Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, released a series of internal company communications from around the 2020 U.S. election cycle on Friday. The communications, which he provided to journalist Matt Taibbi, showed how the company used unprecedented tools to suppress reporting on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s laptop. The files also show how Twitter executives struggled internally to justify censoring the laptop story after the fact.
On Friday evening, Taibbi published a lengthy series of tweets containing a variety of internal Twitter communications.
Taibbi called his thread the “TWITTER FILES” and said, “What you’re about to read is the first installment in a series, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter.”
As he began the thread, Taibbi said Twitter began with a plan for a platform with “the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Taibbi said that Twitter was, over time, forced to put up barriers on what speech could that take place on the platform.
Taibbi said Twitter’s involvement in moderating content initially began with combatting spam and financial fraud schemes, but by 2020 saw influential actors calling on the platform to delete tweets and remove accounts.
“By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled,'” Taibbi tweeted.
“Celebrities and unknowns alike could be removed or reviewed at the behest of a political party,” Taibbi continued.
Taibbi said both political parties had some level of access to request that Twitter take certain actions and that both Biden and Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign made requests that Twitter honored.
“However,” Taibbi added. “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 left (well, Democrats) than the right.”
Taibbi said the slant in Twitter’s handling of political content moderation is demonstrated by the documents he has received from Musk and is “also the assessment of multiple current and former high-level executives.”
“On October 14, 2020, the New York Post published BIDEN SECRET EMAILS, an expose based on the contents of Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop,” Taibbi tweeted. “Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe.’ They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.”
Taibbi further noted how Trump’s then-White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany was locked out of her Twitter account for tweeting about the story. Taibbi then shared an email complaint to Twitter from Trump campaign staffer Mike Hahn.
“All [McEnany] did was cite the story and firsthand reporting that has been reported by other outlets and not disputed by the Biden campaign,” Hahn’s email reads. “I need an answer immediately on when/how she will be unlocked. I also don’t apricate how nobody on this team called me regarding the news that you’ll be censoring news articles. Like I said, at least pretend to care for the next 20 days.”
Further internal emails showed the Twitter’s team deliberated in the back about the justification for the censorship action they took against the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
“This led public policy executive Caroline Strom to send out a polite WTF query,” Taibbi tweeted, characterizing Strom’s email. “Several employees noted that there was tension between the comms/policy teams, who had little/less control over moderation, and the safety/trust teams. Strom’s note returned the answer that the laptop story had been removed for violation of the company’s ‘hacked materials’ policy.”
Taibbi said several of his sources recalled during the Hunter Biden laptop censorship incident that they recalled hearing a “general” warning from federal law enforcement officials about foreign hacking operations. Taibbi said, however, that he’s seen no evidence of any government involvement in the suppression of the laptop story.
“The decision was made at the highest levels of the company, but without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, with former head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde playing a key role,” Taibbi tweeted.
“You can see the confusion in the following lengthy exchange, which ends up including Gadde and former Trust and safety chief Yoel Roth. Comms official Trenton Kennedy writes, ‘I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe'” Taibbi tweeted. “By this point ‘everyone knew this was fucked,’ said one former employee, but the response was essentially to err on the side of… continuing to err.”
Continuing on Twitter’s internal deliberations over suppressing the laptop story, Taibbi tweeted, “Former VP of Global Comms Brandon Borrman asks, ‘Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?’ To which former Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker again seems to advise staying the non-course, because ‘caution is warranted.’”
Taibbi said, “a fundamental problem with tech companies and content moderation: many people in charge of speech know/care little about speech, and have to be told the basics by outsiders” and that mentions of the “First Amendment” were “generally hard to find” in the files Musk provided.
Taibbi added that the suppression of reporting on the laptop even prompted questions from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) about how Twitter was handling free speech and related “First Amendment” issues.
The release of the Twitter files came the same week Musk said the social media giant “has interfered in elections.”
Hunter Biden’s laptop contained communications between Hunter and his foreign business partners. One of the business emails indicating Hunter introduced a partner on a Ukrainian gas company to his then his father in 2015, when Joe Biden was serving as the vice president under Barack Obama.
Joe Biden had denied having knowledge about his son’s business activities, but questions persisted about his potential knowledge and involvement in those business dealings throughout the 2020 presidential election cycle. In a 2018 interview, Joe Biden described withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine in 2016 as the vice president until the Ukrainian government fired a prosecutor. The details of that firing incident lined up with the Ukrainian government’s decision to fire Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was then tasked with investigating Burisma.
According to a Media Research Center poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, 16 percent of Biden voters said they would not have voted for Biden if they had known about the Biden family’s foreign business dealings – suggesting the public’s awareness of the Hunter Biden laptop story could have changed the outcome of the election.
On Saturday, Musk said he plans to release even more Twitter internal communications.
“We’re just gonna put all the information out there try to get a clean slate we will be iteratively better and it will force other media companies to also be more truthful or else they’ll lose their readership,” Musk said in a live Twitter Space Question and Answer session, the New York Post reported.