Former senior staff at Twitter began testimony on Wednesday before the House oversight committee about the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
The hearing has set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to home in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.
Recently departed Twitter employees speaking include Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.
The hearing centers on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020.
The Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report based on potentially hacked materials.
“Americans deserve answers about this attack on the first amendment and why big tech and the swamp colluded to censor this information about the Biden family selling access for profit,” said the Republican committee chairman James Comer ahead of the hearing, referring to Trump’s characterization of the Democratic political establishment as a swamp. “Accountability is coming,” he added.
In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked, stating that it triggered Twitter’s rules against sharing hacked materials. The article had been greeted with skepticism due to questions about the laptop’s origins, and Twitter policy restricted the sharing of unlawfully accessed materials. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy.
Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said Twitter had acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.
“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”
Months later, Twitter’s then CEO, Jack Dorsey, called the company’s communications around the Post article “not great”. He added that blocking the article’s URL with “zero context” around why it was blocked was “unacceptable”.
Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing pressure from the Biden administration, among other factors.
Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.
“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.
“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”
Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.
The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.
In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.
“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”
Online advocacy groups and big tech watchdogs have said the focus on alleged anti-conservative bias from social media firms has served as a distraction from legitimate concerns, delaying the chance for useful legislation to address issues like misinformation, antitrust concerns and online hate speech.
“The fact that this is the very first tech hearing of this Congress says something,” González said. “There are real problems facing people across the political spectrum because of big tech, and lack of regulation. But instead we are getting a big waste of time, and a political stunt. The focus of Congress ought to be serving the people who elected them to office.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting
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