Facebook Twitter

What the reaction to the ‘Twitter files’ reveals about the media

Trust in the press is at an all-time low, especially among conservatives

SHARE What the reaction to the ‘Twitter files’ reveals about the media
A sign at Twitter headquarters is shown in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.

A sign at Twitter headquarters is shown in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Last week’s disclosure that Twitter had actively limited the reach of certain people or topics based on their political slant hit differently for different people. On the right, and among those on the heterodox left, there was frustration and anger. But on the progressive left, the response was much more muted.

The revelation that Twitter employees blacklisted certain — mostly right-leaning — accounts was released by journalist Bari Weiss. Just days before, journalist Matt Taibbi unveiled the first “Twitter Files” thread, which documented Twitter’s decision to censor stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, including those by the New York Post. As of Monday, several more Twitter Files tweet threads had been released about why Twitter banned President Donald Trump.

But even as the news rolled out, the mainstream press seemed to collectively shrug. Most of the big national media outlets barely covered the Twitter news. When they did, the reporting was accompanied by an explanation that seemed to suggest that Twitter’s censorship was both justified and necessary.

But if media outlets want to be the source of news for more than just one side of the ideological divide, they’re going to have to find a way to talk about issues like this. And we need news media that can talk to more than just the political left or right, because those are the sources that can inform and unite in times of national crises, like we just experienced during the pandemic.

But instead, we’re stuck arguing about whether or not Twitter did anything wrong.

Was Twitter justified in censoring or limiting the reach of some tweets? As a private company, it was certainly within its rights. And it seems reasonable that there should be some curation of content on the platform, particularly to limit hateful or violence-inducing speech. But Twitter billed itself as an open forum for the sharing of ideas, and that is not how it behaved, especially when it came to right-leaning viewpoints. 

“Twitter denied that it does such things,” Weiss wrote in her thread. “In 2018, Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde (then head of legal policy and trust) and Kayvon Beykpour (head of product) said: ‘We do not shadow ban.’ They added: ‘And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.’” 

Contrary to what former Twitter employees claimed, Weiss’ reporting showed the social media site put users or ideas on “blacklists,” limiting their reach or accessibility via search. 

For example, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford medical professor, had his account blacklisted after he said on Twitter in 2020 that children should return to in-person school and that COVID-19 lockdown policies were harmful for children. 

While Twitter’s suppression of ideas and information, including the Hunter Biden laptop story, is upsetting, somehow the media’s lack of response is even more concerning, confirming the idea that many in the mainstream press see their job as presenting a partisan narrative rather than digging for the truth.

For people who are concerned about the spread of disinformation, the media’s leftward shift should be equally concerning.  

In an age when “truth” seems hard to come by, a curious, careful, fact-based press that builds trust with the communities they seek to cover is more important than ever. When journalists ignore some stories — or, more importantly, some people — they show bias in a way that erodes trust. 

Gallup has been asking Americans how much they trust the media since 1972, and that trust is at an all-time low. Only 34% say they have a great deal of trust in the media, compared to 28% who say not much trust and 38% who say none at all. 

The number of Republicans who say they trust the media is only 14%, compared to 70% of Democrats and 27% of independent voters. 

How can the media rebuild credibility, especially among conservatives? They can start by refraining from condescension and contempt. By showing curiosity and respect for their ideas and concerns. By providing factual reporting on issues that may hurt Democrats or progressives. And, maybe especially, by encouraging ideological diversity in newsrooms and among sources.

What’s the alternative? We keep gravitating to media sources that conform to our biases, and we all miss out on information that will give us a richer, broader view of the world and our neighbors. 

When conservatives complain about the media, many on the left point to right-leaning outlets like Fox News or National Review — they are also part of the media, they say. Yes, there are right- and left-leaning outlets. That’s fine. They are clear about their biases and share information interesting to a segment of readers or viewers. But having national outlets that can reach a bipartisan audience with a balanced and thoughtful approach to the news is still something we should be striving for. 

And this is the way to fight disinformation, which is a legitimate problem. When, in the name of stopping disinformation, people start censoring speech that ends up being true, it makes stopping the spread of “fake news” even harder. Because, then, who do you trust? 

When members of the press take a firm, unforgiving public stand on an issue and then end up being wrong — think Trump’s ties to Russia, or the idea that the COVID-19 vaccine would prevent all transmission — it hurts their credibility and makes them less trustworthy. 

There are those, like Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, who see in the media’s leftward lurch a kind of elitism, where the concerns of less educated or wealthy Americans are discounted while the concerns and opinions of the moneyed and educated New York and Washington, D.C.-based journalists are vaunted. 

This is antithetical to the idea many journalists have about themselves. And, to be sure, there are still many hardworking reporters who want to tell the stories that matter to every American. But, at times like these, when it is clear that some stories and voices are being suppressed, it shouldn’t be hard for the media to say that’s not OK.