Hunter Biden laptop: House GOP probes suppression of online speech

Hunter Biden laptop: House GOP probes suppression of online speech

Oversight Committee Chair James Comer brought in three former Twitter executives in a bid to establish accountability for what Republicans have characterized as an unfair collusion of government, Big Tech, and media to sway the election. 

“We’ve witnessed Big Tech autocrats wield their unchecked power to suppress the speech of Americans to promote their preferred political opinions,” said Chairman Comer in his opening statement, arguing for the importance of allowing broader social and political debate on these platforms, which he called the “virtual town square.”

Over the course of the sometimes rancorous hearing, Democrats alternated between countering GOP claims and redirecting attention to more pressing concerns. Rep. Daniel Goldman, who was the lead Democratic counsel in the first Trump impeachment, dismissed the hearing as a “fishing expedition.”

The Hunter Biden laptop controversy offers a window into a much broader disagreement over how the government, Big Tech, and the media define and address “disinformation,” a topic that has become highly polarized. Many on the right believe the left and their allies at social media companies have used the label to suppress or discredit inconvenient or politically damaging information, constricting legitimate free speech in the public arena. 

Those on the left see the right as unconcerned about the real-world harms disinformation can cause – including from foreign sources such as Russia, whose 2016 election interference was well documented in a bipartisan Senate report, or from domestic extremists, such as those behind the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

“Actors from both sides of the political spectrum see the threat of disinformation differently,” says Anthony DeAngelo, a former congressional staffer and now head of public affairs for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose work includes tackling polarization and disinformation. “It’s important that those concerns – of free speech and the dangers of disinformation leading to offline violence – are weighed carefully and discussed openly.”

The hearings underscored the huge social dilemma of whether and how to moderate information being disseminated online – not only in foreign disinformation campaigns, which remain an ongoing threat, but a host of other scenarios. Other issues raised by lawmakers in the hearing were (by Republicans) Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policies, which suppressed tweets from Harvard- and Stanford-educated doctors, and (by Democrats) the company’s willingness to bend policies under pressure from then-President Donald Trump and its failure to rein in violent rhetoric from him and his supporters, including ahead of the Jan. 6 attack. Yet no one, including the companies themselves, seems to have an easy answer.

Someone will have to make choices about the governance of online spaces,” Yoel Roth, the former global head of Trust & Safety at Twitter, told the committee. “The basic job of trust and safety is to strike this balance between the harms of restricting free speech and the dangers of not getting it right.”

“Bizarre political stunt”

In a statement, the White House dismissed today’s hearing as “a bizarre political stunt,” describing it as the latest effort by “extreme MAGA members” to “re-litigate the outcome of the 2020 election.”

“This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on,” said White House spokesman Ian Sims. 

Among the emails featured in the initial New York Post story was one from April 2015 in which a Ukrainian executive at the Burisma energy firm thanked the younger Mr. Biden, a highly paid Burisma board member, for the opportunity to meet his father, who was then vice president.

Trump allies have claimed that when Vice President Biden pushed to fire Ukraine’s top prosecutor later that year, his goal was to stop a probe into Burisma. But Ukrainian officials say the probe was dormant by the time the vice president threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid in December 2015 until the prosecutor was fired, which occurred in March 2016. Biden allies have pointed out that European partners had also pushed to fire the prosecutor for his failure to investigate corrupt politicians in the country, who they said were conduits for improper Russian influence. 

In the hearing, Congressman Goldman called the New York Post’s charge that the vice president got the prosecutor fired to avoid an investigation into Burisma “categorically false.”

Five days after the Post story was published, a letter signed by dozens of former national security figures said the appearance of the purported Hunter Biden emails just before Election Day had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” The signees emphasized that they did not know if the emails were genuine and that they did not have evidence of Russia’s involvement.

Twitter, after getting roundly criticized for not doing more to block Russian meddling in the 2016 election, placed warning labels on the story. It also briefly prevented users from sharing it via direct message and suspended the Post’s account. In a thread that evening, Twitter’s safety team explained that the material violated its hacked materials policy. Twitter quickly reversed course, but the Post’s refusal to delete its initial tweets resulted in its account suspension lasting for two weeks.

Internal Twitter communications released late last year by new owner Elon Musk to a handful of journalists have given Republicans new fodder for their claims of collusion.

Twitter erred, witness says

The communications, which were primarily published in screenshot snippets on long tweet threads and have not been independently verified by the Monitor, indicate that Twitter executives debated whether they had reason enough to restrict the spread of the Post story based on their hacked materials policy. 

“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” wrote Trenton Kennedy in a screenshot of a message shared by independent journalist Matt Taibbi.

The communications also show that throughout 2020 Twitter executives were in frequent touch with the FBI, which repeatedly cautioned Twitter of the possibility of a Russian hack-and-leak operation – particularly in October 2020, to sway the election. Michael Shellenberger, another independent writer given a cache of company emails, said it appeared that the FBI, which had subpoenaed the laptop in December 2019, was priming Mr. Roth, the former head of Trust & Safety at Twitter, to interpret any upcoming news stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop as Russian disinformation. In August 2020, FBI agent Elvis Chan shared information with Mr. Roth about the Russian hacking group APT28, which had been behind the 2016 election interference.

Mr. Roth said in the hearing that as the head of the Twitter team that looked into Russia’s 2016 election interference, he saw the Hunter Biden laptop story through the lens of that work, but that Twitter “erred” in suppressing the New York Post story. In an appearance at a Knight Foundation conference after leaving the company this fall, he elaborated on that, saying the story “set off every single one of my finely tuned APT28 ‘hack and leak campaign’ alarm bells,” but didn’t rise to a level that would justify its removal from Twitter. 

In March 2022, The Washington Post engaged two outside experts to review a copy of the hard drive data, which had been given to them by a Republican operative. The experts said there was evidence that the hard drive had been repeatedly accessed and new files added, which the GOP source had forewarned them about. The experts did, however, confirm the authenticity of 22,000 of nearly 129,000 emails, including the main one featured in the original New York Post story. This, though, did not rule out the possibility of a hack into verified accounts. The experts also cautioned that the data was “a mess” and the authenticity of many other files on the copied hard drive, which included personal photos and voicemails, could not be verified. 

A subsequent CBS-commissioned forensic analysis of a “clean” copy of the hard drive, which was obtained directly from the repair shop owner’s lawyer, found no signs of tampering or fabrication.  

A tipping point for Big Tech

This Congress is likely to further probe Big Tech’s decisions about what kind of content to allow on their platforms and how to apply and enforce policies meant to thwart disinformation.

“I think right now we’re in a tipping point,” says Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst and author of “Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.” The “Twitter Files” released by Mr. Musk are part of that tipping point, shedding light on what he calls “the rudiments of censorship” in how government has influenced social media and traditional media.  

At the heart of the debate is how Big Tech can foster trust in an age when users are increasingly becoming entrenched into political camps that inherently question not only opinions but also facts put forward by the other side. And that goes far beyond the Hunter Biden laptop controversy. 

“Members should maintain their focus on the very important discussion of how platforms like Twitter make decisions in the content they promote and demote,” says Mr. DeAngelo of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “It’s bigger than one example, and advocating for transparency is something members from both parties can get behind.”

Staff writer Stephen Humphries contributed to this report. 


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