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Understanding the ‘Twitter Files’
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Understanding the ‘Twitter Files’

Do ‘leaked’ internal documents prove Twitter’s left-wing bias? A Dispatch Explainer.

Hunter Biden (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Last week, a blue-check Twitter user took to the platform with a clickbait-level tease: the revelation of “what really happened” with Twitter’s suppression of the New York Post’s 2020 Hunter Biden story would be forthcoming.

The user was no clout-chasing journalist, but billionaire, entrepreneur, and Twitter owner Elon Musk. He soon retweeted a thread by independent journalist Matt Taibbi containing internal Twitter communications discussing Twitter’s censorship of the Post story. “Here we go!!” Musk crowed.

In the days since, Taibbi’s reporting became something of a Rorschash test: Some think it a bombshell revelation, while others say it’s much ado about nothing. It apparently got Twitter Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker fired Tuesday for “vetting the first batch of ‘Twitter Files’—without knowledge of new management,” Taibbi tweeted. Then he promised a new installment of the “Twitter Files”series would drop soon.

So what should we make of the new revelations?

Rewinding to 2020

When the New York Post published its exclusive article in October 2020 about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, the tabloid claimed that the younger Biden arranged a meeting between a Ukrainian energy executive while his father was vice president.

The information was obtained, according to the Post, via a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden at a Delaware computer repair shop. The article also described other damning materials from the computer, including a sexually explicit video of Hunter. (The Dispatch covered the story here and here.)

Soon after the article’s publication and dissemination on social media, Twitter took several unusual steps: It affixed a warning to the Post’s tweet about the article, restricted the spread of the story, removed links, prevented users from sending the link via direct message, and told the Post to delete the story from its account. After the Post refused, Twitter suspended the publication’s Twitter account. It also locked users out of their accounts if they shared the story—which happened to then-White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. The move created an uproar in an already tense political environment. 

Taibbi’s thread takes readers behind the scenes at Twitter as this unfolded.

What Does Taibbi’s Reporting Reveal?

Taibbi, formerly of Rolling Stone, said the thread was compiled “based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter” and includes screenshots of emails and other messages (which could not be independently verified by The Dispatch).

Taibbi says he had to post the news on Twitter—as opposed to Substack, his current platform—as a condition for receiving the cache.

The thread reveals that both political parties routinely had access to Twitter officials and the Trump and Biden campaigns often made requests the platform “received and honored” to remove other users’ tweets.

One such Biden campaign request was for the removal of tweets with apparently nude photos of Hunter Biden (a detail Taibbi did not mention.) “Handled these,” one Twitter employee wrote back in response.

But, Taibbi said, “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.” The result: a “slant in content moderation decisions.”

Taibbi’s reporting reveals that Twitter decided to censor the Post story apparently independently of requests from the Biden campaign. His thread primarily features Twitter employees discussing the company’s decision to censor the story, ostensibly because it ran afoul of Twitter’s hacked materials policy. The policy was designed to stop the spread of private information.

“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” one employee wrote. “We’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning for marking the link unsafe.”

Another, former Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker, wrote, “We need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked. At this stage, however, it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been and that caution is warranted.”

As the internal debate continued, concerns from outsiders trickled in.

One email from an irate Trump campaign staffer, Mike Hahn, focused on McEnany’s account being locked “for simply talking about the New York Post story.” Hahn ends the email with an exasperated request to, “at least pretend to care for the next 20 days.” It prompted one Twitter official to email the safety and trust team—the team responsible for drafting and enforcing the company’s rules—asking it to “take a closer look” at McEnany’s account being locked.

Twitter’s decision captured attention in Washington, D.C., just hours after implementation. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna—a self-described “total Biden partisan” whose district includes Silicon Valley—reached out to one executive offering to shed insight on the “huge backlash” on Capitol Hill regarding “speech,” a reference to First Amendment concerns.

In a follow-up email, he said Twitter’s move likely was “a violation of the 1st Amendment principles…a journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack. So to restrict the distribution of that material, especially regarding a Presidential candidate, seems not in the keeping of the principles of NYT v. Sullivan,” a landmark Supreme Court decision regarding freedom of the press.

“In the heat of a Presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if N.Y. Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good,” Khanna added.

Another email warned that Republicans on the Hill viewed the tech company’s actions as a “tipping point.” Another was even more blunt about the backlash from the GOP: “tech is screwed and rightfully so.”

A day after deciding to limit the article’s spread, the company reversed course following the intervention of then-CEO Jack Dorsey, who seems not to have been looped in to his lieutenants’ original decision. But it took two weeks to unlock the Post’s Twitter account. Twitter also revised its hacked materials policy. 

“We recognize it as a mistake that we made, both in terms of the intention of the policy and also the enforcement action of not allowing people to share it publicly or privately,” Dorsey said to lawmakers in a March 2021 congressional hearing.

“We made a quick interpretation, using no other evidence, that the materials in the article were obtained through hacking and, according to our policy, we blocked them from being spread,” he continued.

How Important Are ‘The Twitter Files’?

Opinions vary.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said the messages showed a “systemic violation of the First Amendment, the largest example of that in modern history.” (The First Amendment bars the government, not private companies, from suppressing free speech.)

National Review’s Jim Geraghty argued that the inside look painted “an ugly portrait” of a company “unilaterally deciding that its role was to keep breaking news away from the public instead of letting people see the reporting and drawing their own conclusion.”

But even some of Twitter’s critics on the right were less than impressed with the revelations. “Look, I think we’ve seen quite a bit that’s useful. It’s not really the smoking gun we’d hoped for,” New York Post columnist Miranda Devine said on Carlson’s show.

Meanwhile, mainstream and left voices largely waived away the story as a nothingburger, with New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo dismissing the Twitter Files as a “half dozen screenshots of content moderation policy executives earnestly debating content moderation policy.”

Some policy analysts, meanwhile, are taking a more even-keeled approach. It’s “not at all surprising” that political campaigns have direct communication with social media platforms in the waning days of a presidential campaign, Zach Graves, executive director of the Lincoln Network, a technology and policy group, told The Dispatch. “Even as I think the decision to censor that story was a really bad precedent and poorly justified, and almost certainly politically motivated, I don’t think that means there’s necessarily this sort of grand conspiracy in the way that some conservatives frame it.”

Meanwhile, expect more revelations about the tech giant’s inner workings: Musk said Saturday on a live audio session on the platform that another “Twitter Files” dump would be forthcoming.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.