Congress shows limitations in hearing with Twitter executives
Questions about the nature of the relationship between social media companies and the U.S. government could have been articulated more clearly.
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Summary: The congressional hearing with former Twitter executives on the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story had key moments, but absence of government officials was felt. Haul them in to obtain a clearer of their relationship with social media companies.
Anyone ready for serious answers on Twitter's suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story as a result of a hearing this week before the House Committee on Oversight & Reform (under new management with a new Republican majority) would have been sadly disappointed.
Instead, we were treated to dramatic displays from members of Congress seeking to inflame and energize segments of the public with similar ideological bents, sometimes with total disregard for whether the display made any logical sense. Case in point: The rant from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) over Twitter violating her First Amendment rights by banning her, even though the First Amendment has no restrictions on private companies.
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Props to Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who asked during her questioning of Vijaya Gadde, a former Twitter executive, whether or not the U.S. government contacted her or anyone at Twitter for content moderation of user posts. Gadde couldn't give a straight response: "We receive legal demands to remove content from the U.S. government and governments all around the world. Those are published on a third-party website." I wish we would had more questioning along these lines that would have explored further the nature of the government requests.
But the key issue of whether or not Twitter sought to bury the Hunter Biden story at the behest of the U.S. government, a real possibility based on evidence in the Twitter Files, went relatively unexplored as were other statements from witnesses. Many opportunities were missed that could have demonstrated the extent of a cozy relationship that appears to disregard the First Amendment, as were other chances that could have challenged existing narratives.
One example was when Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) questioned Yoel Roth, the former Twitter executive who has become the face of the company's censorship efforts, about Vladimir Putin seeking to spread discrimination information online though "hundreds of thousands" of Twitter accounts. Such an effort, Raskin said, was costing Russia "hundreds of billions of dollars." That's a dubious take given recent revelations the impact of Russia using fake accounts was anything but that extensive.
Roth, nonetheless, essentially acknowledged the accuracy of Raskin's characterization of Russia's efforts: "That's right, sir. And that's not just past tense. Those accounts are active on social media today. This is an ongoing campaign."
But that response flies in the face of the Roth we saw in the Twitter Files. In an uncharacteristic sentiment for him against government coercion of Twitter, Roth was seen wanting publicly to dispute charges Russia was being effective as spreading disinformation online with fake accounts when in fact they were in few in number and had little impact: "I think we need to just call this out on the bullshit it is." No member of the panel sought to address the contraction or ask Roth to address why his past statement didn’t square with what he was telling the committee.
With evidence in the Twitter Files the U.S. government has been colluding with social media companies on flagging content private citizens deemed objectionable, one might expect another issue for which members of Congress would seek clarification would be whether Twitter felt any pressure to act on these requests. Such pressure could have been explicit, perhaps a threat of an IRS audit, or perhaps implicitly felt as a result of getting a request from a U.S. government official. Roth, however, said during his testimony he felt no pressure to act on the government's requests.
"I wouldn't agree with the word pressure," Roth said. "The FBI was quite careful and quite consistent to request review of the accounts, but not to cross the line into advocating for Twitter to take any particular action."
For this response, we arguably got an explanation, although the committee members could have drawn the connection more clearly and exposed the faults in the reasoning. At a different time during the hearing, Roth said he felt a need to work with the government based on the "mistakes of 2016." Apparently, that's a reference to the Wikileaks dump of emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, allegedly the result of the hacking of Russian hacking. The information from the dumps was spread far and wide, not just on social media websites, but the mainstream media.
"I think Twitter and the entire social media industry were, frankly, caught with their pants down in 2016 and missed an opportunity to do the critical work of protecting election security," Roth said at one point.
Forgive me for momentarily getting into another kettle of fish, but those emails, even if they were illegally obtained, were publicly accessible on Wikileaks and the real thing. That's not disinformation. Roth said later during the hearing that incident, however, and the fear of the spread of Russia hacked material and misinformation was a factor in the decision to withhold the Hunter Biden laptop story.
One key development on the behind-the-scenes discussion on the Hunter Biden story: If you go back to the Twitter Files, you can see evidence FBI officials — who had the Hunter Biden laptop story in their possession — were essentially priming the pump with social media companies by warning them in meetings of disinformation based on Hunter Biden. But Roth made another new distinction: It was a private company during the meetings, not government officials, that discussed the possibility of Hunter Biden-based disinformation. That could have been drawn out clearly. Which private company exactly raised the possibility of disinformation based on Hunter Biden? What relationship did it have to the FBI?
Democrats doing the hearing, which admittedly was formed to serve the interests of Republican constituencies, did their best to pivot from the issue at hand to serve different interests. Most often, Democrats made the case social media posts without content moderation led to the Jan. 6 insurrection, but provided little evidence of specific tweets that instigated violence at the U.S. Capitol except for dubious examples. Vague tweets about being "locked and loaded" or Trump using a simile to describe his tweets as "little missiles," as former Twitter executive on safety on committee witness Anika Collier Navaroli bemoaned during the hearing, aren't exactly a plan for action at the U.S. Capitol.
One prominent moment came when Navaroli, under questioning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), revealed Twitter refused to remove a tweet from Trump calling on four women in color in Congress, otherwise known as "The Squad" in conservative circles, to "go back" to their home countries despite that being a violation of terms of service. Twitter immediately afterwards, Navaroli said, changed the terms of service to allow posts with that trope. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), in another exchange with Navaroli, led the witness to divulge the Trump White House tried to get Twitter to take down a personal insult posted by Chrissey Tegen calling the former president a "pussy ass bitch." The post ended up staying online.
The mainstream media, including the New York Times, jumped on these moments as among the most revelatory of the hearing. Another story from NBC News was titled, "Chrissy Tegen's Trump diss takes center stage at Twitter hearing." But there's a false equivalency here. Neither statement related to factual information challenging existing narratives or indicate a level of scrutiny from FBI officials on election information that prompted officials to flag posts clearly intended as jokes, both of which revealed in the Twitter Files, nor are those incidents about an orchestrated government effort with social media companies to control information.
Democrats had moments of drilling down to serve their own political ends. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) questioned Roth on whether either the Biden campaign or the Democratic National Committee sought to convince Twitter to remove the Hunter Biden story. When the answer was "no," she made it seem like the revelation made the entire premise of the hearing fall apart. But she left out a key player: the U.S. government. Whether or not the U.S. government requested it be removed is way more integral and relevant to a potential violation of the First Amendment.
The lack of focus on the U.S. government was a missing component that overall made the hearing fall short. As pointed out by the Democrats, Twitter at the end of the day is a private company and able to to make its own decision on whether to allow certain content. But that's not the case with the U.S. government, which is bound by the First Amendment.
We weren't able to ascertain a better understanding of efforts by government officials without any present as witnesses. (A secondary issue about how porous were the lines between U.S. government and social media companies with former FBI officials moving over to Twitter as employees in safety positions, something that could have been answered with former FBI official Jim Baker as among the witnesses, also went unexplored.) The hearing with witnesses from the U.S. government will have to wait another time.
Robby Soave at Reason, in his excellent summary on the hearing, sums up the need to haul government officials before the committee with his usual acuity: "Congress can continue to probe what exactly was going through Twitter employees' heads as they doubled down on restricting the laptop story, or they can direct their intention to the government itself."
The Republicans had an opportunity to expose U.S. government offices being willing to flout the First Amendment by selectively flagging content among private citizens for removal. Such a hearing would have raised the prominence of the issue for the American public. The committee, in a modern era when lawmakers are more concerned about being in viral YouTube videos than anything else, missed that chance. But they have more than one shot at this effort. Perhaps the next hearing will be more successful.
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