The first full blown House Oversight Committee hearing of the new GOP majority was focused on Hunter Biden, and the role that Twitter played in suppressing a bombshell New York Post story about the contents of a laptop purportedly owned by the president’s son.
Weeks before the presidential election, Twitter restricted the Post account in an effort to curb the spread of the article, declaring it potentially “harmful material” and in violation of a hacked materials policy. After an outcry, particularly on the right, the accounts were restored, and Twitter executives later admitted that the company’s actions were wrong.
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The premise of Wednesday’s hearing was that Twitter colluded with the FBI to suppress the story and tip the scales for Joe Biden in the presidential election.
The former Twitter executives, however, said that they were not engaged in a conspiracy to sideline the story.
“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,” said James Baker, former deputy general counsel of Twitter who formerly worked as general counsel of the FBI.
Baker also defended revelations about his work from new Twitter owner Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files” release, he advised Twitter officials to use “caution” as they were weighing what to do about the tweets about the Hunter Biden laptop story. “Hardly a surprising piece of advice from a corporate lawyer,” Baker said.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), however, claimed that Twitter got “played” by the FBI as the company was concerned about Russian interference in the 2020 election. He pressed the Twitter officials on how many employees had security clearances, but they were unable to answer.
“The company made a decision that found that it did violate [the hacked materials] policy,” said Yoel Roth, the former global head of trust and safety. “It wasn’t my personal judgment at the time that it did, but the decision was communicated to me by my direct supervisor. Ultimately I didn’t disagree with it enough to object.”
But Jordan contended that with Twitter officials having regular meetings with FBI officials, “I think you guys wanted it to be taken down. He pointed to email requests from an FBI agent who suggested that Twitter officials look at certain posts for violating terms of service. That request, Jordan said, raises questions of whether it violates the First Amendment.
“Do I think that is a valuable use of the FBI’s time? No. But I don’t see in a request for review a problem under the First Amendment,” Roth said.
Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to an instance where then-President Donald Trump sought to get Twitter to take down one of Chrissy Teigen’s tweets about him. According to Anika Collier Navaroli, a whistleblower and former Twitter employee, the White House then contacted Twitter to request the tweet be taken down.
“I thought that was inappropriate action by a government official, let alone the White House,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said sarcastically during the hearing. “But it wasn’t Joe Biden about his son’s laptop. It was Donald Trump because he didn’t like what Chrissy Teigen had to say about him.” The tweet was not taken down. Navarolli said that it was a “slippery slope” for a president to exert pressure on a social media company to take down content.
Media outlets have since confirmed that the laptop, dropped off at a repair shop in 2019, was genuine. Hunter Biden’s attorneys have recently called on state and federal authorities to investigate the dissemination of information from the computer.
It’s been almost five years since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress in a marathon Senate hearing, setting the stage for what was to come: Republicans complaining that tech giants’ were biased in policing social media, and Democrats grousing that Silicon Valley wasn’t doing enough to stop inflammatory content.
Not too surprisingly, not a whole lot has been done to rein in the power of the platforms. There was bipartisan support for a set of robust antitrust bills aimed at the tech giants, but they failed to get to the floor in the last Congress. Jordan has been one of the loudest congressional critics of social media platforms, yet he opposed the antitrust bills, arguing that they were power grabs by government agencies. He also replaced one of the sponsors of the bills, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), as the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Instead, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has opposed government intervention.
Politicians of both parties also have talked of reforming or even eliminating Section 230, the provision of a 1996 law that shields platforms from liability for the way that they moderate third-party content. But those efforts haven’t gotten anywhere, either.
So what’s left when it comes to social media? Hearings, a common and not-too-subtle way to try to pressure tech giants, or any private company. In the case of Twitter, though, the executives who testified no longer work there as the company’s new owner Elon Musk has released a trove of internal emails and other documents from the previous regime.
The former Twitter executives seemed to suggest that the decision to block the Hunter Biden laptop story was a case of overcorrecting after years of prior hearings over Russian influence of social media in advance of the 2016 presidential election.
Baker said that believed that “the best reading of the law is that as a private entity, the First Amendment protects Twitter in its content moderation decisions. I do not believe that the facts in the public record indicate that Twitter became a state actor as that concept is defined under existing precedent, such that the First Amendment would have constrained it.”
The Oversight Committee hearing was delayed for a bit because of a power outage, which sent the hearing room into darkness.
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