This was supposed to be their day.
Drunk off their power and eager to flex their political muscles in the House Oversight Committee, Republicans, led by Kentucky GOP Representative James Comer, finally had a chance to prove to the American people what they, egged on by ex-President Trump, have been alleging for months.
A high level conspiracy between Twitter and the FBI led to a fateful decision to throttle a NY Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop for 24 hours in October of 2020, and that this was enough to tip the November 2020 election to Joe Biden.
An extraordinary claim like that requires extraordinary evidence, and just looking at the sentence I just typed, there are already many more questions than answers.
First, the FBI, along with the DoJ, were led by Trump appointees at the time of the alleged conspiracy, so Republicans would have us believe that the “deep state,” represented by *checks notes* Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, was somehow colluding with Twitter against Trump.
Second, the NY Post story was limited for a period of just 24 hours on grounds it violated Twitter’s policy against exploiting hacked or illegally obtained material, and even a deep internal dive by Elon Musk in his “Twitter Files” failed to show any conspiracy with the government around the NY Post story.
And third, well, Hunter Biden’s laptop? Really? Still?
Let’s review what went down.
Bring on the key witnesses!
Surely to counteract the reasonable skepticism that the non-Kool-Aid drinking public might have over such a wild claim, the Republican-led Committee would come forward with damning evidence: star witnesses, for example, who would back up their allegations around this conspiracy.
The Republicans called three former employees of the company, all ousted by Elon Musk as part of what he dubbed the “woke mind virus” at Twitter after he acquired the company last fall: Yoel Roth, the company’s former trust and safety chief; Vijaya Gadde, former policy and legal chief; and Jim Baker, former deputy general counsel.
But rather than back up the GOP’s claims, while acknowledging and reconfirming that the decision to throttle the NY Post story for 24 hours was a mistake, each witness repeatedly stated under oath that the FBI did not in any way influence their decision to block its spread on Twitter in October 2020.
This is a clear example of how the GOP so often comes heavy with the allegations but empty on the evidence. Especially for lawyers watching key parts of the proceedings, it was a painful, cringe-inducing show of incompetence and inexperience.
In a public, televised hearing like this, you really want to bring your best witnesses forward. You want to prepare with them in advance, know what they will say, and drive your point home. This was exemplified lately with the riveting testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson at the January 6 Committee hearings.
Instead what we got here were witnesses calmly and clearly responding that no, in fact, the FBI did not influence their internal decision-making.
What was really going on behind the scenes at Twitter? The platforms, including both Twitter and Facebook, were all very concerned that 2020 would see a repeat of 2016 by the Russians, who were excellent at disruption and disinformation techniques.
Recall that in 2016, Russian hackers leaked damning emails from within the DNC, sowing mistrust and division within the party. Big social media platorms feared this was a page from the same playbook.
What if the whole Hunter Biden story was a disinformation set-up? The publication of damaging emails mysteriously retrieved off of a laptop that had serious chain of custody problems, on the eve of a national election, felt inherently problematic.
That put Twitter in an impossible position: If they failed to act to limit the spread of a false story, the Russians could succeed again with election disruption, but if they took measures to limit the story online, they would be accused of censoring “conservative” voices.
A number of experts had already expressed deep skepticism over the truth of the NY Post article and warned about Russian disinformation.
“It isn’t obvious what the right response is to a suspected but not confirmed cyberattack by another government on a presidential election."
“I believe Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016.”
Twitter has already conceded many times that the decision to block users from sharing the article was wrong. Jack Dorsey said so in Congressional hearings a month after the block took place and again in 2021.
Roth reiterated that position yesterday.
“At that moment, with limited information, Twitter made a mistake.”
Indeed, Roth himself had argued against blocking users at the time.
“I’ve been clear that, in my judgment at the time, Twitter should not have taken action to block the Post’s reporting."
"And just 24 hours after doing so, the company acknowledged its error.”
Impeach the witnesses with the documentary record!
When the witnesses you called to make your point repeatedly fail to do so, and in fact do the precise opposite, this is your moment to demonstrate how they are biased and untruthful. In legal terms, this is called “impeachment”—not to be confused with what Congress did to the former guy twice.
When you catch a witness in a lie, the jury and public start to wonder why they lied and what the truth really is. So, with their three star witnesses all supporting the idea that the FBI was not involved, it’s time to bring in the documents to prove that they’re liars! Right?
No such thing happened, of course.
We already knew, after Musk’s breathlessly anticipated “Twitter Files” revelations landed with a dud, that there was no evidence even within Twitter that the company colluded with the federal government to bury the NY Post story.
Musk’s own hand-picked blogger, Matt Taibbi, who combed through all the supposedly damning evidence himself, even confirmed “there’s not evidence—that I’ve seen—of any government involvement in the laptop story.”
The whole legal premise behind the conspiracy allegation is flawed.
Setting aside the fact that the GOP came with no witnesses and no evidence to back up its claim that Twitter wrongfully suppressed the NY Post article, the whole reason for the hearings is premised upon a highly faulty legal assumption.
Twitter is a private company. It has the right, as such, to decide what speech it allows on its platform and what it does not.
The First Amendment restricts the right of the government to censor speech, but actually protects the right of corporations to engage in it.
Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raksin—who was a constitutional law professor and who also heroically attended the hearing in the midst of chemo treatments for cancer, noted:
“In America, private media companies can decide what to publish or how to curate content however they want."
"If Twitter wants to have nothing but tweets commenting on New York Post articles run all day, it can do that."
"And if it makes it so such tweets mentioning the New York Post never see the light of day, they can do that, too."
"That’s what the First Amendment means.”
Republicans get nasty as the hearings go nowhere.
There’s an old saying that when you don’t have the facts, pound the law. And when you don’t have the law, pound the facts. And when you don’t have either, pound the table.
And that’s exactly what the Republicans did, and it was ugly, childish and in the end even dangerous.
Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene launched a personal attack on Roth, baselessly smearing him as a pedophile by seeking to connect the persistent problem of child pornography on the platform which continues to this day and by some accounts has worsened under Musk with a deliberate mischaracterization of a dissertation paper once written by Roth in which he discussed minors’ access to gay dating platforms.
The attack mirrors one made by Musk himself on Twitter, which led to anti-gay and antisemitic attacks on Roth online. After the Daily Mail doxxed Roth by publishing his home address, he was forced to flee his California home.
Representative Greene then repeated the false pedophilia allegations against Roth on Sean Hannity’s show on Wednesday night, blaming Roth for permanently banning Trump’s and her Twitter accounts and promising investigations into Roth personally.
Not to be outdone by this disturbing abuse of power, Florida Republican Representative Anna Luna dubbed past communications by Twitter moderators with the federal government “highly illegal” and added:
“You were all engaged in this action and I want you to know that you will all be held accountable.”
Maryland Democratic Representative Kweisi Mfume criticized her immediately, saying the panel was “getting awfully close to witness intimidation” and asking the chair to intervene.
But Louisiana Republican Representative Clay Higgins went even further, threatening the witnesses were all going to be arrested for “knowingly and willingly” interfering with the 2020 election.
“This is the investigation part. Later comes the arrest part."
This is an empty threat: As discussed above, there is zero evidence to back up this outrageous claim, and the GOP Committee members are simply saying things to appeal to their base. But the fact that they are making such threats is a dark turn, indeed.
The hearings scored wins for Democrats.
Democrats roundly and succinctly denounced the hearings as political theater.
New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez blasted the story the Republicans were trying to concoct and summed up what was really going on:
“I believe the political operatives who sought to inject explosive disinformation with the [Post] couldn’t get away with it. And now they’re livid."
"And they want the ability to do it again. They want the ability to inject this again."
"So they’ve dragged a social media platform here in Congress. They’re weaponizing this committee so that they can do it again."
"A whole hearing about a 24 hour hiccup about a right wing political operation. That is why we are here right now.”
And Democrats called a key witness of their own.
But unlike their Republican counterparts, this witness actually provided a narrative that was helpful to their side. Twitter had bent its own rules to accommodate Trump’s abusive behavior, and it was the Trump White House which was putting its finger on the scale and making requests for content moderation.
The witness, Anika Collier Navaroli, was a former employee of Twitter’s content moderation team.
She testified about how she had recommended Trump be found in violation of their policies and to apply a label to one of his tweets because he had told four liberal minority Congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.”
This violated policies against harassment of immigrants, including the specific example of telling them to “go back” to their home countries or to “go back to where you came from.”
Rather than place the label on the tweet, however, a Twitter executive overrode Navaroli’s decision. Then, that specific example of harassing or abusive language was removed from Twitter guidance.
Representative Ocasio Cortez noted the twist:
“So Twitter changed their own policy after the President violated it, in order to potentially accommodate his tweet.”
If there were any evidence of the company bending to political pressures, it was for conservatives, not liberals.
In perhaps the best and most epic part of the hearing, Navaroli also testified about a 2019 exchange between the ex-President and celebrity Chrissy Teigen, in which Trump had tweeted about her husband, the “boring” musician John Legend, and his “filthy-mouthed” wife.
Teigen responded with a tweet that apparently so riled the ex-President he had the White House reach out to Twitter directly.
Virginia Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly asked Navaroli:
“The White House almost immediately thereafter contacted Twitter to demand the tweet be taken down. Is that accurate?”
“I do remember hearing we’d received a request from the White House to make sure we evaluated this tweet, and they wanted it to come down because it was a derogatory statement directed at the President.”
The tweet, however, was not taken down.
Asked what the tweet was, Navaroli said—and this is now rather delightfully part of the public record forever:
“Please excuse my language, this is a direct quote, but Chrissy Tiegen referred to Donald Trump as a ‘pussy ass bitch’.”
Accurate, Ms. Teigen.