Former Twitter executives testify on decision to suppress Hunter Biden story
The White House dismissed the GOP-led House committee hearing as a "bizarre political stunt."
The Republican-controlled House Oversight and Accountability Committee held a hearing Wednesday on Twitter’s decision to block the sharing of a New York Post story about a laptop connected to Hunter Biden in the weeks before the 2020 election.
Witnesses included former Twitter executives Yoel Roth, who served as the social media giant’s former head of trust and safety; Vijaya Gadde, its former chief legal officer; and James Baker, its former deputy general counsel. All of them admitted they made mistakes in their handling of the Post report. But that wasn't enough for many Republicans on the panel, who seized upon the opportunity to attack President Biden and his son.
The White House dismissed the hearing — entitled, “Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias, Part 1: Twitter’s Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story” — as a "bizarre political stunt."
For a recap of highlights and analysis from the panel, see the Yahoo News blog below.
A poster of a New York Post front page story about Hunter Biden’s emails is displayed behind House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., during Wednesday's hearing. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
In his closing remarks, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., thanked the panelists for their endurance while apologizing for the power outage that interrupted the hearing for about an hour.
"That's never happened in my six years in Congress," Comer said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the panel, used his time to point out that Twitter is protected by the First Amendment and can make its own decisions "like Fox News makes its decisions."
"I might get kicked off Fox News," Raskin said. "I've got no constitutional right to go there."
Comer defended the need for having the hearing, saying the Biden laptop contained "evidence that would suggest that there is the possibility that this administration could be compromised."
— Dylan Stableford
Goldman pushes back on Post's central Hunter Biden claim
While most Democrats on the panel refrained from delving into the New York Post story about Hunter Biden at the center of Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., threw water on its central claim: That Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general for investigating Burisma, a company that employed Hunter Biden, when the elder Biden was vice president.
Goldman said that Biden was simply following the coordinated policy of the United States and Europe to oust the prosecutor for not investigating corruption.
"We’ve seen no actual evidence of Joe Biden being involved in anything having to do with Ukraine other than promoting U.S. foreign policy.” Goldman said.
— Dylan Stableford
GOP congressman lobs wild 'arrest' prediction
In one of the strangest monologues in a hearing with plenty of them, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., told the former Twitter employees testifying at today's House Oversight hearing that they will eventually be arrested.
"You, ladies and gentlemen, interfered with the 2020 United States presidential election knowingly and willingly," Higgins said. "That's the bad news. It's gonna get worse because this is the investigation part. Later comes the arrest part. Your attorneys are familiar with that."
Higgins added that he would like to spend "five hours" watching their "depositions that are surely yet to come."
He did not offer any evidence to support his claim of future prosecutions.
Higgins yielded the remainder of his time to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who said, "I think you made the right point."
— Dylan Stableford
Aides open curtains to the hearing room inside the Rayburn House office building during a power outage. (Jon Ward/Yahoo News)
Take-down requests 'very common' — from both sides
Former Twitter executives listen during a House Oversight committee on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee have made the point in the third hour of this hearing that it was very common for political campaigns or government officials from both the Republican and Democratic sides to flag specific Twitter posts to Twitter, asking they be taken down.
“In 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored” by Twitter, wrote Matt Taibbi, in the first thread of the Twitter Files.
Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s former chief legal officer, said this was “very common.”
Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., said, "The Biden campaign did what the Trump campaign and millions of Twitter users do,” which is to flag a post as a potential violation of Twitter’s own terms.
Taibbi argued that because most Twitter employees were left-of-center politically, that made it easier for those on the left to get their requests for review heard.
However, Twitter conducted a study in 2021 that showed that its algorithm was, unintentionally, “favoring the political right wing.”
Some Republican politicians have said that there was something nefarious about emails released in the Twitter Files showing that the Biden campaign flagged a number of tweets for review that related to Hunter Biden.
But as Business Insider reported in December, “of the links to five since-deleted tweets that were shared in a screenshot by Taibbi, four had archives available online. All four of the available archives depicted nude photos and videos of the president's son that had been leaked.”
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., asked Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, about these tweets flagged by the Biden campaign. When Roth told Donalds that public reporting has found that these tweets were nude photos, which were not allowed under Twitter policy, Donalds acted surprised that Roth could know such a thing.
“There was extensive public reporting” about the matter, Roth reminded Donalds.
— Jon Ward
Trump White House wanted to censor Teigen's tweets, former Twitter executive says
Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Twitter executive, testifies during Wednesday's hearing. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Democrats on the House Oversight panel asked the former Twitter executives about another instance of attempted censorship, this one involving then-President Donald Trump.
In 2019, Trump got into a late-night back-and-forth with singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, on the platform.
Trump called Teigen "foul mouthed."
Teigen, in turn, called Trump a "p***y ass bitch."
Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Twitter executive, testified Wednesday that the Trump White House contacted Twitter demanding that Teigen's tweet be taken down.
"It wasn't Joe Biden about his son's laptop," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., pointed out. "It was Donald Trump, because he didn't like what Chrissy Teigen had to say about him."
— Dylan Stableford
House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., calls a recess after a power outage caused the room to go black. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
As the Twitter hearing came near to the end of its third hour, the room went pitch black. A few surprised murmurs went up from those inside the room. Auxiliary lights came on quickly.
Chairman Jim Comer, R-Ky., tried to move ahead with the hearing, because the microphones were working.
But C-SPAN’s cameras were not, and Comer told the room that power for the “entire quadrant” of the Rayburn House office building was out.
"By the rules, we're required to have the hearing on C-SPAN," Comer told the room.
He recessed the hearing until the problem could be resolved.
Aides then opened one of the massive curtains behind the dais to let in some natural light from the outside.
— Jon Ward
Jordan presses ex-executives on the 'Twitter Files'
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaks during Wednesday's hearing. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Jim Jordan has had multiple rounds of questioning. Oversight Chairman Comer has given him at least four or five opportunities to ask questions, unlike most members, who get one round of five minutes. Jordan is asking very precise questions, and often two or three at a time (unlike Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who gave a speech featuring statements such as, “I’m a member of Congress, and you’re not,” and asked no questions).
Jordan asked James Baker, the former deputy general counsel at Twitter who was also former general counsel at the FBI, if he had spoken with anyone at the FBI about the Hunter Biden laptop story and how Twitter handled it.
“I don't recall speaking to the FBI at all about the Hunter Biden matter,” Baker said.
Baker has been accused of advocating inside Twitter for the suppression of the Hunter Biden story in the New York Post. But the internal documents released in the "Twitter Files" have shown Baker urging caution and stressing the need for more information.
Jordan also asked Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter, if any specific accounts had been set for lower visibility or reach on Twitter. Jordan used the term “hard-coated” to describe this kind of targeting of individual accounts, which some call “throttling.” (New Twitter owner Elon Musk himself has said that “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach” is a Twitter policy under his ownership, which is an embrace of limiting the visibility of some content).
Roth took issue with Jordan’s use of the term “hard-coated” but did not refute the idea that individual accounts were set to be suppressed.
“But it was specific?” Jordan asked.
“I wouldn’t say they were hard-coated,” Roth said.
The recent Twitter Files stories have shown evidence that a few conservative personalities had their accounts set so that they could not appear on a “trending” list, or that made it harder to find their account in the search function.
The Twitter Files, however, did not provide any context or details for why these accounts were placed on the “trends blacklist” or on the “search blacklist.” It is possible that the accounts were flagged for a violation of Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter has said for years that it limits the reach of certain accounts if they violate the platform’s policies.
But Jordan’s question seemed to be trying to uncover whether individual figures were targeted, which could potentially be a sign that Twitter was discriminating against users based on their political point of view. Twitter has denied it engages in partisan viewpoint discrimination.
Jordan also asked Roth if anyone in the government asked Twitter to set individual accounts for limited reach or “visibility filtering.”
Roth said he did not know of any incidents ot this.
— Jon Ward
Ashli Babbitt's mother is at the hearing
Micki Witthoeft, mother of Ashli Babbitt, takes part in a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2023, the second anniversary of the Capitol attack. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Micki Witthoeft, the mother of a woman killed during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, is sitting in the House Oversight Committee hearing about Twitter, listening to former Twitter executives give testimony.
Witthoeft’s daughter, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a broken window at the head of a mob that was attempting to break into a room just outside the House chamber.
The Capitol Police conducted an investigation into the use of force by the officer, and concluded that “the officer’s conduct was lawful and within Department policy,” and that he “potentially saved members and staff from serious injury and possible death from a large crowd of rioters who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol and to the House Chamber where Members and staff were steps away.”
“USCP Officers had barricaded the Speaker’s Lobby with furniture before a rioter shattered the glass door. If the doors were breached, the rioters would have immediate access to the House Chambers. The officer’s actions were consistent with the officer’s training and USCP policies and procedures,” the Capitol Police found.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said last week that “the police officer did his job.”
But Babbitt’s mother, Witthoeft, has said that Babbitt was “murdered” and the police officer who shot her was “careless” and “reckless.” Witthoeft has held vigil outside the D.C. jail where defendants in Jan. 6 related trials are being held. She retweeted an account that called McCarthy “spineless” for his defense of the Capitol Police officer.
Several others sitting behind Witthoeft are wearing “Justice for Ashli” bracelets and have been videotaping most of the hearing on their phones, despite the fact that it is being broadcast on C-SPAN. This row of observers has often been seen shaking their heads in disagreement with statements by Democrats. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., finished a five-minute monologue, the Babbitt supporters stood silently in support.
— Jon Ward
Greene goes after Roth
Greene speaks during Wednesday's hearing. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., whose own Twitter account was suspended for violating the company's policies about misinformation, went after Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, during Wednesday's hearing with a rant about her suspension.
"I'm a member of Congress, and you're not," Greene informed Roth at one point before praising Elon Musk, Twitter's new owner, who has vowed to strip the company of the policies that led to her temporary ban.
She also criticized what she called Roth's "inability to remove child porn" from the platform.
"You permanently banned my Twitter account, but you allowed child porn all over Twitter," Greene said, without offering any evidence to back up that claim.
And if you were looking for proof that Greene was trying to create another viral moment, look no further than the tweet she posted shortly before her turn came.
— Dylan Stableford