Last week, Republicans grilled four Twitter executives about their moderation decisions.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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Over the holiday break, we launched our first ever "reader interview" series, where I got to know some Tangle readers. A lot of people seemed to love the format, and I thought this Valentine's Day I could take it to another level — by interviewing my wife, Phoebe. Last night, she and I sat down with some hot toddies, turned the mics on, and talked about her life: Her experience in law school, the political issues where we disagree, her favorite (and least favorite) things about me, and then finished in the most mushy, Valentine's Day way possible. It's a fun episode, meant to be a break from the normal format, with some moments of very serious talk. It should be published around 1pm EST, and you can listen to it here.
- Three students were killed and five others are in critical condition after a shooting on Michigan State University's campus. The gunman, a 43-year-old man, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (The attack)
- President Biden fired the Architect of the Capitol, Brett Blanton, after an investigation revealed abuse of government vehicles and an incident where Blanton falsely identified himself as a law enforcement officer. (The decision)
- Nikki Haley officially announced her plans to run for president (We covered her potential candidacy here).
- Nearly 100,000 Israelis protested outside the country's parliament before several legislative votes that would give politicians greater control over appointing judges and the ability to overturn Supreme Court decisions. (The protests)
- The U.S. issued its highest level advisory telling American citizens to leave Russia immediately and refrain from traveling to the country. (The warning)
The Twitter hearings. Last week, four former Twitter executives testified before the House Oversight Committee on its decision to limit the reach of news articles about Hunter Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The executives said unanimously that they had erred in their decision to limit sharing of the story. However, the executives denied there were political motivations at play, instead insisting they thought the story was violating the platform's rule on the sharing of hacked materials.
“In that moment, with limited information, Twitter made a mistake,” Yoel Roth, who worked as the social media platform’s global head of trust and safety, said during the hearing.
Throughout the hearing, Republicans criticized the executives, and tried to frame the decision as one designed to benefit President Biden. Roth told Republicans that Twitter had been warned by law enforcement about the potential for another hack-and-dump operation like the one in 2016 that led to leaks of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That warning, along with national security officials publicly claiming the material looked like a Russian intelligence operation, primed the employees to believe the story may have been the result of hacked materials.
Twitter's executives made the decision to limit the sharing and reach of the story just a month before the November 3, 2020, election. Facebook also reduced the reach of the article temporarily.
Republicans leaned on internal Twitter documents released by new CEO Elon Musk to guide their questions. After taking over last year, Musk allowed several journalists access to internal documents, and the subsequent reporting has been called the "Twitter files." Some of those documents were displayed during the hearings, including screenshots of conservative commentators on blacklists that limited the reach of their tweets.
We’ve previously covered the Twitter files here.
Today, we’re going to share some arguments from the left and right about the hearings, and then my take.
What the right is saying.
- Many on the right say the hearings prove definitively that the New York Post story was authentic and the government coerced Twitter into censoring it.
- Some pointed to evidence that the FBI laid the groundwork for Twitter to censor the stories.
- Others noted that the hearings also proved Trump tried to censor some material, and called on Republicans to stand up for free speech across the board.
The New York Post editorial board lambasted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for claiming "political operatives" were upset they couldn't inject "explosive disinformation" into the press.
"The Hunter Biden laptop was indeed 'explosive' but not fake," the board said. "If you don’t believe us, you can read the confirmations and follow-up reporting in countless other publications, including the Washington Post. Or you can believe Hunter Biden, who admitted it was his laptop in legal letters last week. In fact, anyone paying attention in October 2020, when we first posted the story, knew it was real. First, despite your lie that we published 'without any corroboration, without any backup information,' we interviewed the laptop repairman who provided it, we spot-checked a selection of key emails with Hunter Biden’s movements, and we interviewed people who corresponded with Hunter and confirmed the messages. Also — and this is important — Hunter and Joe Biden never denied the story.
"Oh, there was a smokescreen about how this 'could be Russian disinformation,' but it was just that — a smokescreen. Democrats, the liberal media and Big Tech shot the messenger rather than deal with the truth: That emails show how Hunter Biden traded on his father’s name, and despite claiming he 'never spoke' to Hunter about his business dealings, Joe met with some of his partners," the board said. "The Bidens, Joe included, also tried to cut a huge deal with a Chinese investment firm to begin after he left office. There was nothing false about any of this. It just made Joe Biden look bad. So Democratic intelligence officials worked in concert with a social-media company to suppress a piece of true journalism before a presidential election."
In Fox News, Gregg Jarrett said "Twitter got played" by the FBI.
"The committee subpoenaed James Baker as a key witness. He once served as general counsel for James Comey’s FBI but then joined Twitter several months before the election," he wrote. "During the hearing, Baker falsely portrayed himself as the voice of reason who urged 'caution' in censoring the story. Internal emails and other documents disclosed as part of the 'Twitter Files' show the opposite is true. He dismissed the laptop as hacked and the contents as fake while arguing in favor of killing the story," Jarrett said. "Unlike Baker, the company’s head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth was far more candid in his testimony. When asked if he believed that the laptop was Russian disinformation, he replied, 'I didn’t then and I don’t now.' When the story emerged on October 14, 2020, Roth argued that it did not violate any of Twitter’s policies and should not be censored. But he was overruled by executives above him. That’s where Baker played an instrumental role.
"During the hearing, Baker presented a master class in deflection and deception... Every day the bureau was sending requests to terminate tweets, 'shadowban' conservatives, and banish accounts they didn’t like," he wrote. "In other words, the FBI was closely collaborating with Twitter to diminish the free speech rights of millions of people... Ranking Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., dismissed all of it by claiming that since Twitter is a private company it can do whatever it wants with no consequence. As a skilled lawyer, he knows that is completely untrue. Whenever the government uses a private company as a proxy to censor information it violates the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled consistently that a government actor cannot pressure or direct private citizens or entities to do what the First Amendment prohibits the government from doing —that is, to abridge free speech rights."
In The Washington Examiner, Brad Polumbo said that Trump "also tried to suppress free speech" on Twitter.
"From obscure government agencies to the FBI, federal bureaucrats evidently worked directly with the platform to request or demand the removal of speech they disliked. That’s a serious violation of free speech principles and raises grave First Amendment concerns to boot. But it’s apparently not just conservative speech that was targeted by liberal federal employees. A House Oversight Committee hearing this week revealed that former President Donald Trump’s White House apparently contacted Twitter to ask that negative tweets about him be removed," he wrote. "Former Twitter U.S. Safety Policy Team senior expert Anika Collier Navaroli testified before the committee and was asked about an infamous, profane anti-Trump tweet by the actor Chrissy Teigen. In September 2019, Teigen tweeted that Trump was a “p**** a** b****.”
"While certainly vulgar and not very classy, it’s nonetheless well within the bounds of the First Amendment’s protections for a citizen to cuss out their president. But Navaroli testified under oath that she recalled the Trump-era White House reaching out to Twitter and pushing for the tweet to be taken down," he said. "So, unless Navaroli is risking criminal penalties and perjuring herself over a random 2019 celebrity tweet — what incentive there is for her to do so is entirely unclear — it sure seems Trump’s White House did try to crack down on mean things said about him on Twitter. And it seemingly wasn’t a one-time thing. Rolling Stone says multiple former Trump and Twitter officials told the outlet, '[The] Teigen tweet demand was hardly an isolated incident.' ... outrage should be directed equally at Trump’s actions if Republican politicians actually care about free speech and the First Amendment."
What the left is saying
- The left argues that the hearings backfired, revealing Trump's own attempts at censorship and that the conspiracy about the FBI was untrue.
- Some pointed to the specific testimony from Twitter employees that threw cold water on the existence of a conspiracy.
- Others noted the evidence that the platform changed its rules to appease Trump and his supporters after he violated them.
In CNN, Oliver Darcy said the hearings "backfired spectacularly" for the right.
"House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, who seems to want to be taken seriously by the Washington elite while tossing asinine red meat to the Republican base, claimed Twitter happily followed supposed FBI instructions to censor the Hunter Biden story because they were 'terrified of Joe Biden not winning the election.'... That, of course, is not what the selectively released company documents show," he wrote. "The facts — reality — simply do not matter. It didn’t move one Republican when the Twitter executives they had subpoenaed before the committee refuted their claims. And it didn’t matter much to the right-wing media apparatus that blindly repeated them to their audiences.
"Matt Taibbi, one of the journalists Musk hand picked last year to comb through Twitter’s internal messages for evidence of free speech violations, said himself that 'there is no evidence — that I’ve seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story.' ... Ironically, the hearing appeared to reveal that Twitter had acquiesced to Trump and changed its policies after it concluded that he had violated its rules," Darcy wrote. "The hearing hinted that the Trump White House attempted to censor the speech of at least one American: Chrissy Teigen. When Teigen called Trump a series of expletives in 2019, Navaroli testified that she was told the Trump White House contacted Twitter and demanded that it be removed. Strangely enough, Republicans showed no interest in drilling down on this allegation of censorship. It’s no wonder why."
In The Hill, Paul Barrett said the Twitter bias hearings did point to favoritism — but for conservatives.
"Former Twitter executive Anika Collier Navaroli testified that the company repeatedly bent and changed its rules to accommodate Trump and his supporters. Navaroli recounted that in 2019, Trump tweeted that a quartet of liberal congresswomen nicknamed 'the Squad' should 'go and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.' This violated a Twitter policy forbidding the denigration of immigrants and the use of the phrase 'go back to where you came from.' But Navaroli said that when she pointed out the violation, a more senior Twitter executive dismissed the objection," Barrett wrote. "The company then changed its policy to end the ban on 'go back to where you came from.'
"In the run-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, Navaroli testified, she and other Twitter employees warned that then-President Trump’s tweets could lead to violence. But Twitter management declined to act, she said. Her team drafted a policy that would have removed 'coded incitement to violence,' Navaroli said, but higher-ups refused to embrace it. Twitter did remove Trump’s account but only after the violence on Jan. 6, when he continued to make incendiary remarks on Twitter and other social media platforms," Barrett noted. "While Comer, Jordan and other Republicans weren’t letting the facts get in the way of their ritual scapegoating of Twitter, the reality that social media favoritism actually tilts in their direction should not be a revelation. As I’ve noted before, the conservative gospel that they are 'canceled' by social media companies has always seemed dubious. Conservative pundits and politicians, including Jordan, are highly prolific online and enjoy impressive levels of user engagement."
In The Washington Post, Aaron Blake said Republicans hearings were off to an "inauspicious" start.
"To this day, though, there remains no real evidence that government officials were directly involved in that decision — and now multiple high-ranking former Twitter officials have joined in disputing that claim under oath," he wrote. "Twitter and Facebook had regular meetings with government officials during the 2020 election. Their stated purpose was to prevent a repeat of past instances in which malign foreign actors hacked and leaked information about political opponents in the United States, which then spread far and wide on social media. This is all in the public record. That public record does not, however, include any evidence that government officials specifically asked for the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
"In fact, CNN has reported that tech executives and government officials have directly disputed that, including in sworn testimony. And the Twitter executives testifying last week echoed that," Blake wrote. "When [Oversight Committee Chairman James] Comer (R-KY) appeared on CNN before last week’s hearings, he was asked whether he had any 'definitive proof' of government involvement. 'I would invite CNN to watch our committee hearing Wednesday and see if you can pick up any new information,' Comer said. To the extent new information emerged from the hearings, it undercut Comer’s own prepared summary of the situation. And the hearings featured much more political posturing than anything amounting to proof."
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- The hearings confirmed it was a mistake to throttle the Hunter Biden story (again).
- We know some things definitively now, but others are still speculation.
- Ultimately, we can be sure what we see in our social media feeds is not merely organic.
I've already said in Tangle a number of times that Twitter was wrong to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story — I said it in the beginning, and have repeated it since. And it's nice to see Twitter executives go on record and admit they erred in their judgment, and in some ways concede they were misled by the intelligence community.
To make a few things clear before we jump into the hearing, though, I do not think the "censorship" of this story hurt Donald Trump or cost him the election. Remember: The story was throttled by Twitter for two days. This was roughly three weeks before the election. And the (very justified!) freakout from conservatives, reporters, and center or right-wing newspapers about Twitter's decision only amplified the piece. By the time election day rolled around, I honestly believe the Hunter Biden story had gotten more attention in the press than it would have had Twitter just let the story run freely in the first place (see today’s “Numbers” section).
Remember, at that time, the Hunter Biden story was competing with Amy Coney Barrett's controversial Supreme Court nomination (and confirmation) after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump being hospitalized with Covid-19, and the final debates of the election. It was not organically and indisputably the biggest story of the moment.
Here is what we can say we know from the hearings and the Twitter files: The FBI knew about the existence of Hunter's laptop as early as 2019. Roth has said he knew, vaguely, about a Hunter Biden story before it was published in the fall of 2020. At that time, the FBI was warning social media companies and reporters about a potential Russian hack-and-leak campaign. By the time the Hunter Biden story dropped, Twitter executives and safety moderators like Roth were more easily convinced the story was the product of some kind of misinformation operation. Hunter Biden's name, according to Roth, was only mentioned to him by others in the tech space — not by the FBI.
Even then, Roth objected to the decision to censor the piece. Whether the FBI intentionally warned social media companies of an incoming Russian hack and leak campaign to kill the Hunter Biden story is (for now) still only speculation — but it's enough to make you wonder.
Either way, the FBI was clearly in the ear of these companies throughout the election. When the Hunter Biden story dropped, it's no wonder some folks at Twitter were concerned about amplifying a foreign campaign of disinformation to disrupt our election. But it turns out the real disinformation campaign was not led by Russia, but by our own intelligence agencies — the FBI was scaring social media executives enough to throttle legitimate journalism right before a major presidential election.
However, we still don’t know the FBI’s motivations. To recap, this is what we know: The FBI told Twitter to watch out for a misinformation campaign when the FBI was aware of the Hunter Biden laptop. Twitter, led in-part by former FBI general counsel Jim Baker, took those cues and ultimately decided to throttle the Hunter Biden story. What’s potentially true: The FBI wanted Twitter to throttle the Hunter Biden story when they gave social media companies those warnings. What’s rank speculation: They did this to help Biden beat Trump in the election.
It’s possible, for instance, that the FBI did have intelligence of a forthcoming hack-and-leak campaign. It’s possible the FBI didn’t want the laptop story out because it contained sensitive information about a presidential candidate, not because they were protecting then-candidate Biden’s campaign. It’s possible they simply didn’t want more attention on what was already an ongoing investigation (which started in 2018) into the former vice president’s son. To put it plainly: There are other potential possibilities besides the FBI being in the tank against Trump, though that of course is one potential possibility, too.
The hearing also revealed that there is a reasonable debate to be had about which "side" social media companies like Twitter favor. The answer is messy. Conservatives get more engagement on many social media platforms, but also appear to get banned or removed more often. Some papers have suggested both that conservatives are more often removed from social media platforms and more likely to share "low-quality" news sites, which accounts for the removals. What we also know from the hearings is that both Biden and Trump reached out to Twitter during the 2020 election season to push for certain tweets to be taken down.
More interesting than anything that happened in the hearings has been the continued development of the Twitter files, which we've covered a few times now. Journalist Matt Taibbi — who has said he saw no government involvement in the laptop story — wrote a few scathing pieces about Hamilton 68, a think tank that managed to spawn hundreds of misleading news and television headlines about "Russian disinformation" operations that regularly misidentified normal Americans as agents of Russia. To say Hamilton 68's responses to the media was unconvincing would be the understatement of the year.
The upshot of all this — and perhaps the most important thing to come out of the Twitter files and these hearings — is revelatory, but not particularly surprising. The government, through both politicians and intelligence agencies, lean heavily on social media companies to try to dictate what does and doesn't spread on their platforms. While we imagine what pops up on our feeds as dictated by algorithms, virality, or freely circulating ideas, it's apparent that moderators, often working on behalf of or in concert with government entities, play a huge role in deciding what shows up in front of you.
The Hunter Biden story is one big example of those moderators, influenced by our intelligence agencies, trying to stop the spread of a story that was damaging to Democrats. But the hearings, and the larger context of the Twitter Files, has shown that this was just one action of a larger apparatus — an apparatus that impacts not just conservatives but also liberals, and not just explicitly political content but also information about things like Covid-19 treatments.
It's been a revealing and informative batch of disclosures, and one we should all be glad for.
Your comments, answered.
I paid into Social Security. I expect to get that back now that I am retired and I pay for Medicare through deductions from my Social Security check. They are NOT something I am getting as unearned "entitlements." Please do not refer to those 'benefits' as "ENTITLEMENTS" unless you are referring to those who did not pay for them.
— Willard from Decatur, Georgia
Tangle: I got dozens of emails or comments in our "question" form just like this one. Frankly, I was shocked by how many people were angered by the use of this term. So I want to address this here.
There seems to be some misunderstanding about the term "entitlement" in this context. The term does not denote someone receiving something they did not earn, nor is it about someone being "entitled" (i.e. "believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.")
An entitlement program has a very specific definition in the context of government programs: The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) defines entitlements as programs "either financed from Federal trust funds or paid out of the general revenues. Those paid out of the general revenues are income redistribution programs intended to address problems such as illness and poverty."
Among examples of entitlement programs, GAO lists "Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans' Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs."
The GAO describes these programs as 'entitlements' because those who paid into these funds initially are entitled to receive payments from them now. In no way does defining a program as an "entitlement" imply that you did not earn that payment, in fact it’s quite the reverse. Social Security and Medicare, simply put, are the country’s two biggest entitlement programs.
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Under the radar.
The teen mental health crisis is impacting girls almost twice as much as boys, according to new federal data released yesterday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new report that 57% of teen girls reported feeling "persistently sad or hopeless" in 2021, up from 36% in 2011. 29% of teen boys reported the same feelings in 2021, up from 21% in 2011. Additionally, about 30% of all teen girls said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, and 18% of teen girls said they had experienced some form of sexual violence in the last year. "America's teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma," Debra Houry, the CDC's chief medical officer, said at a press briefing. Axios has the story.
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- Five. The multiple by which searches of the Hunter Biden laptop story increased during the day that Google restricted sharing of its search results for the story.
- 54 million. The number of views the original New York Post story on Hunter Biden got between October 14 and 23 on Facebook alone.
- 50+. The number of former intelligence officials who signed a letter alleging the New York Post's story had the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign.
- 644. The number of accounts Hamilton 68 linked to "Russian influence activities online."
- 36. The number of those accounts that were actually registered in Russia.
- 86%. The percentage of those that were English-language accounts.
- One year ago today, we were covering Biden's border problem.
- The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: Pierre Lipton's GoFundMe page.
- Raise the roof: 72.3% of Tangle respondents said Congress should raise the Social Security retirement age after reading yesterday's newsletter.
- One non-political story: A view of Saturn through a telescope.
- Today's survey: Do you believe suppression of the Hunter Biden story changed the election? Did your mind change? Let us know.
Have a nice day.
A newborn baby girl in northern Syria has become a symbol of global hope after surviving the devastating earthquake there. The girl’s story went viral after rescuers found her in the rubble of a home. She appears to have been born under the rubble after the earthquake, and survived despite her mother dying (her umbilical cord was still connected to her mother). The latest report indicates that, miraculously, the girl is now in good health, being breast fed by the wife of the hospital director where she is being cared for. She has been named "Aya," which is Arabic for "sign from God," and may be able to leave the hospital as soon as Tuesday to be put in the care of her great uncle. The Associated Press has the unbelievable story.
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