House Republicans on Tuesday used their newly won majority to hold a hearing on one of their paramount issues: Hunter Biden’s laptop and Twitter’s alleged efforts to censor conservative viewpoints at the behest of the federal government. The event was a disaster, filled with raucous lawmakers, real-time misinformation, and even a brief power outage.
One of the most surprising revelations from the hearing didn’t involve Joe Biden or his prodigal son at all: in 2019, then-President Donald Trump demanded Twitter remove a post from model Chrissy Teigen in which the celebrity called Trump a “pussy ass bitch,” according to whistleblower and former Twitter safety policy team expert Anika Collier Navaroli. Twitter didn’t delete the tweet, but Teigen herself did.
“We had received a request from the White House to make sure we evaluated this tweet, and that they wanted it to come down because it was a derogatory statement,” Navaroli testified.
Why was the House holding a hearing on Hunter Biden’s laptop?
The House Oversight Committee hearing, titled “Twitter’s Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story,” was the first in a series of upcoming slugfests supposedly investigating “government interference and social media bias.” Republican lawmakers have, for years, long clung to still largely unproven claims that social media companies routinely act to limit conservative viewpoints and figures on their platfors to benefit Democrats.
That wobbly theory received a hearty shot of adrenaline in October 2020 when Twitter acted to snuff out circulation of a New York Post story detailing the contents of a hard drive that belonged to Hunter Biden over fears it may have violated the company’s hastily implemented rules around hacked materials. Republicans believe the hard drive includes all sorts of salacious, corruption linked documents. It definitely contained dick pics. Twitter eventually reversed its decision with senior leadership, including former CEO Jack Dorsey calling the removal a “total mistake.”
Though the hearing was intended to provide answers explaining Twitter’s decision making in the Biden cases, random viewers would be forgiven for believing they logged onto another event entirely. Democratic lawmakers repeatedly steered the conversation away from Hunter Biden and towards Donald Trump and the January 6 Capitol Hill attacks on the capitol.
Unlike the laptop case, which multiple lawmakers including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote off as, “a waste of time” the moments leading up to January 6 showed clear examples of Twitter failing to remove far right content that allegedly incited fanatics and Viking-lookalikes to storm the capitol, according to the Democrats. Rather than suppress right wing speech, Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin said Twitter opted to “knowingly spread misinformation.”
“Free speech is about the government limiting speech about the public,” Florida Democratic representative Maxwell Frost, the youngest member of Congress, said. “We are wasting time here.”
Trump tried to have Twitter remove tweet calling him a ‘pussy ass bitch’
Navaroli told Congress that Trump used Twitter to “heckled two celebrities on Twitter, John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and referred to them as ‘musician John Legend and his filthy-mouthed wife.’”
After Teigen sent her now-infamous retort, the Trump campaign’s outreach to Twitter was nearly immediate, despite the exchange taking place in the middle of the night, according to Navaroli. Teigen later axed the tweet.
This week’s hearing was partly inspired by a batch of internal Twitter documents released by CEO Elon Musk called, “The Twitter Files.” The reporters who released those documents pointed to emails between Twitter employees and members of the FBI and Democratic National Committee as smoking gun evidence the social media platforms were working at the behest of Democratic politicians to suppress or eliminate conservative speech. The documents did not, however contain evidence of FBI interference in Twitter’s moderation decisions, which those same reporters admitted. Republicans attending the hearing, naturally, latched onto that narrative. In his opening statement, House Oversight Chair James Comer accused the companies of essentially acting as state backed censors to suppress the Hunter Biden story because they were “terrified of Joe Biden not winning the election.”
The former Twitter employees, however, told a very different story. For starters, the ex-employees denied that Biden’s campaign had any sway over the company’s decision to pull the New York Post laptop story. More importantly, Former Twitter Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde said it was “very common globally” for governments of varying political ideologies to reach out to Twitter asking them to remove potentially violating content. In fact, Twitter regularly releases transparency reports showing the amount and types of takedown requests they received from government officials around the world.
Ocasio-Cortez questioned Navaroli on a series of tweets that reportedly resulted in Twitter changing its own internal policies to accommodate offensive Trump tweets.
“So much for bias against conservatives” Ocasio-Cortez said.
‘Unrestricted free speech, paradoxically, results in less speech, not more’
Throughout the healing the former Twitter employees took issue with Republican lawmakers’ claims that content moderation and safety enforcement were incompatible with freedom of expression. During his testimony, Twitter’s Former Global Head of Trust & Safety Yoel Roth, who was recently the victim of a Elon Musk fueled conspiracy theory connecting him with pedophilia, explained that content moderation often lives in a gray area of “lawful but awful.” Roth argued it’s important to remove that material in order to make Twitter “an appealing product for millions of people.” Refusing to do so, as so-called free speech abolitionists would like, could actually result in less voices being heard.
“Unrestricted free speech, paradoxically, results in less speech, not more,” Roth said.
In other cases, the former Twitter employees told lawmakers the company’s concerns over potential being seen as biased against conservatives was hamstringing their ability to take enforcement actions against hate speech and other harmful content violating their rules. Similar issues of moderators feeling compelled to appease Republicans over fears of conservative backlash have plagued other platforms like Facebook.
“Doing nothing is not an option. If we continue to do nothing, violence will happen again,” Navaroli added. “Every day, we had to weigh whether any particular piece of content equated to yelling fire in a crowded theater.”
Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared to prove the moderators’ points in real time by resurfacing the pedophilia allegations lodged against Roth during the hearing. MGT, as she’s known, was herself banned from Twitter for repeatedly violating the company’s rules around spreading Covid-19 misinformation. During the hearing, the representative inaccurately said it was “illegal” for Twitter to censor her and other conservatives and said election denialism was “Americans’ fundamental first amendment right.”
“I’m so glad you’re censored now, and I’m so glad you lost your jobs,” Taylor Greene told the former Twitter employees. “Consider their speech canceled during my time because they cancelled mine.”
“Thank God Elon Musk bought Twitter,” she added.