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Journalismism

What Are The Twitter Files, And Do You Need To Care About Them?

2:47 PM EST on December 7, 2022

Screenshot: Joe Rogan's podcast

All over the world, people are talking about the biggest scoop in the history of journalism. When I went to get coffee this morning, a man in the deli grabbed me by the shirt and shouted, "Have you seen? Have you seen the Twitter Files??" The woman behind the counter perked up and added, "I heard Bari Weiss is dropping new Twitter Files tonight! Or possibly tomorrow, depending!" A guy in an idling car across the street somehow intuited what was being talked about inside, rolled down his window, and bellowed, "It was James Baker all along!"

Surely you have had a similar experience at some point over the last few days, because this story is just that BIG. Perhaps, however, you are still struggling to understand what exactly the Twitter Files are, or why nothing will be the same now that they are being presented to the public. Maybe you have even thought to yourself, while reading through the coverage, "these kind of just seem like a bunch of internal emails between executives at a social media company."

If so, firstly, what are you, some kind of fucking moron? Sorry, that was rude of me. What I meant to say was, if you've still somehow failed to grasp the severity and meaning of the most important publication of secret documents since the Pentagon Papers, then you've come to the right place. As a certified newshound, I can tell you exactly what's going on with the Twitter Files. So buckle up, because your whole life is about to change. It is time to take whatever color pill it is when you read about other people's work emails.

OK, so what are the Twitter Files?

The Twitter Files are a cache of internal company documents and communications from 2020. Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who took over the company just a few weeks ago, began orchestrating their release last Friday night, in keeping with the news industry best practices of putting your most significant stories up at precisely the time most readers order their second happy hour drink. So far, the documents that have been released have had to do with Twitter's handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story, which was a whole big thing in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, but not nearly as big a thing as the people pushing it hoped that it would be.

Oh right, Hunter Biden's laptop. What was the deal with that again?

The deal with that was that Rudy Giuliani gave the New York Post the hard drive from a damaged laptop that Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, had taken to a repair shop and then apparently abandoned. On that hard drive was all sorts of salacious stuff—pictures of Hunter Biden's dick, videos of him doing drugs and having sex with hookers, and emails showing how Hunter Biden used or attempted to use his connection with his father to get high-paying jobs and trade influence within the Ukrainian and Chinese energy industries.

The Post went absolutely nutty with this laptop, and to date has published something like two million stories about Hunter Biden, although it is notable that their first story about it, in October of 2020, ran without a byline due to what two Post employees told The New York Times were "concerns over the article’s credibility." There are also now, floating around out there in the darkest corners of the internet, a whole bunch of pictures and videos of Hunter Biden, who has a long history of substance abuse problems, smoking crack and doing other disturbing things while naked.

Right, OK, this is starting to ring some bells now. But where does Twitter come into it?

In hindsight, it's funny to think about how panicked Democrats were about this stupid laptop at the time. I suppose this was down to the fact that the laptop arrived just a few weeks before the election, and everyone was afraid that it was going to be the 2020 version of the James Comey letter from 2016, and so gift a second term to Donald Trump. But I just tried to re-read some of the Post's initial reporting on it and my eyes glazed over after about seven seconds. This was going to hand the election to Trump?

Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the email reads.

An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

Anyway, some Democrats went insane over this, and started telling anyone who would listen that the stuff on the laptop was somehow fake or otherwise cooked up as part of a dastardly Russian disinformation campaign mean to influence the election. This, at long last, is where Twitter enters the picture, as the social media company responded to the furor surrounding the laptop story by removing links to the New York Post's reporting from the platform, citing the company's policy against the publication of hacked materials.

Well that's pretty dumb! Good thing we were all able to learn about this in the Twitter Files.

Yes, it is dumb. But no, we all knew this happened long before the publication of the Twitter Files, because Twitter was doing all of this more or less out in the open and making a lot of people very angry about it at the time.

Wait, so what are the big revelations are contained in the Twitter Files then?

That remains to be seen, I guess, but so far all we have gotten is a glance at some internal communications that were shared in a long and barely comprehensible Twitter thread from Matt Taibbi—

Hold on, Matt Taibbi? What is he doing here?

Yes, sorry, that's a whole other thing. We'll come back to him, but first let me finish my thought.

As I was saying, on Friday night Taibbi sent out an awfully dry 36-tweet thread that was peppered with screenshots of internal Twitter communications that showed the following:

  1. The DNC and Biden campaign sent Twitter links to tweets containing nude photos of Hunter Biden, and Twitter swiftly deleted them.
  2. Twitter employees and executives sent a bunch of messages among themselves trying to figure out if flagging or removing tweets with links to the laptop story was in fact in keeping with the company's policy against publishing hacked materials.

And that's pretty much it. I suppose that second revelation might be scandalous to a person who was not already aware of the fact that social media companies are universally and inherently bad at making content moderation decisions, but this is 2022 and everyone who pays attention to this kind of stuff has known how things work for some time now. These companies are owned and operated by craven morons who routinely deploy thin justifications for the ad hoc moderation decisions they make. They do this every day, because the companies they created have grown beyond their capacity to control and because there's no way for them to stop doing it.

This reality is so immutable that not even the world's richest man, an alleged free speech absolutist, can do anything to change it. What's the difference between Musk's proposed "content moderation council" at Twitter and the group of former company execs who spent a few days sweatily coming up with a justification for censoring the laptop story? How many emails and phone calls were exchanged among Musk and Twitter's current leadership group before, say, the decision to once again ban Kanye West's account was made?

The objectively underwhelming nature of everything Taibbi tweeted on Friday night didn't stop every reactionary pundit from acting as if this was the biggest story in history. These guys have spent years screaming about how Big Tech and Joe Brandon's government are constantly colluding to censor Free Thought and Open Discourse, which made their boosting of the Twitter Files both pretty funny and extremely predictable. Given who we are talking about, and given the extent to which conservative political discourse is currently about Getting Upset And Staying Upset, it's difficult to imagine how else it might have gone.

Nothing that Taibbi has revealed so far indicates that any government entity played a role in influencing Twitter's decision to censor the laptop story. In fact, the only email from a sitting lawmaker that Taibbi shared was one from the extremely online Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who reached out to Twitter to express his dismay at the company's handling of the laptop story. Taibbi also briefly mentions that the Trump White House, the seat of the actual ruling party at the time, also routinely asked Twitter to remove tweets and had those requests honored, though Taibbi declined to share any specific examples. Funny, that!

Can you explain to me the Matt Taibbi thing now? Why did he share these screenshots of documents in a dumb Twitter thread instead of writing about them in a publication, or even on his own blog?

Because he was doing what Musk told him to do. Musk personally orchestrated the delivery of the Twitter Files to Taibbi (and Bari Weiss), but sent them with some strings attached. Before firing off his Twitter thread, Taibbi posted a brief note on his blog, which thousands of people pay money to read, apologizing for the fact that he was about to publish a big scoop on Twitter instead of sharing it with his dedicated subscribers first. Taibbi wrote that he had to agree to "certain conditions" in order to gain the opportunity to "cover a unique and explosive story." It seems pretty clear that one of those conditions was that Taibbi would only publish whatever documents he was given from Twitter on Twitter, which is a platform completely unsuited for sharing information in a coherent fashion but which Musk—who, again, does not know or care about any of that—fancies to be an open-source news service in its own right.

That seems pretty embarrassing for Matt Taibbi.

Yeah, it's extremely embarrassing. It is embarrassing on its own for Taibbi to agree to spend his Friday night doing a little dance for the world's most grating rich boy. Worse, though, is that Taibbi's willingness to caper about while Musk clapped his hands, in itself, instantly recreated the very power structure that his reporting was supposedly meant to assail. If the value in publishing the Twitter Files is to demonstrate how powerful and connected people control the flow of information to suit their own agendas, then the secret conditions that Taibbi (and Weiss) agreed to with Musk only serve to conceal the ways in which powerful and connected people control the flow of information to suit their agenda. It's just a different powerful and connected person, with a different agenda, clapping out the tune.

One might even look at this situation and see it as an example of Big Tech colluding with a sympathetic and successfully coopted journalist in order to gain influence over the public's understanding of current events. Hopefully the damage can be undone in two years, when someone publishes the Taibbi Files.

So what's going on with the Jim Baker guy you mentioned at the top of this post?

Goddammit. I am really starting to regret ever agreeing to explain any of this shit to you in the first place. This is so stupid.

Come on. Tell me!

OK, fine. Yesterday, Taibbi posted another Twitter thread in which he revealed that while he and Bari Weiss were hard at work combing through the Twitter Files, they discovered that the documents were being passed to them by Twitter's in-house lawyer, James Baker. This extraordinary turn of events was apparently so shocking that it left Weiss slack-jawed.

What's shocking about a company's lawyer reviewing company documents before sending them off to two bloggers?

Honestly man, I don't fucking know. I guess it has to do with the fact that Baker used to work for the FBI, and also that a lot of the reactionary pundits I mentioned before have long seen him as some kind of bogeyman who helped amplify a lot of the Russiagate stuff that was going around in 2016. Musk claims he didn't know Baker was involved in the process, and subsequently fired him. If nothing much comes of the Twitter Files, we can at least say that they have created another villain for this cinematic universe.

What we're supposed to conclude from Baker's involvement in the delivery of these documents to Taibbi and Weiss is honestly a mystery to me. It's in keeping with the tone of all this that the revelation of Baker's involvement was presented as an extremely meaningful and ominous revelation, without any further explanation of why that would be so. It's not really surprising that Musk has no idea what's going on inside his own company, but what else are we supposed to conclude from this portion of the saga? Is it that Taibbi got a bunch of documents that had been tampered with by a nefarious former FBI hack and ran with them anyway? Was the FBI guy secretly trying to undo Elon's important work in draining the swamp? Is it that nobody knows what lawyers do for a living? I really can't say! What I can say is that this kicks ass:

Inside Jab.

Thanks for explaining James to me. So where do things go from here?

Well, according to Taibbi, he and Weiss were delayed in posting anything else about the Twitter Files due to that James Baker detour, but are now back on track. The next trove of top secret documents will apparently be put out into the world by Weiss, who has had her hands on them for some time now.

What's taking her so long?

She can't read.

And that's everything I need to know.

That's everything you need to know.

Do I need to care about any of this?

God, no.

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