OAN Newsroom Correspondent Sophia Flores
UPDATED 3:21 PM PT – Sunday, December 11, 2022
In this edition of “Twitter Files: The Removal of Donald Trump,” Michael Shellenberger focuses on what occurred in Twitter’s headquarters on January 7th. As pressure boiled, Twitter executives continued building the case for a permanent ban on the president. Within the span of a day, Twitter executives created justifications to ban Trump. In the midst of the events that occured on January 6th, the company introduced a policy change for Trump’s account. The new policy applied on the presidents account was distinctly different from policies other political leaders had. While doing this, executives expressed no concern for free speech or democracy implications of a ban.
For years, Twitter resisted calls to ban Trump. However, in the aftermath of January 6th, internal and external pressure on then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey grew. After the events that took place at the Capitol, many notable figures, including Former First Lady Michelle Obama, voiced their opinions to ban the president from the platform.
At the time, Dorsey was on vacation in French Polynesia. He phoned into meetings. However, he delegated much of the handling of the situation to senior executives Yoel Roth, the former Head of Trust & Safety, and Vijaya Gadde, the then Head of Legal, Policy & Trust.
It’s important to note that at the time, almost all of Twitter’s staffs political donations went to one political party. In 2018, 2019 and in 2022, 96%, 98% and 99% of their donations went to the Democrats.
On January 7th, Dorsey emailed employees reminding them that the social media company needed to remain consistent in its policies. Soon after his email, Roth privately messaged an employee reassuring them that “people who care about this, aren’t happy with where we are.”
In a different chat with his colleagues, Roth shared the news that Dorsey approved repeat offenders for civic integrity. The new approach would create a system where five violations, also known as strikes, would result in a permanent suspension. At this point in time, Trump had four strikes.
The excitement from his fellow employees in the chat made it clear that they had been pushing Dorsey for greater restrictions on the speech that Twitter allows around elections.
One of Roth’s colleagues asked “does the incitement to violence aspect change that calculus?” Roth said it does not. The next day, Twitter announced the permanent ban on Trump’s account due to “further risk of incitement of violence.”
The only serious concern that Shellenberger found regarding implications for free speech and democracy of banning Trump, came from a junior level employee. It was discovered in a low-level Slack channel called “site-integrity-auto.”
The term “one off” was often found in Slack conversations. Its frequent use revealed significant employee discretion over when and whether to apply warning labels on tweets and strikes on its users. Employees were aware of how their personal political opinions differed from Twitter’s Terms of Service.
The hashtags “stopthesteal,” and “kraken” were added to a blacklist of terms to be deamplified. Roth’s colleague objected blacklisting “stopthesteal” because it risked “deamplifying counterspeech” that validates the election. The two quickly came up with a solution. They settled on deamplifying accounts that contained the phrase “stopthesteal” in its name or on its profile because those accounts “are not affiliated with counter speech.” The company ran into unexpected issues by blacklisting “kraken” because in addition to being a QAnon conspiracy theory based on the mythical Norwegian sea monster, it is also the name of a cryptocurrency exchange.
Another conundrum the company faced was whether or not to punish users who shared screenshots of Trump’s deleted January 6th tweets.
The company also tried to decide what to do in cases where a user disliked Trump and objected to Twitter’s censorship. They decided that in that case, the tweet would get deleted. However, since the intention of the tweet was not to deny the election result, no strike would be applied.
Around noon on January 7th, a senior executive in advertising sales sent a private message to Roth asking what policies would need to be violated in order to permanently suspend Trump’s account. In response, Roth said that any policy violation would result in his suspension from the social media platform. The sales executive then went on to say “are we dropping the public interest (policy) now?” Roth responded by saying “In this specific case, we’re changing our public interest approach for his account.” This conversation is essential to understanding how Twitter justified banning Trump.
Twitter’s public interest exceptions allowed all elected and government officials to tweet anything that directly contributed to the understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern, even if their tweets violated Twitter’s terms. Trump was the only government official that was excluded from this rule.
On the evening of January 7th, a Twitter engineer privately message Roth to let him know their worries about banning the president’s account. “I feel a lot of debates around exceptions stem from the fact that Trump’s account is not technically different from anybody else’ and yet treated differently due to his personal status without corresponding Twitter rules.” In response Roth hinted at how Twitter would justify deviating from its longstanding policy. “To put a different spin on it: policy is one part of the system of how Twitter works… we ran into the world changing faster than we were able to either adapt the product or the policy.”
That same employee spoke up one more time that night. “This might be an unpopular opinion but one off ad hoc decisions like this that don’t appear rooted in policy are imho a slippery slope and reflect an alternatively equally dictatorial problem. This now appears to be a fiat by an online platform CEO with a global presence that can gatekeep speech for the entire world.”
The next edition of the “Twitter Files: The Removal of Donald Trump” will show how Facebook’s suspension of Trump put Twitter in an awkward position. The pressure was on for Twitter to find a pretext to ban the 45th president. Bari Weiss, the founder and editor of The Free People, will release the unveil the final part of this series on Sunday, December 11th.