A key House committee put former Twitter executives on the record Wednesday about the suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop story just weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
“Twitter, under the leadership of our witnesses today, was a private company the federal government used to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: Limit the free exercise of speech,” House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., said.
Although the lights and video feed went out in midafternoon, not long after the lawmakers returned from a recess, the committee eventually was able to resume its hearing.
Polling shows that suppression of the Post’s reporting on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop—including information that President Joe Biden might have benefited or was at least aware of his son’s overseas business deals—could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election.
Although much of the mainstream media disregarded the story before the November election, most major news outlets since have verified the authenticity of the laptop contents.
The “Twitter Files,” released after Elon Musk bought the social media giant, have given users and others a behind-the-scenes look at how Twitter executives made the decision to suppress the New York Post story.
Despite that, some committee Democrats called the matter a “conspiracy theory” or a “trivial pursuit.”
Here are six highlights from the hearing about Twitter.
1. ‘Restrict Speech and Interfere’ With Elections
Comer called the situation “coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process.” The committee chairman noted that Twitter worked “hand in hand with the FBI” to monitor political speech.
A Media Research Center poll shortly after the 2020 election found that 36% of self-described Biden voters said they were not aware of the evidence behind claims that he was personally involved in his son Hunter’s business deals with China, a claim bolstered by emails found on the abandoned laptop.
Of those, 13% said that if they had known, they would not have voted for Biden.
“Many Americans did not know about it because of a coordinated cover-up by Big Tech, the swamp, and mainstream news,” Comer said. “Now mainstream media outlets have verified the laptop, but the damage has been done.”
Last week, Hunter Biden’s lawyers seemed to admit the laptop was his, but later backtracked. This development came months after The New York Times and The Washington Post verified the legitimacy of the laptop after initially following the Biden campaign line.
James Baker, a former deputy general counsel for Twitter who previously was an FBI lawyer involved in the Trump-Russia investigation, defended interactions between the private company and the federal government.
“I was not aware of and certainly did not engage in any conspiracy or other effort to do anything unethical, improper, or unlawful while I was at Twitter,” Baker said during opening remarks, without being asked.
Baker later added: “I am aware of no unlawful collusion with, or direction from, any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation.”
Comer later said that both sides of the aisle should be concerned about government agencies outsourcing censorship:
The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech. That’s something the media should be very concerned about. What if there is a conservative president that somehow cleans out our FBI, [and] they put in conservatives to suppress liberal speech? That’s something that should never happen.
2. Twitter Concerns About Russia and Another Jan. 6
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former global head of trust and safety, said he had outright opposed suppressing the New York Post’s account, but supported a milder measure based on concerns about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I still remember the rage I felt when I saw accounts with names like ‘Pamela Moore’ and ‘Crystal Johnson’—accounts purporting to be real Americans, from Wisconsin and New York, but with phone numbers tracing back to St. Petersburg, Russia,” Roth said.
“Which brings us to Hunter Biden’s laptop and the New York Post. In 2020, the trust and safety team noticed activity related to the laptop popping up on Twitter, and that activity, at first glance, bore a lot of similarities to the 2016 Russian hack-and-leak operation,” Roth told lawmakers. “Twitter had to decide what to do. The only information we had to go on to make this decision was what had been publicly reported. And in that moment, with limited information, Twitter made a mistake.”
Former Twitter content moderation team member Annika Collier Navaroli warned the committee that a riot similar to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol could occur.
“If we are going to talk about social media and the government, we need to talk about Twitter’s failure to act before Jan. 6,” Navaroli said. “I am here to tell you that doing nothing is not an option. If we continue to do nothing, violence is going to happen again.”
3. Admission That Laptop Story Didn’t Violate Twitter Policies
Roth, the former head of trust and safety for Twitter, admitted to the panel that the New York Post’s reporting on the contents of the Hunter Biden laptop didn’t violate Twitter’s policies.
“You sent a message to a team, or part of your team I assume, you said, ‘It isn’t clearly violative of our hacked materials policy,’ referring to this story, ‘nor is it in violation of anything else.’ Do you remember sending that message?” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., asked.
Roth replied: “I don’t recall sending that message specifically, but that does sound like my judgment on that.”
Roth went on to say, “I didn’t think the evidence in those perspectives warranted removal, and I advocated against taking that action.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, later said the FBI didn’t outright tell Twitter that the laptop was phony or hacked, and the tweet didn’t violate Twitter policies.
“Mr. Roth, did the government tell you the Hunter Biden laptop story was fake?” Jordan asked.
Roth: “No sir, they did not.”
Jordan: “Did they tell you it was hacked?”
Roth: “No sir, they did not.”
Jordan went on to say that Twitter acted to suppress the Post’s reporting without evidence, but after the apparent nudging of the FBI to conclude something company executives wanted to believe.
“If it didn’t violate your policies, and they didn’t tell you it was fake, didn’t tell you it was hacked, why did you take it down?” Jordan asked.
Roth replied: “The company made a decision that found that it did violate the policy. It wasn’t my personal judgment at the time that it did, but the decision was communicated to me at the time by my direct supervisor. Ultimately, I didn’t disagree with it enough to object to that.”
Jordan followed by telling Roth:
I think you guys wanted to take it down. I think you guys got played by the FBI. And that’s the scary part. Because—this to me is the real takeaway—we had 51 former intelligence officials five days after you guys take down the Hunter Biden story and block the New York Post account, five days later, 51 intel officials send the letter [saying] that the Hunter Biden story has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information campaign.
4. How Trump Pushed Twitter
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said the Trump administration had sought to squelch political speech on Twitter, pointing to two examples.
“On May 27, 2020,” Connolly said, “President Donald J. Trump tweeted, and I quote, ‘Republicans feel that social media platforms totally silence conservatives. … We will strongly regulate the monopolies or close them down before we ever allow this to happen.’”
The Virginia Democrat asked Navaroli, the former executive on Twitter’s content moderation team: “Does that not sound eerily like a government official telling Twitter [as] a threat, ‘We will shut you down if we don’t like the content?’”
Navaroli replied: “I am not familiar with the tweet that you have referenced.”
Connolly then said that on Sept. 8, 2019, at 11:11 p.m., Trump heckled two celebrities on Twitter, pop singer John Legend and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, and referred to them as “the musician John Legend and his foul-mouthed wife.”
“Ms. Teigen responded to that tweet at 12:17 a.m.,” Connolly said. “According to notes, the White House almost immediately contacted Twitter to demand the tweet be taken down. Is that accurate?”
Navaroli responded: “What I was privy to was my supervisor letting us know we received something along those lines” from the White House.
5. AOC Concedes Hunter Biden Story ‘Half’ True
Despite nearly everyone’s accepting the authenticity of Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said the Post story on the laptop was “half-fake,” apparently meaning she thought it was at least half true.
“It’s just an abuse of public resources, an abuse of public time,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We could be talking about health care. We could be talking about bringing down the cost of prescription drugs. We could be talking about abortion rights, civil rights, voting rights. But instead we are talking about Hunter Biden’s half-fake laptop story.”
Ocasio-Cortez then seemed to make the committee’s hearing about herself, saying, “Let’s talk about something real.”
The New York Democrat referred to a July 2019 tweet by Trump about “the squad”—the nickname for a group of progressive congresswomen, including her—that suggested the women go back where they came from.
“Ms. Navaroli, as I understand it, you were the most senior member of Twitter’s content moderation team when this was posted. As part of your responsibilities, did you review this tweet?”
Navaroli replied: “My team made the recommendation that for the first time we find Donald Trump in violation of Twitter policies.”
Ocasio-Cortez asked: “At the time, Twitter policies included a specific example when it came to banned abuse against immigrants that specifically included the phrase, ‘Go back to your country’ or ‘Go back to where you came from,’ correct?”
Navaroli replied: “Yes, that was specifically included in the content moderation guidance as an example.”
Ocasio-Cortez noted, however, that a Twitter manager overrode Navaroli’s assessment.
“Something interesting happened after she overrode your assessment. A day or two later, Twitter seemed to change their policy, didn’t they?”
“Yes, ‘Go back to where you came from’ was removed from the content moderation guidance as an example,” Navaroli said.
“So Twitter changed their own policy after the president violated it in order to potentially accommodate his tweet?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
Navaroli replied, “Yes.”
Ocasio-Cortez concluded: “So much for bias against the right wing on Twitter.”
6. ‘Nazis in the White House’
During the hearing, Comer asked Roth about his own tweet calling Trump administration officials Nazis.
Roth’s tweet—a reference to female anti-Trump protesters wearing pink hats—read: “Yes, that person in the pink hat is clearly a bigger threat to your brand of feminism than the ACTUAL NAZIS IN THE WHITE HOUSE.”
“Mr. Roth, did you write this tweet?” Comer asked.
Roth answered: “I regret the language that I used in my former tweets, but yes, I did post that.”
Comer: “Mr. Roth, do you think all conservatives are Nazis?”
Roth: “Certainly not, sir.”
Comer: “What about the hundreds of people that worked in the Trump administration?”
Roth: “Certainly not.”
Comer then asked Roth whether he ever was asked to take down that tweet.
“No,” Roth replied. “Twitter did not have a practice of restricting their employees from sharing their personal viewpoints on the service.”
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