Dec 5, 2022

The Twitter files on Hunter Biden.

The Twitter files on Hunter Biden.
Photo by John Cameron / Unsplash

New leaks reveal how Twitter decided to kill the Hunter Biden story.

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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Today's read: 12 minutes.

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Today, we're covering Twitter's decision to suppress the Hunter Biden story and the new leaks showing internal discussions. Plus, a correction we missed and an important story about Covid relief money for hospitals.

Correction.

A couple weeks ago, we noted in our Quick hits section that Karen Bass (D) had defeated Rick Caruso (R) in Los Angeles's mayoral race. In fact, Caruso, a lifelong Republican and independent, had changed his party identification to Democrat to run in the race. We just caught this error thanks to a couple reader emails I found over the weekend, so we want to correct it here.

This is our 73rd correction in Tangle's 174-week history and our first correction since November 15th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court said that it will hear challenges to the Biden administration's student loan forgiveness plan. The Court's order left in place a lower court's decision to pause the introduction of the program while the legal process unfolds. (The challenge)
  2. Iranian officials say they have shut down the country's "morality police" after months-long protests across the country, though state television contradicted them. The demonstrations started after a 22-year-old woman mysteriously died while in their custody following her reported arrest for not wearing a hijab. (The review)
  3. The Democratic party advanced a new primary schedule for 2024 that would replace Iowa with South Carolina as the first state to vote in the presidential primary, followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan. (The primary)
  4. The Senate ratified an agreement between labor unions and rail companies while voting down a provision that would increase paid sick days to seven. (The bill)
  5. In an interview on Alex Jones' "Infowars," Kanye “Ye” West praised Hitler and Nazis. Twitter CEO Elon Musk suspended Ye from the platform for sharing an image of a Star of David combined with a swastika. (The suspension)
  6. BONUS: Starting today, the G-7 (a group of major democracies), the European Union and Australia will apply a price cap of $60/barrel on Russian oil. (The cap)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The Twitter files. On Friday, Twitter CEO Elon Musk told his followers that he would be releasing documents showing "what really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression by Twitter" in the lead-up to the 2020 election, calling the company’s actions "free speech suppression." On Saturday, independent journalist Matt Taibbi started a Twitter thread he called "the Twitter files," sharing screenshots of internal communications at Twitter which showed how members of the moderation team decided to throttle the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Reminder: In October of 2020, just weeks before election day, The New York Post published a salacious story with the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden. The computer files included email exchanges with business partners where Hunter attempted to use his father's political clout to lure people into business deals. In perhaps the most newsworthy item, Biden asks a potential partner in a Chinese venture to put a 10% cut aside for "the big guy," which appeared to be a reference to his father. The laptop also contained pictures of Hunter using drugs and having sex and text messages between him and his father.

After the story broke, 51 intelligence officials signed a letter warning that it might be a piece of Russian disinformation and that the materials may have been hacked or otherwise edited. No evidence of either allegation has ever been produced, and the contents of the laptop have now been independently verified by several news outlets and digital forensic experts as authentic. Nevertheless, Twitter opted to throttle the story, suspending some accounts that shared it and even disallowing it from being shared in private direct messages. Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have pointed to the suppression of the story as one reason he lost the 2020 election.

What’s happening now? Elon Musk hyped the release of more information about the decision last month. On Friday, Musk alerted his followers that the information would be released later that day. Friday evening, independent journalist Matt Taibbi shared internal communications showing how the decision was made. Included in the cache of emails were messages showing then-candidate Joe Biden's campaign sending links to lewd images of Hunter circulating on the site to contacts at Twitter, asking them to be taken down. Twitter employees responded "handled these."

"Both parties had access to these tools. For instance, in 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored," Taibbi said. "However, this system wasn't balanced. It was based on contacts. Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right."

In one notable exchange, a member of the moderation team informed an employee that Hunter's laptop story was being suppressed because it violated the platform's hacked materials policy. Another employee wrote back, saying they were "struggling to understand the policy basis" for killing the story, and warning the company will "face hard questions" if they don't have solid reasoning. Former Vice President of Global Communications Brandon Borrman asked, "can we truthfully claim this part of the policy?"

Twitter's Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker, a former FBI general counsel, responded that "caution is warranted" and they needed more facts to assess if the materials were really hacked, but supported the decision to suppress the story in the interim.

Also contained in the files were emails from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who suggested there is "backlash" on the Hill and pushes Twitter's team to allow the story to be shared, noting that suppressing it seems like a violation of "first amendment principles." Aside from Khanna's email encouraging Twitter to allow the story to be shared, none of the files show active members of the government urging Twitter employees to take any specific action.

Perhaps most notable about the story was just how many decisions were made without the input of then-CEO Jack Dorsey. Months later, Dorsey expressed regret about Twitter’s decision to suppress the story, and characterized it as a mistake.

Before Taibbi posted the story on Twitter, he told followers that he had agreed to unnamed conditions in order to receive the material in the leaks. He was criticized for "doxxing" low-ranking Twitter employees, whose email addresses were left unredacted in the leaks, leading to online harassment after the images were posted. The leaks also included personal email addresses for Khanna and Dorsey. Musk conceded in a Twitter space on Saturday that some missteps happened in breaking the story, including private email addresses being shared.

Former President Trump responded to Taibbi's Twitter thread by suggesting the "termination" of rules, even those found in the Constitution, to have a new election.

"So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party, do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION?" Trump said on social media. "A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution."

Former Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth criticized Taibbi for sharing identities of "front-line employees" involved in moderation decisions, saying it put them "in harm’s way and is a fundamentally unacceptable thing to do.”

The leaks came at the end of another newsy week at Twitter, where Musk suspended the account of Ye after he posted an image of a swastika. Musk also once again delayed the relaunch of a paid check mark system. Musk and Taibbi both insisted that more information was coming, including a "second chapter" on Saturday, which never emerged. Musk says he also shared documents with another Substack writer, Bari Weiss, and said he may share more with the public in the future.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right laud the leaks, saying they are proof of Twitter's political activism against the right.
  • Some call out Twitter's moderation team for suppressing the story when they knew their grounds to do so were shaky.
  • Others say the leaks were underwhelming, and don't represent a First Amendment violation.

In The Federalist, Jordan Boyd said the files confirm Big Tech leftists suppressed the Hunter Biden story.

"Insider documents released on Friday confirm Twitter’s decision to suppress the New York Post’s legitimate reporting about Hunter Biden’s laptop mere weeks before the 2020 presidential election was a political one," Boyd wrote. "The documents also demonstrate those leftist censors happily excused the company’s election meddling on behalf of President Joe Biden using a weak and manufactured 'hacked materials policy.' In his Twitter thread detailing the insider information, Taibbi confirmed the story—one that had the potential to change Americans’ votes in the 2020 election—was deliberately blocked by Big Tech censors who spent months building relationships with Biden’s presidential campaign.

"Taibbi maintains that Twitter employees were not basing their censorship orders for the laptop story on demands from the government. He did, however, add that several Twitter sources recalled hearing the FBI’s demands that the social media giants censor 'Russian disinformation.'... Just this week, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Elvis Chan confirmed the government’s information suppression campaign to Attorneys General Eric Schmitt of Missouri and Jeff Landry of Louisiana," Boyd wrote. "In his testimony, Chan disclosed that agents from the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency met weekly with Big Tech companies to encourage censorship ahead of the 2020 election."

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin said the FBI, Big Tech and Big Media were "partners in collusion" against Trump.

"Musk’s revelations must be the start of a national campaign to expose the entire picture of the unholy collusion between partisan government censors and Big Tech. Consider that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently admitted to podcaster Joe Rogan the FBI warned the company in the fall of 2020 to watch out for Russian disinformation schemes," Goodwin wrote. "Zuckerberg said that by way of explaining why Facebook limited and in some cases blocked users from sharing The Post’s laptop report... Twitter obviously got the same warning, which almost certainly involved James Baker, a former FBI general counsel who was involved in investigating the Trump campaign in 2016 and now holds a similar position at Twitter.

"Naturally, the released files show he was without remorse or doubt in urging repression of The Post’s story. Moreover, as Intercept reporter Lee Fang has detailed and as a former Twitter official confirmed, the FBI held weekly meetings in Silicon Valley with tech officials about policing disinformation," he added. "Of course, their definition of disinformation was so broad as to include virtually anything that made Joe Biden or Democrats look bad. But knowing all that, it still would be naive to think we know the whole story... We do know the FBI had Hunter Biden’s laptop for a year before The Post started to reveal the contents. You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder if the agents waved Facebook and Twitter off the story because they knew it was true."

Some conservatives, like David French, were underwhelmed by the thread.

"Taibbi’s documents provided further evidence demonstrating what Twitter’s critics (including me) have long argued—that the decision to suppress the information was both incoherent and inconsistent," French wrote. "Twitter suppressed the information based on its so-called hacked-materials policy, but the application of that policy was hardly clear in this instance, especially given that the platform had, at the time, just permitted widespread sharing of New York Times stories about Donald Trump’s leaked tax information. I agree with the attorney and election analyst Jeffrey Blehar about Taibbi’s thread. Writing in National Review after last night’s release, Blehar said the thread contained 'few, if any, explosive revelations’ for those who’ve followed the story closely."

Responding to a document where a Twitter employee indicated that Twitter had 'handled' those posts, Musk tweeted, 'If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?'... [Tucker] Carlson declared that the documents 'show a systemic violation of the First Amendment, the largest example of that in modern history.' ... Musk and Carlson are both profoundly wrong; the documents released so far show no such thing. In October 2020, when the laptop story broke, Joe Biden was not president. The Democratic National Committee (which also asked for Twitter to review tweets) is not an arm of the government. It’s a private political party. Twitter is not an arm of the government; it is a private company."


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left said the leaks were a bust, and criticized the right for overreacting to them.
  • Some call out Taibbi for recklessly sharing the email addresses of the subjects of his reporting.
  • Others criticize the right for their obsessive fixation on Hunter Biden.

Colby Hall said the Twitter files "bombshell" went off with a whimper.

"The vast majority outline stuff that was already known, that the laptop tweets were blocked due to a 'hacked information' standard that raises an entirely other conversation about what information is 'hacked' and what is not," Hall wrote. "The screenshot [of Biden's team requesting taking down tweets] that Taibbi shared is clearly dated October 24th, 2020. Joe Biden was not president at the time. His team reaching out to have tweets removed was a campaign issue, not a government one... Moreover, it’s been widely reported that many of the links the Biden team asked Twitter to remove were pornographic photos of Hunter Biden — a fact omitted by Taibbi — in violation of Twitter’s standards.

"Now it’s almost certain that the Biden White House has continued a dialog with Twitter about inflammatory tweets. Nearly every significant media outlet and institution has a relationship with Twitter — it is how they do business. It is NOT clear, however, that the Biden White House has engaged explicitly in requests for censorship as Taibbi appears to be suggesting," Hall said. "In short, this 'bombshell' Friday night reveal is remarkably short on bombshells. Or, as New York Post writer and frequent Fox News guest Miranda Devine flatly said to Tucker Carlson, there was 'not really the smoking gun we had hoped for.'"

In The New Republic, Michael Tomasky criticized the right's "fixation" with Hunter Biden.

"If you had the good fortune or sense not to crawl down this particular rabbit hole over the weekend, fear not, I won’t drag you into the depths that I descended. The briefest recap is this," Tomasky wrote. "On Friday, Elon Musk tweeted that he was going to reveal how Twitter supposedly covered up the Hunter Biden scandal in October 2020. Matt Taibbi ('the Tulsi Gabbard of Substack,' as The Bulwark’s Tim Miller icily dubbed him) posted some of the emails found on Hunter’s hard drive. Some showed the Biden campaign asking Twitter to refrain from posting certain material. That’s basically it.

"In some quarters of the right, this is the biggest scandal in the history of the republic, because it allegedly proves that Biden used his governmental power (a neat trick for someone who, at the time, controlled no part of the government) to set fire to the Constitution," he said. "Now: Here’s the psychotic part. As Miller put it: 'The offending material that Taibbi revealed was removed by Twitter at the Biden campaign’s request turns out to have been a bunch of links to Hunter Biden in the buff.' ... Perhaps it comes down to simply this: It’s all they have, and that makes them insane. Joe Biden has been in public life for half a century and has never been attached to a whiff of financial scandal. It makes the right, especially the Trumpy right, nuts."

In The Verge, Jacob Kastrenakes called it a "flop" that "doxxed multiple people."

"The emails show Twitter’s team struggling with how to explain their handling of the New York Post story that broke the news of Hunter’s leaked laptop files — and whether they made the correct moderation decision in the first place," Kastrenakes said. "At the time, it was not clear if the materials were genuine, and Twitter decided to ban links to or images of the Post’s story, citing its policy on the distribution of hacked materials… While Musk might be hoping we see documents showing Twitter’s (largely former) staffers nefariously deciding to act in a way that helped now-President Joe Biden, the communications mostly show a team debating how to finalize and communicate a difficult moderation decision.

"The story also revealed the names of multiple Twitter employees who were in communications about the moderation decision," he wrote. "While it’s not out of line for journalists to report on the involvement of public-facing individuals or major decision makers, that doesn’t describe all of the people named in the leaked communications. And given the fervor around Hunter’s laptop, the leaked materials could expose some of those people to harassment. 'I don’t get why naming names is necessary. Seems dangerous,' Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote tonight in apparent reference to the leaks."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Twitter was wrong to suppress the story, and these emails show some employees knew it was unjustified.
  • It is not a "bombshell" in the sense that these leaks don't really present any new information.
  • I hope the leaks keep coming, and we get more emails and documents from inside Twitter.

I'll try not to rehash specifics of this story I've already covered. Here at Tangle, we wrote about the Hunter Biden laptop story repeatedly. From the beginning, I thought that the laptop was real, that allegations it was "Russian disinformation" were unsupported, and that the story deserved more attention and investigation than it was getting. I criticized Twitter and Facebook for suppressing the story and gave kudos to former CEO Jack Dorsey when he admitted it was a mistake.

I also criticized news outlets who seemed to gleefully share lewd images of Hunter using drugs or having sex with prostitutes, as it was obvious he was and is struggling with serious personal issues, and much of that content had very little relevance for the public. It had the trappings of a sloppy political hit job. That's to say nothing of the contents of the laptop that made Joe Biden look like a compassionate, concerned and caring dad.

I've also maintained that I'm not sure the suppression of the story impacted the election. In fact, Hunter probably got more attention because it was suppressed than he would have otherwise (the well-known Streisand effect). Of course, Trump lost some 2020 swing states by very thin margins, so it's hard to say what impact it may have had. But it is not unlike the sour grapes from Hillary Clinton, who still maintains James Comey's decision to announce an investigation into her emails weeks before the election cost her the presidency in 2016 (though at least Clinton can point to polling changes for proof of this; Trump has no such luxury).

What Taibbi's reporting does show is that the decision was not justified and that many Twitter employees knew it at the time. This is why, when Elon Musk was going to join Twitter's board, I celebrated the idea he would add political diversity at the top. Twitter employees are predominantly left-wing and that makes the insular nature of their moderation decisions very worrisome.

And yet it's hard for me to buy this story being a "bombshell."

To put it plainly: There was very little new information that hasn't already been reported by many outlets, including this newsletter. Musk presumably could access every single Twitter email ever (if he wanted), and the best he could do was scrounge up emails from Biden's campaign asking Twitter to remove pornographic tweets that were clear violations of its terms of service. There is a reason even the most ardent pro-Trump conservatives like Seb Gorka or conservative columnists like Miranda Devine expressed disappointment. There was a lot of hype and not much new information.

Taibbi is an excellent reporter and writer. He is, frankly, one of my idols. We've done talks together about the state of journalism and I respect him a great deal. He isn't responsible for how partisans take his reporting and run it through the talking points machine.

So let’s take his reporting at face value: Twitter unjustifiably called Hunter's laptop "hacked materials" so they could throttle the story. Many Twitter employees knew this was wrong. They did it anyway. In the materials shared so far, there is no proof of direct FBI or government contacts to Twitter pushing for that suppression to happen (remember, Trump was president at the time). We do know the FBI and other intelligence officials warned Facebook and Twitter employees about potential disinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election. We can reasonably assume former FBI general counsel Jim Baker, who was then working at Twitter and is seen in the emails, reinforced those warnings.

On top of that, Taibbi emphasizes that Twitter has more Democratic contacts than conservatives and thus is more responsive to their moderation requests. But he also notes that these channels are open across the political spectrum. All of this was previously known. He just now has the "receipts" to confirm how normally those channels were used.

I think it's a great thing Taibbi is reporting on these emails and I hope the leaks keep coming. I am, of course, curious about the "conditions" Taibbi agreed to, and am hopeful he will share those at some point. But I do not buy for a second that he's "doing PR" for Musk, as some other more liberal reporters allege (many of those same reporters have totally ignored the Hunter Biden story).

For now, the more we learn about how Twitter has made these choices, the better. The more we know about how political entities might be influencing these decisions, the better. The more we know about the biases of Twitter's moderation team, the better. This is a story a team of journalists could take weeks or months unraveling. Hopefully, Musk decides to share the files with other news outlets, including places like The New York Times that have requested them. So far he has refused, which makes us all worse off. The more reporters with these emails, the better.

The "Hunter laptop" is a scandalous story with many threads: President Biden's potential entanglement in foreign business dealings, Hunter's lucrative career leveraging his father's name, and the president's absurd denial that he never talks about his son's business dealings with him (despite meeting with many of his business partners as vice president).

The story also contains threads of how the intelligence community manipulates the media, and Big Tech’s coordinated efforts to prevent this specific story from being shared. All of these threads are worth pulling at, and Taibbi's reporting is a valuable addition to the picture we have. I hope it continues to get clearer.


Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main story some more space. If you'd like to ask a question and have it answered in the newsletter, you can reply to this email or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

Billions of dollars of Covid relief money went to well-off hospital systems that didn't need it, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis. The mismatch stemmed from the way the federal government opted to allocate the money, which was based on a hospital's revenue and not its Covid caseload or financial distress. The idea was that revenue was a good indication of size, but recipients ended up being large and wealthy hospital owners. Meanwhile, hundreds of hospitals that received little funding reported losses, were forced to lay off staff and said they didn't get enough aid to overcome the pandemic. The WSJ has the story.


Numbers.

  • 28%. The percentage of Americans who said they back an investigation into Hunter Biden, according to Morning Consult.
  • 52%. The percentage of Republicans who say the next Congress should focus on investigating Hunter Biden, according to Morning Consult.
  • 52%. The percentage of all voters who say an investigation into Hunter Biden would be "warranted," according to a USA Today poll.
  • 57%. The percentage of Americans who think Donald Trump running for president again in 2024 is a bad thing, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who think Donald Trump running for president again in 2024 is a good thing, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.

Have a nice day.

Dakota Hudson and Lauren Patterson weren't sure they would survive. Last week, a tornado tore through their Lamar County, Texas, neighborhood, destroying their home and their family's home next door as they hid in the bathroom. As the couple explored the damage, Dakota realized something else: the engagement ring he just bought for his girlfriend was gone in the storm. But when a Paris Junior College softball team came by the property to help out, something of a miracle happened. One member on the team heard about the missing ring, spent hours searching for it in the rubble, and managed to find it. “Needle in a haystack doesn’t come close to what we were looking for,” Dakota said. He proposed on the spot, and Lauren said yes. NBC DFW has the story.


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