By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
Social media giant Twitter in 2020 stifled a news story exposé on Hunter and Joe Biden’s Ukranian business involvement, days before the presidential election, according to a Friday tweet series deemed the “Twitter Files.”
Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk, who has promised to make the social media “hive mind” a platform for civil debate, gave the emails and exchanges in question to Substack journalist Matt Taibbi.
Musk retweeted Taibbi’s thread Friday with the words “Here we go!!” and two popcorn emojis. He also has promised that the post would be the first installment in a lengthy series of revelations about the company’s controversial content-moderation strategies under past leadership.
Three Weeks Before Election …
The New York Post on Oct. 14, 2020, published a news story indicating that Hunter Biden, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, used his father’s former position as U.S. Vice President to pull strings for Burisma, a Ukranian energy company on which the younger Biden had served as a board member since April 2014.
The Post imbedded emails from Burisma top executives found on a laptop widely believed to be Hunter Biden’s, which someone had dropped off with a computer repairman. The emails show Burisma executives asking Hunter Biden to stop political pressure on the company and thanking Biden for an introduction to “your father,” then the vice president.
Joe Biden in 2015 arranged for the firing of a Ukranian prosecutor who said he was hoping to investigate Burisma’s dealings, by threatening to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee from the Ukranian government, the Post reported.
The story also highlighted Hunter Biden’s cocaine use.
“Other material extracted from the computer includes a raunchy, 12-minute video that appears to show Hunter, who’s admitted struggling with addiction problems, smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman, as well as numerous other sexually explicit images,” the Post added.
The FBI seized the laptop following a federal subpoena.
‘Bunch Of Garbage’
Numerous news outlets declined to run the laptop story in 2020. However, CBS News on Nov. 21 of this year confirmed the laptop data as real.
“It only took them 769 days,” teased the New York Post in a story showing the time elapsed between the Post’s news break and the CBS story.
The New York Times ran its own laptop story in March of this year.
Joe Biden at a 2020 presidential debate said the laptop story was “a bunch of garbage” and resembled Russian disinformation.
More than 50 former intelligence officials backed Biden, writing in an Oct. 19, 2020, letter that they were “deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.”
Twitter “took extraordinary steps to suppress the story,” wrote Taibbi in his “Twitter Files” thread.
Taibbi did not make the claim that the Biden campaign prompted Twitter to hide the story, though he said Twitter honored requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign to remove or review other tweets.
Taibbi as of Monday had not published former President Donald Trump’s reported requests for tweet removals. He leaked an email indicating a Biden team request for tweet removal or suppression.
“More to review from the Biden team” wrote one team member to others, followed by five links to posts. A recipient replied, “handled these.”
“Both parties had access to these tools,” Taibbi said. “However: This system wasn’t balanced. It was based on contacts. Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the (political) left.”
Taibbi attached a link to opensecrets.org, showing that Twitter in 2022 gave $165,969 to Democratic political campaigns and $451 to Republican campaigns, for a 99.73% to 0.27% split.
Twitter gave nearly $1 million in 2020 to political candidates with a 98.47% majority to Democrats. In 2018, the platform gave about $300,000, with a 96.38% majority going to Democrats, according to the site.
‘At Least Pretend To Care’
Twitter moderators on Oct. 14 removed links to the Post story, displayed warnings it may be “unsafe” and “even blocked its transmission via direct message,” which Taibbi said was a tool “hitherto reserved for extreme cases (such as) child pornography.”
They also locked White House spokeswoman Kaleigh McEnany out of her account because she tweeted about the story, Taibbi said.
Trump campaign staffer Mike Hahn penned a “furious letter,” said Taibbi, telling Twitter communications representatives to, “At least pretend to care for the next 20 days.”
Caroline Strom, Twitter public policy executive director and one of the recipients of Hahn’s letter, dispatched what Taibbi called “a polite WTF query.”
“Hi team!” wrote Strom on Oct. 15. “Are you able to take a closer look here?”
An analyst wrote back that “the user,” presumably McEnany “was bounced by Site integrity for violating our Hacked Materials policy,” according to another embedded email image in Taibbi’s thread.
Taibbi wrote that Twitter staffers could recall a “general” warning from federal law enforcement that summer about possible foreign hacks, but that he has seen “no evidence” of foreign government involvement in the laptop story. He later added that Twitter censorship of hacked materials usually required a law enforcement or official finding of a hack.
“But such a finding never appears” in the Twitter Files, Taibbi wrote.
Communications staffers at Twitter feared public outrage.
“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” wrote Trenton Kennedy, communications official, “and I think the best explainability argument for this externally would be that we’re waiting to understand if this story is the result of hacked materials. We’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning for marking the link unsafe.”
Jim Baker, former deputy general counsel for the site, countered that the laptop leaks “may have been hacked … We simply need more information.”
Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna wrote to Vijaya Gadde, former head of Twitter legal, policy and trust, “to gently suggest she hop on the phone to talk about the ‘backlash re speech,’” Taibbi said, adding, “Khanna was the only Democratic official I could find in the files who expressed concern.”
Gadde “immediately (dove) into the weeds of Twitter policy, unaware Khanna is more worried about the Bill of Rights,” specifically the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, Taibbi wrote.
Khanna volleyed, citing 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times vs. Sullivan, in which the court unanimously favored The New York Times and made it more difficult for public officials to sue media outlets for libel.
The ruling was designed to encourage public discourse.
Khanna said he’s a Biden fan but feared Twitter’s actions would enrage the right and lead “serious efforts to curtail section 230.”
Trump publicly opposed section 230 during his presidency; it’s a section of federal law that guarantees immunity to sites like Twitter when users post illegal or tortious content.
“In the heat of a Presidential campaign,” Khanna continued, “restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if NY Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.”
The parenthesis are Khanna’s own.
Biden’s Right To Flag Tweets
Khanna confirmed to The Washington Post over the weekend that his emails featured in the Twitter files were legitimate, that he still agrees with his voiced concerns, and that he hopes to secure his email account better going forward.
Khanna told the Washington Post that he’s seen no evidence the laptop story was suppressed at the behest of Democratic politicians. Referencing other requests by the Biden campaign to remove or suppress tweets, Khanna told the newspaper that campaign staffers had a right to do so.
“That’s the Biden campaign’s First Amendment right to flag tweets, and campaigns do that all the time, to flag things that they think are violating platform’s policies,” said Khanna. “I haven’t seen anything that they were being unduly pressured by a government actor, the Biden campaign, in any way that would be inappropriate.”
Meanwhile, In D.C.
Meanwhile, a Twitter public policy staffer received what Taibbi called a “ghastly” letter from Carl Szabo of research firm NetChoice saying nine Republican House staffers called the suppression effort “a tipping point.”
Szabo references “House staffers;” Taibbi calls them members of Congress.
Democratic leaders polled by NetChoice, meanwhile, complained that the companies are inept and should censor more content, Szabo wrote.
“They let conservatives muddy the water and make the Biden campaign look corrupt even though Biden is innocent,” reads Szabo’s account of Democratic staffers’ interviews. “In their mind, social media … doesn’t moderate enough harmful content so when it does, like it did yesterday, it becomes a story.
“If the companies moderated more, conservatives wouldn’t even think to use social media for disinformation, misinformation, or otherwise,” the email adds.
Taibbi wrote that much of the suppression effort was done without the knowledge of then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
He concluded the thread with a promise to post again.
“There is much more to come, including answers to questions about issues like shadow-banning, boosting, follower counts, the fate of various individual accounts, and more,” Taibbi said. “These issues are not limited to the political right.”