research has found its algorithms favor right-leaning political content. And so Musk and those that he's given access to have framed these documents as this bombshell, as proof that Twitter has, in fact, intentionally suppressed conservatives for politically motivated reasons.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, Shannon. So now that we have a peek behind the Twitter curtain, what's new to you?

BOND: Well, you know, I've covered social media for a while. And this is, you know, an interesting look inside these high-stakes, controversial moderation processes. But it's not a bombshell. I mean, take Twitter's decision in 2020 to briefly block people from sharing a New York Post story based on Hunter Biden's laptop. You know, that was controversial. The company said very publicly later it was a mistake how it had handled this. And these new internal documents - they show Twitter employees struggling with what to do in that case and questioning their own policies.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the audience for these files seems to be Elon Musk's conservative supporters. So how are they receiving this.

BOND: Yeah, I mean, for many of them, the mere existence of these internal discussions is the smoking gun. And that's certainly how Musk is framing this. And it's quickly gotten quite ugly. You know, Musk is using this project, which purports to be about transparency, in part to harass people he disagrees with. And he's giving his followers easy targets to go after. Over the weekend, he attacked Twitter's former head of safety, Yoel Roth, who features heavily in these documents, as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci. Musk says he will feature in future installments of the Twitter Files. And in both cases, Musk endorsed conspiracy theories and has triggered violent threats against both men.

MARTÍNEZ: So if Musk is critiquing Twitter's old management, their previous management, what is he doing differently?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, that's a good question, right? Because for better or worse, the old Twitter did have a set of policies and processes. And it didn't always follow them, but it did have them. Under Musk, it's really kind of whatever he wants to do. You know, he's in control. Just yesterday, he dissolved the company's Trust and Safety Council, this outside advisory group. At the same time, he's endorsed some existing policies that the Twitter Files have cast as censorship, like limiting the visibility of tweets that break the rules. And he's also reinstated thousands of accounts that had been banned for breaking the rules, including former President Trump, as well as neo-Nazis and white nationalists and QAnon promoters. At the same time, he says he won't let Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, or Kanye West, back on the platform. But instead of talking about any of these decisions Musk is making now, we're talking about what Twitter did a couple years back. And for me, that's the biggest takeaway. Musk is using Twitter to get people talking about Twitter on Twitter.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Shannon Bond, thanks a lot.

BOND: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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