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Ex-Twitter officials reject GOP claims of government collusion

With a poster of a <em>New York Post</em> front page story about Hunter Biden's emails on display, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) listen during a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on Feb. 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on Twitter's short-lived decision to limit circulation of the <em>Post </em>story in 2020.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
With a poster of a New York Post front page story about Hunter Biden's emails on display, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) listen during a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on Feb. 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on Twitter's short-lived decision to limit circulation of the Post story in 2020.

Former Twitter officials denied claims the U.S. government and Joe Biden's presidential campaign were involved in the social network's controversial, short-lived decision to block users from sharing a New York Post story about Biden's son Hunter just weeks before the 2020 election.

At a contentious House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday lasting more than six hours, Republicans accused the social media company of colluding with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Biden campaign to censor the Post story and aired long-held grievances over what they say is Silicon Valley's bias against conservatives.

"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," committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said in his opening remarks.

"Immediately following the story's publication, America witnessed a coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news and the intelligence community to suppress and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden's laptop and its contents," he said.

The former Twitter officials acknowledged the Post story, based on material from Hunter Biden's laptop, was the subject of fraught debate and confusion inside the company. Ultimately, they said, Twitter concluded it had made the wrong call by blocking it — something Twitter's CEO at the time, Jack Dorsey, said back in late 2020.

"I believe Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016," Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, told the panel, alluding to Russia's hacking of Democratic National Committee emails that year that were selectively leaked to the public in the final months of the campaign.

But Roth and his fellow panelists denied that decision involved government agencies or Biden's campaign.

"I'm 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," James Baker, who served as Twitter's deputy general counsel, told the committee.

The hearing is among the first efforts by House Republicans to use their newly regained majority to launch a series of investigations into the Biden administration and what they describe as the "weaponization" of the federal government against conservatives.

The White House slammed Wednesday's hearing as "a bizarre political stunt" and the latest effort by hardcore Republicans to "relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election."

Republicans' allegations of collusion between Twitter, government officials and Democrats were given added fuel in recent months by new owner Elon Musk's release of internal Twitter documents, dubbed the "Twitter Files," to a hand-picked group of journalists.

The files consist of internal emails, Slack chats and other material pre-dating Musk's ownership. They revealed incomplete glimpses of how Twitter officials deliberated over high-profile decisions, including blocking the Post article and banning then-President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. They also showed the degree to which government officials, law enforcement and politicians regularly communicate with Twitter, along with other tech platforms, by flagging content that may violate the company's policies and sharing threat assessments.

While the Twitter Files disclosures highlighted requests from the Biden campaign for Twitter to review tweets that might violate its policies, the committee heard testimony that Republicans also sought to influence the platform — and that the company had even changed its policies to allow Trump to post content that broke its rules.

Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Twitter safety policy employee called as a witness by committee Democrats, told the panel that Twitter removed the phrase "go back to where you came from" from its policy barring abuse of immigrants after Trump expressed the sentiment in a 2019 tweet targeting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other Democratic congresswomen.

Collier Navaroli also testified that the Trump White House had asked Twitter to remove a tweet by celebrity Chrissy Teigen insulting the president. Twitter declined to do so, but Democrats seized on her testimony to rebut Republicans' claims of political bias.

While Twitter quickly reversed the block on the Post article and rewrote its policies within days of the original decision, the company's botched handling of the episode has been the focus of debate and controversy for more than two years.

Republicans hold up the incident as a prime example of Silicon Valley's alleged anti-conservative bias. More recently, seizing on the Twitter Files, they've pushed the claim that the government and the Biden campaign pressured Twitter to suppress the story — even though the Twitter Files disclosures do not include any evidence that was the case.

At the time the Post article was published, it was unclear how much of the material said to come from Hunter Biden's laptop was authentic. Tech companies, intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement were on edge over the possibility of a Russian "hack and leak" operation, similar to what they carried out in 2016.

Citing its rules against sharing hacked material containing private information, Twitter showed a warning to anyone who tried to post a link to the article saying it was "potentially harmful." It also suspended the Post's Twitter account until it deleted its tweets about the story.

On Wednesday, Roth testified that potential Russian interference was the frame through which Twitter viewed the Post story — even though he personally did not believe the Post article broke Twitter's rules.

"The decisions here aren't straightforward, and hindsight is 20/20," he said. "It isn't obvious what the right response is to a suspected but not confirmed cyberattack by another government on a presidential election."

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's former chief legal officer, told the committee that she had approved the decision to block the link to the Post story on Twitter. She said in retrospect, Twitter should have immediately unlocked the newspaper's account when it reversed that decision.

The hearing, which was interrupted by a power outage, followed the split-screen format that's become the norm when lawmakers grill tech executives: Republicans spent their time accusing witnesses of censorship, while Democrats argued tech platforms have not done enough to crack down on harmful content.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) holds up a poster of a Twitter announcement of suspending her account during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Feb. 8, 2023.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, R-Ga., holds up a poster of a Twitter announcement of suspending her account during the House Oversight Committee hearing.

The panel included Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal Twitter account was permanently suspended in January 2022 by the company's previous management for repeatedly violating Twitter's rules against false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines. (Greene was reinstated in November after Musk bought Twitter.)

Greene attacked the panel for her ban and lobbed baseless allegations against the former executives. That included echoing smears against Roth previously amplified by Musk. Roth testified the threats that had resulted from Musk's airing of those smears have forced him to sell his home.

"Thank God Elon Musk bought Twitter," Greene said.

Committee Democrats blasted the premise of the hearing, accusing their Republican colleagues of wasting time and taxpayers' money on a political crusade.

"Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "The key point here is that it was Twitter's decision. Twitter is a private media company in America. Private media companies can decide what to publish or how to curate content however they want," he said.

Raskin and fellow Democrats said lawmakers should be focused on how Twitter was used to whip up violence ahead of Jan. 6, how the platform continues to be the target of state-backed manipulation campaigns by Russia, Iran and China, and how it's been used to foment transphobia and attacks on marginalized communities.

To drive home that point, the Democrats called Collier Navaroli as witness. She testified last year to the Jan. 6 select committee about the platform's role in the insurrection.

"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," Navaroli said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.