The Twitter Files reveal how the Hunter Biden laptop story was suppressed

This is an archived issue of my newsletter The Sleepy Fox from 4 December 2022. If you want to receive new issues as they are released, you can sign up for delivery to your inbox here.

Header image: Ex-Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi teams up with Twitter-CEO Elon Musk to dish out the dirt on content moderation practices at Twitter pre-Musk

After having had quite a break from the newsletter to pursue some adventures in the beautiful city of Hamburg, I’m back with another special edition of The Sleepy Fox. I had originally planned to return with a regular news recap on Monday, but then ex-Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi broke what could become one of the most interesting stories in tech in 2022 late Friday night on Twitter. So here we are.

Taibbi, freshly returned from convincing a Toronto audience in a blowout victory at the prestigious Munk Debates that mainstream media is not to be trusted, landed an amazing scoop when Twitter-CEO Elon Musk handed him “The Twitter Files” — apparently a large collection of internal emails from the pre-Musk era, dealing with content moderation on the platform. In his first report on the material, which was published on Twitter, apparently as a condition by Musk, Taibbi revealed internal details on how the platform’s leadership suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story in the runup to the 2020 US presidential election.

A Recap of the Hunter Biden Laptop Story

In case you are not aware, or have forgotten what happened, here’s a quick refresher: Three weeks before the election, the New York Post published emails from Hunter Biden, the son of one of the candidates, that suggested him and his father to be involved in shady dealings with the Ukrainian energy conglomerate Burisma. Hunter Biden had served on the Burisma board from 2014 to 20191. The Post claimed that the emails were recovered from a laptop that had been left behind in a computer repair shop in Delaware, allegedly by Hunter Biden himself. The Post’s story was immediately attacked by other mainstream media outlets, citing a letter by 51 “former senior intelligence officials” — i.e. spies, which are professional liars — who claimed the Biden laptop story was “Russian disinformation”. A tabloid like the Post going out on a limb with a story like this is one thing, buying a generic letter from seasoned propagandists wholesale in response is much, much worse. The “Russian disinformation” ruse turned out to be bullshit, of course. Even CBS had to admit this, two years too late. Thus, the full-throated attack of the mainstream press on this story became one of the most embarrassing debacles in journalistic history since my colleagues believed Colin Powell with his little vial of yellow powder and unnamed intelligence sources “familiar with the matter”.

Enter Silicon Valley tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. It is no secret that most, if not almost all, of the people who held positions of power at these companies in late 2020 leaned heavily towards Joe Biden in the election. What nonetheless surprised me was, how these companies — especially Twitter — reacted to the Post story. In an outlandish and hitherto never before seen display of censorship of the public discourse by private capital, Twitter decided to delete journalistic reporting from its platform. Facebook followed suit. A blatant attack on press freedom that showed obvious disdain for the First Amendment to the US constitution. While the First Amendment only applies to government organisations, it is to this day absolutely inconceivable to me how people — some of them journalists — can claim that, while censorship of journalists must be forbidden by the state, companies that host a large portion of the public political discourse should be exempt from it.

Make no mistake, what Twitter did when it prevented people from linking to the Post story was not, as the misguided leadership of the company seemed to think, a service to democracy. It was an anti-democratic attack on press freedom and civil liberties worthy of an autocratic despot. In this case, it was perpetuated by a capitalist oligarchy running some very powerful companies that decide large parts of people’s daily lives based on their products. But this doesn’t make it less despicable or dangerous, in my opinion. It probably makes it even worse, because our laws and people’s minds are not up to curtailing or even recognising these dangers yet. We are used to dictatorships run by the state, techno-capitalists controlling our lives are, for now, only within the purview of cyberpunk and dystopian science-fiction novels. Or the ravings of crazy conspiracy nuts. Which is why Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are being persecuted instead of given medals.

I discussed how horrible of a mistake this social media ban of the Hunter Biden laptop story was on episode 48 of my podcast The Private Citizen two years ago. A few months later, when a mob stormed the US Capitol, I expanded on the power grab of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Twitter and their blatant censorship of parts of the political discourse in episode 51. The failure of my own profession, and especially mainstream media, to cover these very real dangers, is an issue very much close to my heart.

The Story of What Actually Happened at Twitter

Which is why I find the material Matt Taibbi is tweeting about so fascinating. What Taibbi shows in his first exposé based on what is, presumably, Musk’s material, is that things at Twitter happened exactly as we imagined when the Post published its story.

Twitter had established a system whereby political actors in Washington could call on the company to delete tweets they didn’t like. This system was based on personal contacts instead of an automated process and it was primarily being used on one side of the political aisle — the Biden campaign.

Which isn’t surprising as Twitter, much like other Silicon Valley companies, was largely staffed by people who voted Democrat and whose opinions slanted accordingly.

When the Post story came out, people at Twitter who were involved in doing the bidding of political operatives from “Team Biden”, as they put it, decided that the reporting was based on “hacked materials” and therefore fell within a Twitter policy that prohibited such material to be included in tweets. They decided that by themselves, without any kind of formal training or expertise (legal or otherwise) and without then-Twitter-CEO Jack Dorsey knowing about it. The decision was made in spite of the understanding that the deleted links in question did not, in fact, link to hacked materials, but to journalistic reporting by one of the oldest newspapers in the US, which itself was based on something that might, with a lot of good will, be construed as “hacked materials” — but probably wouldn’t hold up to this label. The material in question wasn’t even obtained illegally. But even if it had been, reporting on it would still have been legal2.

Twitter’s former executive, and head of legal, policy and trust, Vijaya Gadde took a leading role in this mess, which is probably one of the main reasons why Musk fired her. Gadde was later also behind the decision of banning then-president Donald Trump’s account When deciding to suppress the Post story, Gadde immediately faced questions from other Twitter executives, who were skeptical of her reasoning.

Many people at Twitter, despite being sympathetic to the decision, seemed to doubt that it could be publicly justified. But the company went ahead with their idiotic and ill-conceived pro-Biden activism anyway.

Even when a Democratic (!) congressman privately wrote Gadde, hinting at “backlash on the Hill” because of the free speech implications of what Twitter was doing, the company’s head of legal, policy and trust didn’t seem to understand that what they were doing was actually wrong. Morally, and maybe even legally.

The people running Twitter, a company that owns what probably amounts to the biggest and most influential platform for public discourse in the world, did not — on a fundamental level — understand free speech at all, it seems.

All of this really speaks to how messed up the culture at Twitter was. And maybe it also explains why Musk fired that many people. What kind of company makes devastating, potentially business-destroying decisions like this without the knowledge of its CEO? And does so repeatedly, again and again? There were obviously deep-seated structural problems at Twitter. Not only because decisions like this could even be made without involving the CEO, but also because Dorsey apparently wasn’t able to reverse course quickly once he discovered what was going on. I’ve never been a fan of the man, but it seems he ran his company even worse than I had previously assumed. I always knew the hobo beard wasn’t a good sign.

There’s More to Come

The first part of The Twitter Files basically confirms what everyone with half a clue was suspecting was going on at the company — a Democrat-leaning upper echelon, inspired by the company’s woke culture aspirations, decided to engage in some political activism at the expense of press freedom. This stuff only comes as a surprise to those who still trust mainstream media. Which you probably shouldn’t if you want to have a realistic outlook on what is going on in the world.

TK News by Matt Taibbi: “Be it Resolved: Don’t Trust Mainstream Media”

Of course, just like the Post story was attacked back in the day, Taibbi himself is now in the cross hairs with, mostly Democrat-leaning, journalists trying to discredit his reporting. Which was also completely predictable. Because it is much easier to attack someone else than to fess up to your own mistakes.

While I am satisfied to see that I was on the right side of history myself by both calling out stories decrying the Post’s original reporting as disinformation as the bullshit they were and also on Twitter’s treatment of this story, I am actually more interested in what Taibbi has promised to deliver next:

As someone who was either shadowbanned or marked as “do not amplify”3 myself, I am dying to see how these systems worked. Aside from me being personally impacted by this, I also think this will be great insight into what I perceive to be the next battleground in tech reporting: How algorithms shape how we perceive the world and, ultimately, enable the people controlling them to exercise control over our daily lives.

Twitter feeds a hell of a lot of mainstream journalism, which itself is read by politicians, political influencers and business leaders. Hence Twitter has a very real impact on how our governments shape our societies. Therefore, I will stay with this story very closely. Matt’s reporting will be decried as right-wing conspiracy theories and bootlicking of the richest man in the world (formerly a hero of the press, not anymore though) in headlines and monologues on the radio and on TV in days to come. Because many of my colleagues can’t admit to having made mistakes in the past. And many of them, sadly, don’t understand freedom of speech and freedom of the press anymore. But I am resolved to strike out in the opposite direction. To seek truth wherever it is to be found, regardless of political prejudices and cultural preconceptions. I’ve been on the record as someone who has a very strong dislike for Elon Musk, and most of what he does, for over a decade now. But that doesn’t mean Matt Taibbi isn’t doing great work here.

  1. Whether Joe or Hunter Biden were engaged in corruption in Ukraine while Hunter Biden served on the Burisma board and Joe Biden was vice president of the United States is not something that can be substantiated by these emails. What is much more important than the story itself, is how it was handled by the media and by large tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. ↩︎

  2. For a discussion on the First Amendment and US Supreme Court decisions when it comes to publishing secret information and information that has been illegally obtained, see this entry in The First Amendment Encyclopedia, this article in The Atlantic and this guide on publishing trade secrets at the Digital Media Law Project among many others. ↩︎

  3. This is a term that appears in The Twitter Files and apparently signifies an account flag that excludes that account’s tweets from being shown to random users by the platform’s algorithms. ↩︎