For Twitter, this week has brought the attack of the right wing.
First, it was sued by a banned far-right news blogger who claims the company violated his free-speech rights. Now Project Veritas has released a couple of videos clearly meant to portray Twitter as extremely liberal and biased — the latest in the barrage of conservatives’ criticism of tech companies’ purported bias against them.
The first video, released Wednesday by the right-wing James O’Keefe outfit known for controversial (and sometimes doctored) videos, shows a Twitter network security engineer saying the company would be willing to help the Department of Justice’s investigation by turning over President Trump’s direct messages and deleted tweets.
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In the eight-minute video, Clay Haynes tells a Project Veritas “undercover journalist” who asks him what the company is doing to rein in Trump because she says “he’s going to get us into so much trouble” that unfortunately, what the president tweets is newsworthy. That is in line with Twitter’s official line on the issue of banning the president. Last week, Twitter basically said it’s not going to happen because he’s a world leader and people need to be able to see and discuss the “important information” he conveys on the platform.
Haynes and the woman from Project Veritas appear to be at a restaurant, and he does not seem to know he is being recorded.
Later, O’Keefe himself, in disguise, talks to Haynes and asks if Twitter is “working with the DOJ” on its investigation into Trump and other figures in his administration. Haynes said he “can’t comment, and even if I knew I wouldn’t comment.”
“They appear to have tricked somebody to say that [Twitter] would comply with a legal process,” said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Thursday. She said the video doesn’t prove that Twitter as a whole is biased, only that individual employees have biases.
“The individuals depicted in this video were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter,” a Twitter spokeswoman said Thursday.
She also said: “We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative. Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”
O’Keefe — whose book, “American Pravda: My Fight For Truth in the Era of Fake News,” is coincidentally set for release next week — closes out the video by comparing Twitter’s apparent willingness to share Trump’s information with the government to Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone in 2016. Apple said then that it didn’t want to set a precedent of violating its customers’ privacy.
“Maybe [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey needs to grow some apples,” O’Keefe said.
Most famously, O’Keefe has recorded videos of employees of Planned Parenthood and the now-defunct ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). In 2013, he agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing him of misrepresenting an ACORN employee in a video. Recently, Project Veritas tried to trick the Washington Post related to the newspaper’s coverage of Roy Moore, but the attempt backfired.
Project Veritas released a second video attacking Twitter Thursday. In the 15-minute video, eight current and former Twitter employees — again, they don’t seem to know they’re being recorded and appear to be talking in restaurants and clubs where loud music is playing — talk about the company’s struggle with political content.
The video includes discussion of “shadow banning,” in which the company supposedly limits the audience of a Twitter user’s tweets without notifying that user, essentially meaning that user could be tweeting at nobody. It’s not a new revelation — and other companies with online communities use it partly as an answer to spammers — but the video offers a glimpse of what a former employee thought of it.
“It’s like, unethical in some way, you know?” he says in the video.
O’Keefe then calls on the company to be more transparent, to “bring shadow banning out of the shadows.”
“Twitter does not shadowban accounts,” the Twitter spokeswoman said Thursday. “We do take actions to downrank accounts that are abusive, and mark them accordingly so people can still to click through and see these Tweets if they so choose.” That includes limiting the visibility of tweets, according to Twitter’s help center.
In the video, other former and current Twitter employees also talk about how the company handles pro-Trump bots and algorithms that help block or mute tweets.
What isn’t addressed in the video is why Twitter might want to ban or block some of the content: Some of it isn’t merely conservative; some can be considered abuse or harassment, which is against the company’s rules.
Raicu of the Markkula Center said Thursday “there have been calls for [social media] content to be taken down based on them violating all kinds of norms, no matter who” posts the content. She called Project Veritas’ attempt to shame Twitter as liberal “ironic because there certainly seems to be a lot of conservative voices on Twitter.”
She also said “they’re absolutely within their rights to not allow certain users on their platform.”
Photo: The Twitter logo is displayed at the entrance of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco in 2011. (KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/GettyImages)
Tags: Donald Trump, James O’Keefe, Politics, Project Veritas, twitter