Don’t use ‘Twitter Files’ to eliminate Section 230

It is hard not to read the drips coming from the “Twitter Files” as confirming the worst fears of conservatives: screenshots of talk show host Dan Bongino’s account with the tab “Search Blacklist,” conservative activist Charlie Kirk’s account showing “Do Not Amplify,” and internal email replies to Biden administration officials that just say, “Handled.”

By compiling Slack messages, internal emails, and other company messages, journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss and author Michael Shellenberger have exposed the inner workings of Twitter in a series of posts they are calling the “Twitter Files.” The Files are wide-ranging and add much-needed context to the Hunter Biden laptop story and the decision to remove President Donald Trump in January 2020. But those stories have been well-tread.

What’s new is that the files confirm both the Trump and Biden teams have been flagging tweets for Twitter to consider taking down, verify that prominent figures on the Right have had their content deprioritized, and substantiate that the intelligence community has been influential in content moderation decisions.

Some political leaders are using this opportunity to call for broader reforms of the law, including the abolition of Section 230. But content liability, which is the core of Section 230, is not what caused these problems. Changing Section 230 won’t right the ship.

Take the examples above. Amending Section 230 to prohibit “Do Not Amplify” or “Search Blacklist” provisions could mean platforms just remove those accounts instead of a milder form of moderation. If a reform also includes a provision preventing those practices based on ideology, then it becomes a game of definitions that could mean racist ideologies, for example, are seen trending or easily searchable. Abolishing Section 230 would do nothing to change “Do Not Amplify” or “Search Blacklist” practices. Perhaps a person like Dan Bongino would feel emboldened to sue Twitter on suspicion of such behavior, but that’s not an indication of success. First Amendment rights would provide a robust defense of the platform, and not one but hundreds, if not thousands, of users could sue likewise, eventually crushing a platform that’s been a boon to users such as Bongino, Kirk, and even Trump, let alone the smaller accounts.

Rather, what is needed for Twitter to serve the public is more transparency. It means Twitter needs to be transparent about its content moderation practices, as well as how it handles data. And for their own part, government agencies and political parties need to be transparent about the content they are advising any social media company to take down. However, any act of transparency regarding content moderation practices could be ripe for abuse by bad actors. It is a trade-off platforms must make.

While some see the releases as confirmation of a deeply held secret in Silicon Valley, others see the news as an old story revived with new details. Indeed, Twitter admitted in 2018 that it limited the reach of content and faced criticism for it. What’s new and pernicious from what we know so far is that the company seems to have singularly focused on voices on the Right and those that challenged COVID lockdowns.

Twitter needs to be transparent about which accounts are getting special treatment. In reaction to the revelations, Elon Musk announced that “Twitter is working on a software update that will show your true account status, so you know clearly if you’ve been shadowbanned, the reason why and how to appeal.” Such a tool is long overdue for Twitter since it would allow users helpful insight into how their reach is being affected.

But just as important, if Musk is all about transparency, then he should release as much as possible to other journalists and researchers so that the public can understand the larger context of these decisions. Taibbi only briefly mentions it, but what content did Trump’s team help to flag? As currently rolled out, the Twitter Files is a political circus that is driving traffic to the site instead of an attempt to discuss soberly the cozy relationship that has developed between the company, political parties, and government agencies.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has argued that abolishing Section 230 will fix all of this from happening in the future. Such a dramatic move is a misdiagnosis that would have the effect of removing a cornerstone of the dynamic internet economy.

Section 230 means Twitter isn’t held liable for legal content generated by its users. Doing away with these protections would mean the company would be more sensitive to content generated by users. Doing away with Section 230 is a world of more takedowns, delisting, and shadow-bans, not fewer.

But the files aren’t the only revelations about the company that paint a disturbing picture. The whistleblower report from Peiter Zatko indicates the company had an “anomalously high rate of security incidents,” so much so that employees likely installed spyware into the network, and hundreds of logins could not be tracked.

Sweeping policy changes aren’t needed to change Twitter. What is needed is a change in company culture and more transparency. Love him or hate him, Musk seems to be on his way to doing both.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.