Twitter hearing a test of new House GOP majority's seriousness
House Republicans have zeroed in on Twitter’s decision to suppress a New York Post story about Hunter Biden in the weeks before the 2020 election.
Three former Twitter executives called to testify on Capitol Hill this week are already infamous to those who believe that social media companies have censored conservatives.
But the hearing will be a test of whether lawmakers are able to take a serious approach in probing the complicated choices and tradeoffs facing all tech and social media companies.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety; Vijaya Gadde, former chief legal officer; and James Baker, former deputy general counsel, will give statements and take questions on Wednesday in front of the House Oversight Committee.
The committee, chaired by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., has called in the former Twitter executives for one of its first hearings under Republican control of the House. The hearing’s stated purpose is to hear about Twitter’s decision — weeks before the 2020 election — to block the sharing of a New York Post story about a laptop connected to Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
The New York Post’s original story said the laptop contained sexually explicit images of Hunter as well as emails implying that he introduced his father to Ukrainian businessmen.
Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings while his father was vice president have long drawn scrutiny. The younger Biden is currently being investigated by David C. Weiss, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, who was originally appointed by Donald Trump.
Other outlets have since confirmed that the laptop was genuine. But when the Post’s scoop first appeared in the lead-up to the 2020 election, dozens of former U.S. intelligence officials said it was likely Russian disinformation.
Roth has said the decision to suppress the Post story was a mistake, as former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey did over two years ago, shortly after it happened. Many observers have also noted that Twitter stopped blocking the story after a day, and that even though some politicians have claimed the incident hurt Trump’s chances in the election, ultimately the episode arguably brought more attention to the Hunter Biden story than it would have otherwise received.
The hearing title notes that two topics — “government interference” and “social media bias” — are of interest to the committee. Some have conflated those two things and alleged that the government pressured Twitter to temporarily block the Hunter Biden laptop story from spreading. They point to the recent “Twitter Files” stories as evidence of this government interference.
The Twitter Files were a series of threads on the platform by a small group of journalists who were given access by Twitter owner Elon Musk to handpicked pieces of information showing some internal documents and communication among Twitter executives and with government officials. There have been roughly 15 or 16 different threads by several different journalists.
But the documentation in the Twitter Files provided no evidence that the government pressured Twitter to block the Hunter Biden laptop story. Matt Taibbi, one of the journalists who published the Twitter Files, has said this himself. “There’s no evidence — that I've seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story,” wrote Taibbi in the very first Twitter Files release.
“The US government had some general meetings that happen with lots of big companies to warn them about various potential cybersecurity threats, and the issue of hack-and-leak campaigns as a general possibility came up with no real specifics and no warnings. And no one communicated with the companies directly about the NY Post story,” wrote TechDirt’s Mike Masnick in a detailed review of the issue.
Roth has said that because of government warnings about a Russian hack-and-leak operation leading up to the election, the Hunter Biden laptop story looked like it might be the product of foreign interference. Some Twitter Files journalists claimed the government had attempted to discredit the story before it was ever published. But federal law enforcement was reacting to Russian interference in the 2016 election and trying to prevent a repeat of that.
The claims of Twitter Files journalists about the actions of executives like Baker during the Hunter Biden incident have also not matched what is shown in the actual documents they have published. One of the Twitter Files journalists, Michael Shellenberger, claimed in one of the threads that Baker — who was general counsel at the FBI before going to Twitter — “repeatedly insists that the Hunter Biden materials were either faked, hacked, or both, and a violation of Twitter policy,” during an internal debate after the New York Post published its story.
But the documents to which Shellenberger refers show that Baker did not take either side, emphasizing instead that Twitter did not have enough information at the time to know anything for sure.
“We need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked,” Baker wrote. He said it was possible that the material on the laptop could be “fabrications” and that “caution is warranted” but concluded, “We simply need more information.”
The hearing will likely also delve into allegations made by Twitter Files journalists, and Musk himself, that Twitter has censored conservatives in the past, and that the government has involved itself too closely in deciding which Twitter users were suspended or blocked or had their visibility on the site decreased.
The Twitter Files gave a few examples of right-wing personalities having their accounts set so that their tweets could not spread as easily but gave little insight into why that happened, how widespread it was, and whether it affected users of other political points of view.
Roth will be at the center of this conversation. He was in charge of guiding Twitter’s policies and practice for how content was moderated. Some claim that any content moderation is censorship, but all social media sites engage in some form of content moderation, including Trump’s own Truth Social.
“You cannot have a wholly moderation-free environment,” Renée DiResta, technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, said recently on the Sam Harris podcast “Making Sense.”
When a former Trump aide started a social media site called GETTR in 2021, it was immediately overwhelmed by spam, pornography, and hacked or impersonated accounts. It had to start moderating content to get things under control.
Katie Harbath, a former public policy director for Facebook who began her career as a Republican political operative, wrote that while she has had “issues … with how the Twitter Files are being released and portrayed, I do think they are raising a valid question on what the role of the government should be in identifying and reporting people and content.”
In an interview, Harbath told Yahoo News that the interactions between government officials and Twitter personnel in communication released as part of the Twitter Files “seemed pretty run of the mill.” Harbath stressed that the information-sharing agreements came about because of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election through bots and trolls (there is not much evidence it had significant impact) and by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and releasing them to the public through third parties (this arguably did impact the election).
But, as three former staffers for the House Jan. 6 committee wrote in a recent article, it has been the lack of transparency about decision making at Twitter and other big social media sites that has opened the door to charges of bias and discrimination.
“During the 2020 election and its aftermath, platform executives made important decisions with huge consequences for political discourse outside of public view. While available evidence contradicts simplistic complaints of big tech anti-conservative censorship, the platforms’ opacity makes suspicion understandable,” the three analysts wrote.
Roth also said recently that while he does not agree that Twitter was politically biased against the right, that is how many people feel. “All of the peer-reviewed research about bias suggests that actually Twitter amplifies right-wing voices more than left. But let's set that aside. Perception is reality. Perception is Twitter is biased to the left,” Roth told New York magazine’s Kara Swisher in an interview.
The Jan. 6 committee researchers made a similar point. “One clear conclusion from our investigation is that proponents of the recently released ‘Twitter Files,’ who claim that platform suspensions of the former President are evidence of anti-conservative bias, have it completely backward,” they wrote.
“Platforms did not hold Trump to a higher standard by removing his account after January 6th. Rather, for years they wrote rules to avoid holding him and his supporters accountable; it took an attempted coup d’état for them to change course.”
But rather than dwell on the complex tradeoffs that social media companies navigate when it comes to balancing product quality with freedom of expression and with the need to limit real-world harm, some politicians may go for easier personal attacks on the Twitter executives.
Some on the right have already done this with Roth in particular. Rod Dreher, a popular writer among many religious conservatives, derided Roth in a recent interview as “an Ivy-educated queer activist who served as the chief censor of the world’s most important social media platform.”
Dreher claimed that Roth and others like him “truly hate traditional Christians and all others who dissent from their views.”
That description is at odds with how Roth has conducted himself in public. Even after Musk — who in October called Roth a person of “high integrity” — smeared him following his resignation from Twitter with baseless insinuations about support for pedophilia that forced Roth and his family to flee their home due to personal safety concerns, Roth was circumspect and evenhanded in discussing Musk with Swisher.
“One of the things that is tricky about Elon, in particular, is that people really want him to be the villain of the story, and they want him to be unequivocally wrong and bad, and everything he says is duplicitous. I have to say ... that wasn’t my experience with him,” Roth said.
Harbath said that Roth is “one of the top people in the trust and safety space, in understanding the challenges that come with this, and in trying to deal with how various actors are trying to manipulate it.”
“He's one of the handful who is top of class,” Harbath said. “I think it's unfortunate if they try to make something there that is not there out of these people's backgrounds.”