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'Twitter Files' accuses Angus King of censoring conservatives by flagging 'suspect' accounts

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arrives for a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arrives for a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

U.S. Sen. Angus King’s 2018 re-election campaign reported hundreds of “suspect” accounts to social media executives, which Republicans are calling evidence of censorship attempts, but that also fits a larger pattern of elected and government officials lobbying the influential platforms to remove or review content.

The accounts flagged by King’s campaign included conspiracy theorists and automated accounts known as “bots,” but also accounts operated by conservative activists and the Maine Republican Party. Republicans homed in on the latter after a spreadsheet King’s campaign sent to Twitter executives four years ago was made public Saturday by Matt Taibbi, a journalist handpicked by its new owner, Elon Musk, to release internal documents that reinforce his view that Twitter’s former executives muzzled conservatives, sometimes at the behest of government officials.

The sporadic release of the so-called “Twitter Files” by Taibbi fueled that belief among conservatives, some of whom compared the King campaign’s spreadsheet of suspect accounts to former President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”

Critics of the “Twitter Files” counter that the documents are being selectively released without context to further a broader assertion that conservative voices are being suppressed on social media. Such claims are refuted by Twitter’s internal research, as well as a review of Facebook, showing that conservative accounts have outsize reach on the platforms.

King’s office is framing the release of the 2018 spreadsheet as an example of Musk and Taibbi using information to fit the conservative censorship narrative.

Matthew Felling, a spokesman for King, said the spreadsheet was submitted to Twitter at the invitation of its content staff. He said the invitation came after King’s campaign staff flagged an edited video circulated by the campaign of Republican challenger Eric Brakey that attempted to show the independent senator comparing Russian interference in the 2016 election to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“As I understand it, Senator King’s 2018 campaign team identified a doctored and misleading video that had been posted to Twitter and was being shared widely,” Felling said. “They flagged it to Twitter for an internal review, in much the same way that false campaign ads are flagged for scrutiny when aired on TV.”

Felling said Twitter’s content staff then invited King’s social media team “to share any additional activity moving forward that had raised alarms.”

Felling said the campaign responded by sharing two lists “flagging misleading information coming from both sides of the political spectrum, not just from conservative sources as has been previously reported.”

Maine Public has requested a copy of the unpublished list, as well as any written correspondence that might exist between King’s campaign and Twitter officials.

Felling said the accounts were flagged by the campaign but not necessarily for the purpose of having them banned.

Brakey, King’s Republican opponent, didn’t view it that way. He described his supporters’ accounts being flagged as “compiling black lists of dissidents for censorship” and compared it to the “tactics of kingpins and mob bosses, not public servants.”

“If we still lived in a just society that valued the Bill of Rights, Angus King would be too ashamed to file for re-election after these revelations of political thuggery,” Brakey said in a statement.

The spreadsheet posted by Taibbi contains three tabs, including one for suspicious Twitter accounts and another for Facebook. The Twitter spreadsheet provided the account names and the purpose for flagging them. Some were described as “trolls” or “bots,” while others, including the Maine GOP opposition research account, were described as “weird.” Some Twitter accounts backing Brakey were flagged for retweeting the edited video. Other Facebook accounts were flagged for a variety of reasons, including apparent concerns that posters were people impersonating Maine voters. One account listed their employer as Krusty Krab, a fictional restaurant from the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

King has often criticized the spreading of misleading content on digital platforms and the 2018 submission of suspicious social media accounts is the second time his campaign has been shown to try and counteract it.

During his first U.S. Senate bid in 2012, internal documents revealed that King campaign staff sometimes posted anonymously in the comments section of digital news sites “to correct the record.” The practice was largely viewed as widespread among politicians and campaigns, as well as an evolution of dueling letters submitted to newspaper editorial pages by supporters of various candidates and politicians.

The submission of the spreadsheets by his 2018 campaign also coincided with increased congressional scrutiny of social media platforms’ moderation policies and the role misinformation can play in influencing public opinion. The 2016 election intensified that discussion, as did riots at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, an event spurred by false claims on social media that the 2020 election was rigged.

Social media executives have since faced pressure from Congress to moderate false and inflammatory content on their platforms. The debate over what qualifies as misinformation has in turn morphed into a dispute over censorship with conservatives claiming that they’ve been subject to “shadowbans” or disproportionately targeted for account suspensions.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter has further animated that view even as evidence emerges that Republican officials — and Musk himself — have sought to remove posts from critics. During a House Oversight Committee earlier this month, a Twitter executive testified that Trump aides asked the company to remove a tweet from a famous model that described the then-President in a series of profanities.

A subsequent story by Rolling Stone quoted unnamed former Twitter staffers saying the company had created a “database” of removal and moderation requests from Democratic and Republican officials. A source told Rolling Stone that the process was largely viewed as “working the refs,” a sports euphemism that has another well-known application in the news coverage of politics.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.