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GOP Congressional Hearing Accidentally Debunks ‘Twitter Files’: Trump — Not Biden — Tried to Censor Tweets

Elon Musk’s selective leaks suggested Twitter ‘censored’ Conservatives, but evidence shows they refused to boost a right-wing disinformation campaign around Hunter Biden’s laptop

United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions the witnesses during a House Committee on Oversight and Accountability hearing: Photo: Newscom / Alamy

GOP Congressional Hearing Accidentally Debunks ‘Twitter Files’Trump — Not Biden — Tried to Censor Tweets

Elon Musk’s selective leaks suggested Twitter ‘censored’ Conservatives, but evidence shows they refused to boost a right-wing disinformation campaign around Hunter Biden’s laptop

Having taken control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 2022 midterm elections, Republicans convened one of the year’s first hearings of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, calling on former Twitter executives to testify about what Republicans claim is rampant anti-conservative bias on social media.

But instead of proving that Democrats colluded with Twitter to censor conservative voices and narratives like the Hunter Biden laptop story, the Republican-led hearing exposed Republicans’ role in the very behaviour they’ve been condemning as an “authoritarian” and “unlawfulabuse of power and an example of “digital tyranny.”

Republicans, including the chair of the Oversight Committee, have long accused social media companies of being biased against conservatives and working with Democrats to suppress conservative accounts, despite ample evidence to the contrary. These unfounded claims were given new life recently thanks to the so-called “Twitter Files” — a cache of internal company documents and conversations that Elon Musk selectively leaked to a handpicked group of journalists including Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss — and were used to justify holding the hearings that started Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly praised Musk on Wednesday, with two members of Congress even thanking God (literally) for the billionaire’s decision to release the Twitter Files documents. 

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But if the Oversight Committee hearing was supposed to prove the claims in the Twitter Files to be true and showcase Twitter’s alleged bias against conservatives, it couldn’t have gone any worse for the new Republican majority. The hearing, titled “Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias, Part 1: Twitter’s Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story,” backfired in spectacular fashion, revealing that Republicans — including Trump himself — have been quietly trying to get Twitter to suppress criticism of them. 

According to former Twitter employee-turned-whistleblower Anika Collier Navaroli, in one memorable incident, the Trump White House contacted Twitter directly to ask the company to remove a Sept. 2019 tweet in which model Chrissy Teigen referred to Trump as a “pu**y a** b*tch.” 

But that wasn’t an isolated incident, according to multiple sources at Twitter and in the Trump White House, nor did the attempts to censor tweets stop at Trump.  

In fact, Trump’s attempt to get Teigen’s tweet taken down was just one of many instances in which Trump and his Republican allies contacted Twitter to file requests asking the company to remove social media posts that they didn’t like. One former senior Trump administration official told Rolling Stone that the accusation that Democrats pushed Twitter to suppress certain tweets was “the exact same stuff that we had done [when Donald Trump was in office].” The former Trump official described these takedown requests as “normal” during his time in the White House. 

Furthermore, according to Rolling Stone, Trump administration officials described having access to a “hotline” or a “tipline” that they could use to contact Twitter to file takedown requests, and former Twitter employees said there were so many requests made through this direct line to Twitter that the company maintained an entire “database” just for takedown requests. 

The “voluminous” takedown requests came from various political appointees working across different parts of the Trump administration, as well as staffers working for powerful Republican lawmakers including Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, Rolling Stone reported. These requests often also included demands for Twitter to stop “shadowbanning” conservative accounts, or to reinstate certain right-wing accounts that had been banned for hate speech or disinformation. 

Notably, President Joe Biden’s White House hasn’t submitted a single takedown request, according to two Twitter executives who testified Wednesday. 

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Bending the Rules

But the problems extend beyond conservatives’ dishonesty around their support for censorship. According to testimony offered by former Twitter employees, the company also frequently bent over backwards to avoid banning or otherwise punishing Trump and his Republican allies, even refusing multiple requests to remove violent posts ahead of Jan. 6, 2020. Concerns about being perceived as biased against conservatives stymied the company’s efforts to enforce their own rules around hate speech and harmful content, even as the potential for violence became clear, said Navaroli.  

“Twitter’s leadership bent and broke their own rules in order to protect some of the most dangerous speech on the platform,” Navaroli testified. 

For example, in 2019, when Trump posted a tweet telling four Democratic congresswomen of colour to “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came,” Twitter changed its own rules to avoid having to take action against Trump’s tweet. Navaroli said she recommended labelling Trump’s tweets as violating the company’s rules against denigrating immigrants (which include a specific ban on tweeting “go back to where you came from”), but her recommendation was sidelined and the policy was changed instead.

“So Twitter changed their own policy after the president violated it in order to potentially accommodate his tweet?” asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). 

“Yes,” Navaroli replied

“So much for bias against [the] right wing on Twitter,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said. 

Navaroli also explained how, in the lead-up to Jan. 6 — as Trump’s rhetoric became increasingly heated — her team created a new “Coded Incitement to Violence” policy to deal with tweets that were likely to incite violence. But Twitter executives refused to approve the policy, she said.

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“On Jan. 5, with the policy still not approved, I led a meeting where one of my colleagues asked management whether someone was going to have to get shot before we would be allowed to take down tweets,” she testified. “Another colleague looked up live tweets and read them to management to try to convince them of the seriousness of the issue. Still no action was taken.”

After a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, leading to at least seven deaths and injuring more than 140 police officers, Navaroli said she asked management “whether they wanted more blood on their hands.” Only then did Twitter finally take action, but by then it was too late to be meaningful. Moderators didn’t know how to apply the new policy, and the damage had already been done.

The Missing Twitter Files

Apparently, either Matt Taibbi didn’t think the public deserved to hear that information or Elon Musk didn’t give it to him. Taibbi’s version of the story, as presented in a series of Twitter threads starting on 2 December, presented Twitter’s decision-making around the Hunter Biden laptop story, the banning of Trump’s account, and the general process of content moderation as a story of collusion between Democrats, intelligence agencies, and Twitter, all of whom — according to Taibbi — ganged up to target conservative accounts and suppress unfavourable content. 

Nowhere in Taibbi’s version did he mention those “voluminous” requests for censorship coming from the Trump White House and powerful Republicans in Congress. The closest he came was mentioning a single time, in one sentence (among hundreds of tweets) that the Trump White House had submitted requests for takedowns. But nowhere did he mention other top Republicans were in contact with Twitter to request censorship of their critics and reinstatement of their allies, nor that Republicans were submitting huge quantities of takedown requests, to the extent that Twitter needed a database to keep track of them. 

Taibbi also failed to mention the details about Twitter refusing to enforce its own policies to prevent violence in the lead-up to the deadly Capital attack. He also left out the scandalous information about Twitter changing its own rules to avoid punishing Trump. This is particularly egregious, given that Taibbi published an entire thread about the decision to ban Trump’s account — presenting the decision as unprecedented overreach and political interference on the part of Twitter.

Yet, according to yesterday’s testimony, Twitter actually bent over backwards repeatedly to avoid having to take action against Trump’s account. Even in the days right before Jan. 6th, Twitter executives were still refusing to sign off on a policy that would have made Trump’s coded incitement to violence a violation. 

In other words, Twitter had a chance to possibly prevent violence ahead of 6 January but they missed the opportunity because they were too afraid of backlash if they took action against Trump’s account. So they waited until the violence had already started. But in Taibbi’s telling, the real scandal was that Twitter had banned Trump’s account at all, not that the platform had waited for him to incite a deadly riot before doing so.

Hack and Leak Operations

When the facts are laid out, the story Taibbi presented in the Twitter Files looks nothing like the truth. This wasn’t a story about tech companies and Democrats colluding to target conservatives, nor was it a story about wokeness run amok in Twitter’s content moderation group.

Above all, this was and is a story about Twitter refusing to take part in a right-wing disinformation campaign surrounding Hunter Biden’s laptop — a refusal that infuriated Republicans and fueled their ongoing, unfounded cries of anti-conservative bias at Twitter.

But as we learned this week, Twitter had good reason to refuse to publish that story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. According to testimony from Twitter executives, the whole thing bore resemblance to a Russian “hack and leak” operation — a type of disinformation campaign that involves hacking materials and selectively leaking only certain pieces of the hacked documents in order to manufacture a misleading narrative.

It can be a devastatingly effective disinformation tactic, as we saw with the hacked Democratic emails in 2016. It’s not a scandal that Twitter learned from the previous election and refused to let the platform be used for what looked a whole lot like another Russian hack and leak operation. Of course, this tactic isn’t used exclusively by Russia. Just ask Taibbi and Musk — they seem pretty familiar with how to do it.

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