Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk heralded the release of exclusive emails that show some of the internal discussions at the social media company over a controversial decision, taken in 2020 before the US Presidential elections, to censor a story by the tabloid, New York Post, about the information it had obtained from a laptop purportedly owned by Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden.
The revelations, dubbed the “Twitter Files”, were billed as a bombshell. “This will be awesome,” Musk had tweeted, teasing the announcement with a popcorn emoji. The details were later shared by Substack writer Matt Taibbi in a tweet thread who said he had to “agree to some conditions” to obtain the emails.
Here is the lowdown on the revelations and how to make sense of them.
The ‘files’ released as part of screenshots by Taibbi on Saturday claim to detail the decisions that were taken within Twitter in 2020 when it made the decision to censor a story published by the tabloid, which contained unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s business activities in Ukraine. At the time, Twitter had said that it censored the story because it violated its “hacked materials” policy.
In essence, the revelations appear to show that Twitter independently decided to limit the spread of the article, without any political party or intelligence agency exerting any kind of control over the company. The only input from a sitting politician that Taibbi noted was from Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, who told the company that they should distribute the story, regardless of the potential consequences for his party.
According to Taibbi’s claims, in one message from that time, Trenton Kennedy, a member of Twitter’s communications team, wrote to a group including legal and policy head Vijaya Gadde and site integrity head Yoel Roth voicing questions about why the story was being restricted.
“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe, and I think the best explainability argument for this externally would be that we’re waiting to understand if this story is the result of hacked materials,” Taibbi’s tweets show Kennedy as writing. “We’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning for marking the link unsafe.”
Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s chief of communications at the time also asked senior leadership at the company, “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?” However, in his Twitter thread, Taibbi has absolved the former CEO of the company Jack Dorsey of having any involvement in this decision-making. It is worth noting that Dorsey has previously said that Elon Musk is the only right person to lead the company.
While Taibbi did not reveal how he obtained the internal communications of Twitter – even as Musk himself was promoting the thread on his personal handle – he noted that the data he had accessed showed the “extraordinary steps” Twitter took “to suppress the story.”
The key takeaway from Taibbi’s revelation is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) played no part in getting the story censored, as had been previously claimed by conservative commentators. Another noteworthy thing is that requests to delete content from Twitter were routinely made to the company from across the political aisle.
“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 honoured. 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,” Taibbi wrote.
In October 2020, three weeks before the 2020 US Presidential election, the New York Post published an exclusive story: “Biden’s Secret Emails: Ukrainian exec thanked Hunter Biden for ‘opportunity to meet’ veep dad”. The story purported to report the contents of a laptop brought to the tabloid by the owner of a computer repair shop, who said it had belonged to and been abandoned by, President Biden’s second son, Hunter Biden. At the time Biden was the Democratic nominee for the upcoming Presidential polls.
Emails and files found on the laptop purportedly revealed how Hunter Biden had peddled influence with Ukrainian businessmen, the Post claimed – and also included “a raunchy, 12-minute video” showing intimate moments of Hunter Biden.
After the story was published, Twitter barred anyone from tweeting a link to it or sending it via direct message, labelling it “hacked material.” The company also suspended the Post’s account for multiple days, preventing it from tweeting further.
Jack Dorsey had later tweeted that blocking the links without providing more context was “unacceptable,” and Twitter changed its policies shortly after restricting the Biden story, saying it would “label tweets to provide context instead of blocking links” to stories.
While Musk promised that the revelations would be a “bombshell”, Taibbi’s Twitter thread failed to create the impact he would have hoped for. That is mostly because of one major reason: while the screenshots show how the company decided to suppress the Post’s story, it sheds no light on why that decision was taken. It reaffirms a number of things that had already been known publicly — like who takes content moderation decisions at the company — and at the same time fails to shed light on questions about whether those decisions were taken because of any political influence or control.
The revelations have also been criticised for making public the personal details of people involved in the process like their email addresses. “Publicly posting the names and identities of front-line employees involved in content moderation puts them in harm’s way and is a fundamentally unacceptable thing to do,” former Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth, who was among the employees named in the tweets, said in a social media post.