When social media solidified itself into the collective consciousness of technology users in the first decade of this century, it was increasingly looking like a revolutionary tool and saviour for billions worldwide. That was not only because one could see what their friends were doing or baking, but because it expanded the voices of the underprivileged and oppressed in more repressed parts of the world.
Nowhere was that seen more over the past decade than during the Arab Spring movements, which – temporarily – threatened authoritarian regimes with the instant mass communication that social media platforms enabled. It also informed viewers of the realities and specificities of ongoing conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria and the more recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Social media platforms have also served as a surprising tool to counter the disinformation of many media outlets and inform other outlets of the realities of certain situations. A major example was the events in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban's takeover of the country last year, when a slew of disinformation campaigns against the group was combatted by videos and local witness accounts.
Another and more recent example can be seen in the war in Ukraine, when huge amounts of Russian propaganda were countered by leaked videos and translations, such as the glorified state of Russian troops and their conditions, shown in translated videos recorded by soldiers themselves, their rusty assault rifles, poor-quality armour, incomplete uniforms, inadequate food supplies and squalid living conditions.
Social media platforms were also instrumental in showing the world the effects of China's zero-COVID policies and the brutality of government and security forces in enforcing that, providing a path out of the tight social media restrictions and the great firewall caused by the limited reach of Chinese social media. That was also the case with the persecution of the Uyghurs in the country and the numerous "re-education" camps in which they are held.
If social media sites and the ability to freely share information did not exist, one could only imagine the limited knowledge we would have of any world event by relying solely on mainstream media channels and newspapers for our information.
When it comes to the reach of such information and exposés, chief among social media platforms is Twitter, which initially made its mission: "To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers." Yet, over the past few years, it seemingly failed to live up to that. Barriers were indeed erected, and voices were suppressed and censored at a rate higher than we may ever know.
It was only after tech and business magnate Elon Musk's purchase and acquisition of Twitter in October, however, that the true depth of the situation truly started to be revealed. Over the past few weeks, Musk – through journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss – has allowed the publishing of secret internal dealings and communications of former pre-Musk Twitter staff and leadership. The results have been staggering, but hardly surprising.
The Twitter Files
Dubbed the "Twitter Files", the internal communications have been released in various parts, with the first regarding Twitter's censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story. On 14 October, 2020, the New York Post published a story on the "Biden secret emails", which revealed the contents of the abandoned laptop of Hunter Biden, the son of current president and former vice president, Joe Biden.
Aside from exposing his chaotic lifestyle of drugs and sex workers, the story specifically revealed how the younger Biden introduced his father – at the time the US vice president – to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured Ukrainian government officials – by threatening to withhold a $1 billion US loan guarantee – into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company.
It was that incident, and later dealings with a Chinese energy firm, that brought to light not only the use of Biden's public position to serve the interests of a foreign company, but also the Biden family's broader profiting from the current president's decades in politics and the relationships built throughout it.
Twitter, however, took extraordinary steps to suppress the story at the time by removing links to it, displaying warnings that it was "unsafe", and blocking its transmission via direct message. Facebook took similar steps, and it was revealed this year that the suppression was ordered by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the US's domestic intelligence agency.
The Twitter Files part two consisted of the platform's creation of secret blacklists of Conservative or right-wing figures, which was a direct attempt to censor them despite former Twitter executives' repeated denials that it was doing so. That censorship also included criticism of lockdowns and measures to curb COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Parts three, four and five of the Twitter Files focused on the removal of Donald Trump from Twitter, despite the site's former staff privately agreeing amongst themselves that the sitting president at the time did nothing to officially warrant a removal.
Amid all of those cases, one theme was common and enduring: the direct involvement of US intelligence agencies. Twitter's former head of safety Yoel Roth reportedly met with the FBI on a weekly basis – especially around the 2020 election – as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
Not only did they meet, but those agencies had a direct say in what Twitter could and could not allow on its site and wielded direct pressure on the platform's policies and moderation, leading to potential meddling in the elections and further sway over the political system. If anything confirms widely-held suspicions that US intelligence – or the "deep state", as some Conservative commentators refer to it – supports and serves one side of the political spectrum, then this would be it.
What else, Elon?
Many mainstream media channels and outlets have, of course, either ignored the revelations or outright dismissed them as not mattering or revealing much. This response from outlets, likely also under the influence of domestic intelligence, is hardly surprising.
The only question remaining, for now, is what other dark secrets lay hidden in the dusty and murky depths of Twitter's underworld, which for years has been governed by a seemingly corrupt executive team directly in coordination with intelligence and security services? What other dealings have been conducted to compromise users and undermine their voices?
One likely answer may be the involvement of other governments and their intelligence agencies, especially following revelations over the years that pre-Musk Twitter was infiltrated by agents working for a number of foreign governments.
According to Twitter's former security chief, who spoke to US Congress in a rare whistleblowing case three months ago, there was "at least one agent" from China's intelligence service on the site's payroll, and it knowingly allowed India to infiltrate agents into the company. A former Twitter employee was also found guilty this year of spying on Saudi dissidents using his inside access to the platform, passing their personal information to a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Such penetrations into the popular platform by nations and their security services have potentially compromised countless users' personal data and safety.
Those governments and others could still be attempting to infiltrate the social media company, but it seems likely that they may have a harder time doing so with Musk at the helm and maintaining tight control. We have yet to see if Musk will live up to his self-proclamation as a "free speech absolutist" and prevent Twitter from losing its direction again, especially as influences remain, such as the Saudis being the second-largest investors in the platform.
The world awaits the emergence of later releases of the Twitter Files and what they hold.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.