Have you read “The Twitter Files” yet? You know, that “explosive” exposé posted on Friday — in a long thread of three dozen tweets — by Rolling Stone columnist-turned-Substack provocateur Matt Taibbi that supposedly rips the lid off Twitter’s role in the whole Hunter Biden laptop affair? According to Taibbi, during the run-up to the 2020 election, Twitter’s liberal-leaning pre-Musk leadership conspired with the Democrats to censor politically sensitive material about Joe Biden’s son that might have swung the race for Donald Trump.
More specifically, Taibbi posted a bunch of internal Twitter documents and emails — wherever could he have got them from? — which supposedly prove that Twitter was politically motivated when it suppressed the posting of a October 2020 New York Post story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s computer, material that shed an unflattering light on young Biden’s alleged influence peddling with a Ukrainian energy executive. Even more sensationally, Taibbi also claimed that Joe Biden’s campaign staffers had further directed Twitter to remove other tweets — like the ones posted by conservative actor James Woods — that they saw as damaging to the Biden presidential campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the GOP has jumped all over the story. “Twitter colluded to silence the truth about Hunter Biden’s laptop just days before the 2020 election,” tweeted Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, promising to investigate the matter once the Republicans take control of the House in January.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri was equally fired up by Taibbi’s posts, tweeting, “Here we have it — Dem lawmakers pressing Twitter for MORE censorship to advance their political agenda, First Amendment be damned. They’re still at it. This is why Dems love monopoly power.”
Musk himself weighed in on Taibbi’s “smoking gun” revelations in a tweet of his own: “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?”
OK, so there’s a lot to unpack here. For starters, the Post story that Twitter blocked in 2020 had also, at the time, been rejected for coverage by not-so-liberal outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both of which had concerns about how the material in the piece had been collected. You can have a rational debate about whether that was a smart decision or a dumb one — Twitter’s then-CEO Jack Dorsey ultimately apologized for blocking the Post piece.
But the other, racier part of Taibbi’s reporting, that Biden’s staff had directed Twitter to delete other unflattering posts like the ones from James Woods, is a much easier call. It turns out the tweets Biden’s campaign asked Twitter to take down were selfies of Hunter Biden’s private parts, as well as a few shots of him smoking crack, all presumably purloined from the laptop.
Even Republicans can probably muster some sympathy for a father not wanting his son’s dick pics plastered all over the internet.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The contents of the Post story and the other tweets is beside the point. Because Twitter’s decision to block them from its site, whether you agree with it or not, had absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment or censorship.
As any reasonably on-the-ball middle schooler can tell you — and as Matt Taibbi, who used to be a sharp observer of Washington hypocrisy, surely knows — the Constitution prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech. It doesn’t prohibit private companies like Twitter from deciding for itself what it wants to put out in the world. It’s a free country, and Twitter is allowed to delete anything it wants from its site for any reason it wants.
When Tucker Carlson deleted the antisemitic portions of his interview with Kanye “Ye” West before putting it on the air in October, it was an egregious and despicable act of misinformation. But it wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment. When Fox News decided to overlook Donald Trump’s recent dinner with Holocaust-denyin g white nationalist Nick Fuentes, barely mentioning it at all on its newscasts, it was an eyeball-rolling dereliction of journalistic responsibility. But it wasn’t censorship. When Fox News declined to air the January 6 congressional hearings in full, as both CNN and MSNBC did, it was a shockingly shameful omission for a network that’s been all but built on shameful omissions. But it was Fox’s choice to make. Nobody censored anybody.
Musk himself ultimately came around to a somewhat more nuanced, if still muddled, understanding of what happened at Twitter before he took over. “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation,” he conceded in a followup tweet, “but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.”
For once, he’s absolutely correct — except that Joe Biden wasn’t part of the government when his staffers asked Twitter to remove those naked selfies of Hunter. He and his campaign workers were civilians, with no government authority whatsoever. Biden hadn’t yet won the election and nobody in his campaign had the power to order Twitter to do anything.
Musk clearly fancies himself as a free speech warrior liberating Twitter from the iron grip of progressive elites who’d supposedly been skewing the site’s mediation policies in favor of the Democrats (even though Taibbi’s report also points to incidents in which the Trump campaign also asked Twitter to remove posts — and back then Trump did have power).
Musk sees reinstating Donald Trump’s and (until he started posting swastikas) Ye’s Twitter feeds, as well as those of scores of self-described neo-Nazis, as blows against censorship and a win for the open marketplace of ideas. And I suppose he’s sort of correct about that, too. Twitter is now more packed with free-speaking racists, homophobes and antisemites than ever before; a recent study by Montclair State University found that hate speech on the platform has skyrocketed some 400% since Musk took over, from an average of 1,000 incidents per 12 hours to 4,778 incidents.
Still, nobody in the U.S. government is stepping in to stop the deluge. Congress has passed no laws to curtail it, the White House has issued no executive orders. Because, for better or worse, that’s what the First Amendment is really all about.