Twitter CEO Elon Musk promoted a series of tweets on Friday revealing internal documents about how the company handled a news article about Hunter Biden in 2020, controversially blocking people from tweeting and direct-messaging about it.
In a lengthy tweet thread, writer Matt Taibbi said he received “thousands of internal documents” from sources at Twitter — and Musk himself tweeted “Here we go!! 🍿🍿” when the thread began. NBC News has not seen or verified those files.
The thread came after Musk teased that past inner workings of Twitter would be exposed. On Monday, he said the “Twitter Files on free speech suppression” would soon be published, adding that the public has a right to know about past discussions there.
Early into the evening on Friday, the thread mostly revealed deliberations both internally and externally — including with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. — about Twitter’s move to restrict access to the article. Khanna appeared to question Twitter’s reasoning for blocking the story.
Musk tweeted in response to one of Taibbi’s tweets: “Ro Khanna is great”
In response to a request for comment, Khanna said he believes the Constitution and First Amendment are “sacred.”
“As the congressman who represents Silicon Valley, I felt Twitter’s actions were a violation of First Amendment principles so I raised those concerns,” Khanna said in a statement. “Our democracy can only thrive if we are open to a marketplace of ideas and engaging with people with whom we disagree.”
Taibbi’s characterization of the documents amounted to a sharp criticism of how Twitter’s previous management — before Musk bought it in October for $44 billion — handled the situation and ran the company, alleging without clear evidence that it was biased toward Democrats.
Many of the details released on Friday night had already been public, including the steps the company took around the New York Post article from October 2020 that alleged it had a “smoking-gun email” between Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian businessman. Still, the disclosures are all but guaranteed to roil debate about social media censorship and free speech online.
The emails show a lengthy internal debate among Twitter employees — including at least two former staffers to Republican senators — about how best to handle the New York Post story and how to talk about that handling to the public and to lawmakers.
Taibbi also included screenshots of emails of requests from unidentified people in the Biden administration, asking contacts at Twitter to take action against certain tweets. Versions of those tweets seen by NBC News on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which archives web pages, show that many if not all of the tweets in question violated Twitter rules. At least three of those tweets involved photographs of Hunter Biden.
Taibbi, a longtime magazine journalist who now writes a newsletter, is known for his provocative style and colorful turns of phrase. In 2009, he coined the term “giant vampire squid” to describe investment bank Goldman Sachs. Musk and Taibbi have had a friendly relationship on Twitter. In May, Musk shared an edition of Taibbi’s newsletter that criticized California regulators.
The controversy involving Twitter and Hunter Biden dates to October 2020, weeks before the presidential election between Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump. The New York Post article on Oct. 14, 2020, quoted from what it said was an email to the younger Biden, thanking him for introducing the businessman to his father, who was vice president at the time.
The email was part of a cache of documents provided to the New York Post by Trump’s then-personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said he obtained the files from a laptop dropped off at a Delaware computer store. At that time, Giuliani declined to share a copy of the hard drive with NBC News.
Twitter and Facebook both moved to limit the spread of the article. Twitter blocked people from tweeting out the link to the New York Post story or sending it in private messages — a highly unusual step by the social media app. Facebook said it was “reducing” distribution of the article while third-party fact-checkers reviewed it.
Twitter has a policy against the distribution of “hacked materials,” a product of how political operatives stole and then leaked Democrats’ emails during the 2016 election. And it cited that policy as one of the reasons it had throttled the article.
Musk has previously been critical of Twitter’s actions during the 2020 election. In April this year, he said it had been “obviously incredibly inappropriate” for Twitter to freeze the account of the New York Post.
Taibbi wrote that he has seen no evidence that there was government involvement in Twitter’s move to block the New York Post story.
The FBI’s possible role in tech companies’ decisions to limit the reach of the New York Post article came to light in August, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan that the FBI did not specifically warn about the laptop but that it “fit the pattern” of what the bureau had warned about. The FBI said in response that it provides companies with “foreign threat indicators” but can’t ask companies to take action.
Shortly after the New York Post published the article, Twitter pointed to concerns about hacked materials as the reason for blocking the story.
“We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials,” Twitter said Oct. 14, 2020, in an explanation of its moves.
But by the end of the day on Oct. 14, the day the New York Post article was published, Twitter was already expressing some concern with how the company handled the situation. Jack Dorsey, then the Twitter CEO, said it was “unacceptable” to have blocked links to the article without context as to why.
Zuckerberg separately defended his company’s actions, saying they were on heightened alert for election interference after Russian operatives used Facebook in 2016 to attempt to swing the presidential election that year. Zuckerberg cited warnings from the FBI about election-related threats, though none about Hunter Biden in particular.
Republican lawmakers have since cited tech companies’ handling of the story as evidence of alleged bias against their party — though the opposite has often been true.
Earlier this year, a Giuliani representative gave NBC News a copy of the laptop’s hard drive, and an NBC News analysis of the drive, an iCloud account and documents from two Senate committees showed Hunter Biden and his company had received about $11 million through his work as an attorney and board member with a Ukrainian company accused of bribery and his work with a Chinese businessman who has also been accused of fraud.
Hunter Biden has said that federal prosecutors in Delaware are investigating his taxes. He has not been charged. He has denied any wrongdoing.
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