Clearing the Air With Smoke
By Dov Katzenstein
Since taking over Twitter, enigmatic mogul Elon Musk has pledged to move the influential platform towards content neutrality and reveal past instances of ideologically biased censorship. Last Friday, attempting to make good on these promises, Twitter, via journalist Matt Taibbi, released a set of messages detailing internal discussions over what became a decision to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.
The revelations contained little that was not expected, showing the impact of an indirect pressure campaign by FBI and other intelligence agencies for social media companies to suppress certain types of negative information relating to candidates — specifically connected to the younger Biden. It is the most recent chapter in a tale that pits the nation’s right and left against each other in a divergent narrative over public trust and free speech in media and digital forums.
As 2020 elections neared, the New York Post broke a story of a computer repairman in possession of Hunter Biden’s laptop who found in it data of shady international dealings and indications that access to the owner’s father (in his past role as Vice President) might have been leveraged.
The story set off an internal debate among Twitter’s top executives. In the background, apparently, lurks an undefined concern that the materials outed by the Post were not legitimate — and were the work of Russian election interferers.
“I support the conclusion that we need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked. At this stage, however, it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been and that caution is warranted,” wrote James Baker, the company’s general counsel.
Amid some questioning, that position is the one that won the day. While initial discussion was over whether to add a label to the story warning users that its sources might not be reliable, Twitter took things much further. It used technology it uses to block links to illicit and illegal material to prevent any users from spreading the Post’s story. When the Post itself refused to remove its link, it was removed form the platform for two weeks, longer than other restrictions on the story were in place.
Some of Mr. Musk’s critics complained that his piecemeal release of information leaves information gaps and smells of a PR gimmick, rather than a serious attempt at transparency about Twitter’s past. Even with that potentially accurate critique in mind, it might appear particularly troublesome that some of the revealed messages seem as if a decision to censor the Biden story was made beforehand, making subsequent discussions about a public justification, rather than a debate over whether or not to sweep it from the Twittersphere.
“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe, and I think the best explainability (sic) argument for this externally would be that we’re waiting to understand if this story is the result of hacked materials. We’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning for marking the link unsafe,” wrote Trenton Kennedy, a former Twitter executive.
A response from the forum’s former integrity chief, Yoel Roth, supplies an answer.
“The policy basis is hacked materials — though, as discussed, this is an emerging situation where the facts remain unclear. Given the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016, we’re erring on the side of including a warning and preventing this content from being amplified,” he responded to Mr. Kennedy’s message.
If there is no significant addition to the conversations in Mr. Musk’s back pocket, it seems reasonable that the impetus for Twitter’s concerns, feigned or real, were rooted in warnings it received from the FBI to be weary of such stories as elections neared.
“I was told in these meetings that the intelligence community expected that individuals associated with political campaigns would be subject to hacking attacks and that material obtained through those hacking attacks would likely be disseminated over social media platforms, including Twitter,” Mr. Roth said in a December 2020 declaration to the Federal Election Commission, as reported by the New York Post. “I also learned in these meetings that there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden.”
Whether these warnings from the FBI were legitimate concerns over Russian interference or attempts to tip the scales for the Biden campaign will no doubt be a subject of inquiry in investigations by the incoming Congress, which has promised probes into the Hunter Biden affair and political gaming by the intelligence community.
Mr. Musk used the materials and information around them to frame the matter as pro-Biden elements in government using sympathetic social media partners to act as agents for censorship.
“Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is,” he said on the forum.
In an online interview, Mr. Musk re-framed his accusation.
“If Twitter is doing one team’s bidding before an election, shutting down dissenting voices on a pivotal election, that is the very definition of election interference … Frankly Twitter was acting like an arm of the Democratic National Committee. It was absurd.”
In truth, both the Biden and Trump campaigns made requests for Twitter to remove certain content, but the recent revelations do little to draw straight lines between those and the company’s actions.
Mr. Taibbi, who was the conduit for the revelations, wrote that “there is no evidence — that I’ve seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story.”
Many observers commented that the internal messages fell short of the smoking gun Mr. Musk had hyped in advance. Still, there is good reason for suspicion. No shortage of evidence already exists of progressive sympathies among Twitter’s former leadership and their willingness to use the forum’s rules to promote narratives of their linking.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial drew attention to the fact that Mr. Baker, Twitter’s attorney, who endorsed the choice to censor the Biden story, was himself a former FBI employee under James Comey who initiated the Trump-Russia probe. It was Mr. Baker who was the chief contact that Michael Sussman, a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, went to with misleading information that was used as the basis for the Russia collusion inquiry, which turned up no evidence of cooperation between Moscow and the Trump campaign, but dogged the Trump presidency from its inception.
Twitter’s efforts to shift the board to the progressive team’s side is only the latest in a series of revelations over the past years that shook public confidence (especially among those right of center) in media and government institutions. From concerted efforts by NIH and media to discredit the lab leak COVID theory to attempts to downplay the role the Hillary Clinton campaign played in initiating the Muller probe, there is much trust that will be difficult if not impossible to resurrect.
Mr. Musk framed his outing of Twitter’s past actions as attempts to address this issue.
“The idea here is to come clean on everything that has happened in the past in order to build public trust for the future,” he said in an interview.
Yet coverage of these very revelations only did more to bring the polarized nature of present-day media coverage into focus.
“Musk’s big reveal pointed to a series of tweets by the journalist Matt Taibbi, who had been provided with emails that largely corroborated what was already known about the incident,” read an opening line in a CNN story. Many mainstream outlets ignored the story. Others, like the Washington Post, wrote news pieces focused on downplaying it.
The approach was not lost on Mr. Musk, who commented, “rather than admit they lied to the public, they’re trying to pretend this is a nothingburger…Shame on them.”
It is not without basis to say that the new internal messages reveal little that was not known before, but they help round out the picture. As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “Elon Musk’s release of internal emails relating to Twitter’s 2020 censorship is news by any definition, even if the mainstream media dismiss it.”
The saga of the younger Biden’s laptop itself has yet to produce any evidence of criminal acts by its owner or wrongdoings by the President. One prescient comment that surfaced in the latest revelations was a warning by progressive Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Kahanna to a Twitter executive about its approach to the Post’s laptop story.
“In the heat of a Presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if N.Y. Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.”
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