By FARNOUSH AMIRI and BARBARA ORTUTAY
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Twitter executives conceded Wednesday they made a mistake by blocking a story about Hunter Biden, the president’s son, from the social media platform in the run-up to the 2020 election, but adamantly denied Republican assertions they were pressured by Democrats and law enforcement to suppress the story.
“The decisions here aren’t straightforward, and hindsight is 20/20,” Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, testified to Congress. “It isn’t obvious what the right response is to a suspected, but not confirmed, cyberattack by another government on a presidential election.”
He added, “Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016.”
The three former executives appeared before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee to testify for the first time about the company’s decision to initially block from Twitter a New York Post article in October 2020 about the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden.
Emboldened by Twitter’s new leadership in billionaire Elon Musk — whom they see as more sympathetic to conservatives than the company’s previous administration — Republicans used the hearing to push a long-standing and unproven theory that social media companies including Twitter are biased against them.
Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer said the hearing is the panel’s “first step in examining the coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process.”
The hearing continues a years-long trend of GOP leaders calling tech company leaders to testify about alleged political bias. Democrats, meanwhile, have pressed the companies on the spread of hate speech and misinformation on their platforms.
The witnesses Republicans subpoenaed were Roth, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s former chief legal officer, and James Baker, the company’s former deputy general counsel.
Democrats brought a witness of their own, Anika Collier Navaroli, a former employee with Twitter’s content moderation team. She testified last year to the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 Capitol riot about Twitter’s preferential treatment of Donald Trump until it banned the then-president from the site two years ago.
The White House criticized congressional Republicans for staging “a bizarre political stunt,” hours after Biden’s State of the Union address where he detailed bipartisan progress in his first two years in office.
“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement Wednesday. “This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on.”
The New York Post reported weeks before the 2020 presidential election that it had received from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a copy of a hard drive from a laptop that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter blocked people from sharing links to the story for several days.
“You exercised an amazing amount of clout and power over the entire American electorate by even holding (this story) hostage for 24 hours and then reversing your policy,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said to the panel of witnesses.
Months later, Twitter’s then-CEO, Jack Dorsey, called the company’s communications around the Post article “not great.” He added that blocking the article’s URL with “zero context” around why it was blocked was “unacceptable.”
The newspaper story was greeted at the time with skepticism due to questions about the laptop’s origins, including Giuliani’s involvement, and because top officials in the Trump administration had already warned that Russia was working to denigrate Joe Biden before the White House election.
The Kremlin interfered in the 2016 race by hacking Democratic emails that were subsequently leaked, and fears that Russia would meddle again in the 2020 race were widespread across Washington.
Just last week, lawyers for the younger Biden asked the Justice Department to investigate people who say they accessed his personal data. But they did not acknowledge that the data came from a laptop Hunter Biden is purported to have dropped off at a computer repair shop.
The issue was also reignited recently after Musk took over Twitter as CEO and began to release a slew of company information to independent journalists, what he has called the “Twitter Files.”
The documents and data largely show internal debates among employees over the decision to temporarily censor links to the Hunter Biden story. The tweet threads lacked substantial evidence of a targeted influence campaign from Democrats or the FBI, which has denied any involvement in Twitter’s decision-making.
Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., called the hearing a “fishing expedition” seeking to reheat bogus allegations claiming Biden somehow influenced his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Republicans including Comer, R-Ky., have used the Post story, which has not been independently verified by The Associated Press, as the basis for what they claim is another example of the Biden family’s “influence peddling.”
One of Wednesday’s witnesses, Baker, has been a frequent target of Republican scrutiny.
Baker was the FBI’s general counsel during the opening of two of the bureau’s most consequential investigations in history: the Hillary Clinton investigation and a separate inquiry into potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans have long criticized the FBI’s handling of both investigations.
Baker denied any wrongdoing during his two years at Twitter and said that despite disagreeing with the decision to block links to the Post story, “I believe that the public record reveals that my client acted in a manner that was fully consistent with the First Amendment.”
There has been no evidence that Twitter’s platform is biased against conservatives; studies have found the opposite when it comes to conservative media in particular. But the issue continues to preoccupy GOP members of congress.
And some experts said questions around government influence on Big Tech’s content moderation are legitimate.
“Despite how I would change how some of the members ask their questions, there should be more insight into this stuff. There should be more transparency,” said Katie Harbath, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as Facebook’s former public policy director.
She added, “There’s still a lot more hearings and sides to the story that we need to hear from, particularly the government and the FBI.”
Ortutay reported from Oakland, Calif. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.
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