Elon Musk is misleading the public — again.
The embattled billionaire, perhaps seeking to distract from the chaos he has wrought at his social media company, is making grossly misleading claims about Twitter and the FBI. And those claims are being blindly amplified to millions by Fox News and the rest of the powerful right-wing media machine which seems to have no interest in the pesky truth and instead has repeatedly shown they’ll contort stories to fit preconceived and erroneous narratives.
In a tweet Tuesday, Musk wrote, “Government paid Twitter millions of dollars to censor info from the public.” As supposed proof, Musk shared the latest installment of the so-called “Twitter Files” published the day before by environmentalist and writer Michael Shellenberger.
In those files, Shellenberger published a redacted screenshot of a 2021 email showing that Twitter’s Safety, Content and Law Enforcement division had instituted a “reimbursement program” for its work responding to information requests from the FBI. The document indicated that Twitter had received $3.4 million in reimbursements at the time.
“Prior to the start of this program, Twitter chose not to collect under this statutory right of reimbursement for the time spent processing requests from the FBI,” said the email to Twitter’s then-deputy general counsel Jim Baker.
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Twitter’s guidelines for law enforcement, posted publicly on its website, openly disclose: “Twitter may seek reimbursement for costs associated with information produced pursuant to legal process and as permitted by law (e.g., under 18 U.S.C. §2706).” That law states that the federal government will pay companies for their efforts “obtaining the contents of communications, records, or other information” a fee “for reimbursement for such costs as are reasonably necessary and which have been directly incurred in searching for, assembling, reproducing, or otherwise providing such information.”
Which is to say that the money Twitter collected had nothing to do with censoring anyone. The money was simply given as reimbursement for the processing of legal requests, similar to how a journalist might have to pay a fee for a government agency processing a Freedom of Information Act request. As Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook and partner at the cyber consulting firm Krebs Stamos Group, wrote Tuesday, “This is absolutely nothing to do with content moderation.”
But facts be damned in the world we now live in. Musk’s claim has absolutely saturated right-wing media. If you rely on Fox News or talk radio or one of the online outlets that makes up the constellation of right-wing media, you likely believe the biggest scandal since Watergate is unfolding. A sitting Republican congressman even said on Tuesday he was in favor of halting “all funding” for the FBI over the story. And the poisoning of that information well is also confusing others, who hear the nonsense and aren’t sure what to believe.
Similar to Donald Trump, Musk and right-wing media continue to take relatively mundane procedures, such as a company receiving reimbursement for processing legal requests, and put them in the worst possible light, portraying them as nefarious.
Unfortunately, given the large audience they’re convincing, the tactic seems to be working.