Two years after the fact, Elon Musk — Twitter’s megabillionaire new owner — promoted the release of documents showing the company’s internal deliberations about blocking the New York Post’s account over its reporting on Hunter Biden.
The new disclosures, touted as “The Twitter Files,” were posted in a lengthy Twitter thread by investigative reporter and author Matt Taibbi (and retweeted by Musk). It’s based on “thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter,” according to Taibbi — shared with him, it would appear, with the blessing of Musk, the conservative tech mogul who is the world’s richest person.
Taibbi, in a note about “The Twitter Files” on his Substack page, said that “in exchange for the opportunity to cover a unique and explosive story, I had to agree to certain conditions.” Taibbi did not disclose what those conditions are.
In October 2020, just weeks prior to the U.S. presidential election, Twitter froze the account of the New York Post for 16 days after the newspaper ran stories alleging that Joe Biden and his son Hunter engaged in corrupt business dealings in Ukraine and China. Twitter initially said the Post violated its “hacked materials” policy, and had blocked the posting of URLs to the articles, given that the paper’s source for the Biden exposés was info supplied by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said he obtained it from a MacBook Pro belonging to Hunter Biden.
“Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe,'” Taibbi wrote. “They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.”
The decision to block the Post’s original Biden story was “made at the highest levels of the company, but without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, with former head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde playing a key role,” according to Taibbi.
Twitter execs knew a backlash would erupt over the decision to block the Post’s Hunter Biden article, per Taibbi, and there was debate about how to proceed. Trenton Kennedy, Twitter’s U.S. policy communications manager, had written in an internal email, “I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe.” Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity (who just resigned last month in the wake of Musk’s takeover), responded that the “policy is based on hacked materials — though, as discussed, this is an emerging situation where the facts remain unclear.” Deputy general counsel Jim Baker said that while Twitter needed more information on the situation, it was “reasonable for us to assume” that the materials that formed the basis for the Post’s reporting were hacked and he wrote that “caution is warranted.”
According to Taibbi, citing anonymous sources, Twitter’s “hacked materials” policy normally required an official or law enforcement finding that a hack was committed — and nothing like that was evident in the case of the Post’s Biden stories.
Twitter subsequently reversed the decision, saying that it had updated its hacked-materials policy and would not retroactively apply it to the New York Post. Other news outlets, including the New York Times, have since reported that the laptop did in fact belong to Hunter Biden and the documents on it were authentic. Predictably, Twitter’s blocking of the Post became a rallying point for Republican politicians accusing the social network of censoring conservative viewpoints.
Two days after Twitter’s blocking of the Post’s Hunter Biden stories, Dorsey issued a mea culpa for the company’s actions. “Straight blocking of URLs was wrong, and we updated our policy and enforcement to fix,” Dorsey wrote in a tweet at the time. “Our goal is to attempt to add context, and now we have capabilities to do that.”
Per Taibbi’s thread, “An amazing subplot of the Twitter/Hunter Biden laptop affair was how much was done without the knowledge of CEO Jack Dorsey, and how long it took for the situation to get ‘unfucked’ (as one ex-employee put it) even after Dorsey jumped in.” He also wrote, “There are multiple instances in the files of Dorsey intervening to question suspensions and other moderation actions, for accounts across the political spectrum.”
In April 2022, just after signing the agreement to buy Twitter for $44 billion, Musk criticized Twitter’s decision to block the New York Post over the Biden stories. “Suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate,” Musk tweeted. The next day he posted a meme with photos of Gadde mocking the social network’s alleged “left-wing bias.”
Musk fired Gadde the day he closed the Twitter acquisition along with CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal and general counsel Sean Edgett.
Musk, a self-described “free-speech absolutist,” has complained that in the past Twitter censored conservatives and that under his ownership Twitter would adhere to strict principles of “free speech” — a stance that critics have feared will lead to an increase of misinformation and hate speech on the platform.
Last month Musk decided to reinstate the Twitter account of Donald Trump, who was banned in 2021 over his support for the Jan. 6 rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol. In addition, Musk announced that Twitter is granting “amnesty” to suspended accounts and reinstating them (“provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam”) — including neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, founder of white-supremacist site the Daily Stormer, whom Twitter banned in 2013. On Thursday, meanwhile, Musk banned Kanye West after the rapper tweeted an image of a Nazi swastika embedded in a Jewish star.
According to Taibbi, both Democrats and Republicans had access to Twitter’s tools for requesting the review and removal of specific tweets. In 2020, he said, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored by Twitter. “By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled,’” according to Taibbi.
Musk, commenting on the reaction to the “Twitter Files,” tweeted, “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” (although the requests from the Biden campaign at the time were not from “the government”).
Democrats had “more channels” and “more ways to complain” than conservatives about tweets because “Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation,” according to Taibbi, i.e., left-leaning. That resulted in a “slant in content moderation decisions,” he wrote, which he said was backed up by Twitter documents and “multiple current and former high-level executives.”
Taibbi said his “Twitter Files” thread Friday was the first part in a series. He said it has been “a whirlwind 96 hours for me” on the project and promised that “There is much more to come, including answers to questions about issues like shadow-banning, boosting, follower counts, the fate of various individual accounts and more. These issues are not limited to the political right.”