Soon after Elon Musk took over Twitter, he began promoting screenshots of internal company documents that he said exposed “free speech suppression” on the social media platform during the 2020 election.Republicans were thrilled.On Wednesday, Musk’s “Twitter Files” took center stage in a combative Capitol Hill hearing , as GOP leaders attempted to turn Twitter’s decision to briefly block sharing a New York Post story about President Biden’s son into evidence of a broad conspiracy.Conservatives have long argued that Silicon Valley favors Democrats by systematically suppressing right-wing viewpoints on social media.These allegations have evolved in nearly a half-decade of warnings, as politicians in Washington and beyond fixate on the industry’s communications with the FBI and Democratic leaders, seeking to cast the opposing party as against free speech.“Twitter … was a private company that the federal government used to do what it cannot: limit the constitutional free exercise of speech,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, flanked by a poster displaying the New York Post story.He added that the committee now knows all of this “because of Elon Musk,” joining a chorus of Republicans praising the mercurial billionaire throughout the hearing.
The testimony of former Twitter executives repeatedly contradicted these accusations.Still, Republicans plowed ahead with unsubstantial allegations of collusion between government officials and the company’s old regime.After one former Twitter executive testified that most of his interactions with the FBI were about foreign interference, Rep.Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, shot back: “I think you guys got played.” At times, the hearing veered away from Republican aims as Anika Collier Navaroli, a company whistleblower, brought forward new testimony alleging that conservatives influenced the social network.The company changed its policies to accommodate President Donald Trump’s rule-breaking tweet, according to Navaroli, and the Trump White House asked Twitter to remove an insulting tweet about the president, posted by the television personality Chrissy Teigen.Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter files’ are an exercise in hypocrisy But the hearing was just the latest effort to advance an increasingly popular Republican narrative that Democrats colluded with social media companies.House Republicans have formed a panel to probe perceived government abuses against conservatives, including allegations of social media bias.
Meanwhile, two Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Biden administration is circumventing the First Amendment to censor social media.Taken collectively, these actions represent the next phase of a GOP strategy, which contributed to the distrust among some conservatives that seeded the “big lie,” the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
The early warnings that liberal employees inside tech companies tilt the playing field in favor of Democrats have ballooned into accusations that government officials actively collude with the platforms to influence public discourse.Paul M.Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said the increased pressure from Republicans has resulted in tech companies “bending over backward” to accommodate content from right-wing accounts for fear of political reprisal.“The fact that … people are continuing to bang this drum that there’s anti-conservative bias is really unfortunate,” Barrett said.
“It’s really confusing, and it’s just not true.” What the Jan.
6 probe found out about social media, but didn’t report Top Republican leaders have made alleged tech censorship one of their first priorities in the House, scheduling hearings and demanding reams of documents in a multipronged pressure campaign.In January, Comer, along with House Energy Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Jordan, introduced a bill called the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, which would penalize federal employees if they are found to be asking social media companies to take down posts.The House Judiciary Committee has formed a special subcommittee focused on the “weaponization of the federal government,” designed in part to examine the interactions between the Biden administration and major tech companies.
Jordan sent letters in December to five large tech companies, demanding that they detail their “collusion with the Biden administration.” “Big Tech is out to get conservatives, and is increasingly willing to undermine First Amendment values by complying with the Biden administration’s directives that suppress freedom of speech online,” Jordan wrote in the letters, which were sent to the executives of Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).The accusations threaten to unravel nearly a decade of investment in people and policies intended to root out violence and falsehoods online — a powerful partisan attack on Silicon Valley, even as Biden calls for unity to take on Big Tech.For more than half a decade, accusations of anti-conservative bias have plagued Silicon Valley, fueled by a high-profile mishap at Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Anonymous former Facebook employees told the tech news website Gizmodo that the social media giant often passed over conservative media outlets when choosing stories to curate for its “trending” news feature.Though stories with a conservative slant regularly outperform those from moderate or liberal-leaning outlets, tensions escalated under Trump’s tenure.As tech companies scrambled to shore up defenses against misinformation in the wake of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election, they created policy on the fly for Trump’s often false and racist tweets .Under political pressure, Facebook tilted to the right in policies, personnel and public gestures, according to a Post investigation .
How social media ‘censorship’ became a front line in the culture war Top Republicans and right-wing influencers routinely accuse tech companies of secretly tampering with their follower counts or “shadowbanning” their posts, even as their online audiences have grown.For many influencers, promoting how deeply they have been suppressed has become a marketing tool, especially after a number of them were invited by Trump to a White House “social media summit” on censorship in 2019.The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., that year solicited preorders for his book on Twitter by calling it “the book the leftist elites don’t want you to read.” Prodded by calls in Congress to overhaul social media laws, Trump signed an executive order that sought to change Section 230, a decades-old legal shield that prevents tech companies from being sued over the posts, photos and videos that people share on their platforms.In 2021, social media companies made the unprecedented decision to ban a sitting president from their services in the wake of the Jan.6 attack on the U.S.Capitol.Trump’s ban ignited a new legislative strategy in Republican-led statehouses.Florida and Texas forged ahead with laws aimed at prohibiting social media companies from banning politicians and censoring political views.
States and the tech industry have called on the Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the laws, after federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings.The Supreme Court recently asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether states can bar social media companies from removing political speech.From the early days of his deal to buy Twitter, Musk has signaled that he shares Republican concerns that tech companies are suppressing their views.Before closing the deal, he boosted criticism of Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, who was involved in politically controversial content-moderation decisions, including the decision to ban Trump.Republicans have summoned Gadde to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.Twitter lawyer long weighed safety, free speech.Then Musk called her out.Since the deal closed, House Republicans have pressed Musk to hand over records related to Twitter’s handling of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden .
In December, a group of handpicked journalists tweeted screenshots of internal company documents dubbed the Twitter Files, and GOP policymakers immediately teased congressional action.In his opening remarks Wednesday, Comer described the hearing as the “first step” in examining the “coordination” between the federal government and Big Tech “to interfere in the democratic process.” House Republicans have mounted a sprawling effort across multiple congressional committees to scrutinize communications between tech companies and Democratic leaders, blanketing platforms and public officials with demands for documents and internal emails.“Many social media platforms are under the control of people who are hostile to the fundamental American principles of free speech,” Comer said.“Twitter was once one of these platforms, until Elon Musk purchased the company a few months ago.” Some Republicans took a hostile tone toward the Twitter leaders during their time in front of the cameras.
Rep.Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she was happy that they lost their jobs, and Rep.Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) referred to former executives as “fascist Twitter 1.0.” Democrats accused Republicans of intimidating the former Twitter staffers, after Republicans repeatedly raised the specter that they may have broken the law and could face jail time.
Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) suggested former Twitter executive Yoel Roth’s past communications with the federal government were “highly illegal,” Rep.Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) asked Comer to intervene.Rep.Jamie B.Raskin (Md.), the House Oversight Committee’s top Democrat, blasted Republicans for using committee resources to take on an “authentically trivial pursuit.” “Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” Raskin said, adding that “private media companies” are free to curate content.In one notable exchange during the hearing, Collier Navaroli, the whistleblower, told Rep.Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that the company changed its policies to accommodate a 2019 Trump tweet directed at Ocasio-Cortez and liberal colleagues to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” At the time, Twitter had a policy on abuse against immigrants, which included banning the phrase “go back to your country,” Collier Navaroli testified.But former Twitter executive Del Harvey overrode her recommendation to label the tweet as in violation, and Twitter later changed its guidelines to remove the phrase.
The Washington Post has previously reported that Collier Navaroli warned the Jan.6 committee that Twitter did not apply its rules to Trump.In another eye-opening reveal, Collier Navaroli said the Trump White House asked Twitter to remove a tweet from actress Chrissy Teigen, who had called the president a “p—y a– b—h.” The barb came in response to a tweet from Trump, calling Teigen “filthy mouthed” and criticizing her husband, musician John Legend.Navaroli, who read the tweet verbatim into the record, said Twitter executives determined that the tweet should remain up citing a company policy allowing up to 3 insults.In the hearing, Democrats suggested that the episode, which had not been previously reported, underscored the hypocrisy of Republicans complaining of government influence on Twitter.The hearing also produced the first public acknowledgement that the Pentagon was behind a pro-U.S.propaganda campaign that was revealed last year .In response to questions from Rep.
Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) Roth confirmed that the Pentagon asked Twitter to white-list accounts to spread pro-U.S.propaganda.Roth said that when he became aware of it, he reversed that action and exposed the campaign publicly.
Jan.6 Twitter witness: Failure to curb Trump spurred ‘terrifying’ choice Meanwhile, discovery continues in the Missouri and Louisiana case.Biden administration lawyers have attempted to dismiss the case, arguing that it contains no plausible evidence of coercion.
The U.S.Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has been skeptical of the states’ arguments, urging a lower court to consider the federal government’s argument that voluminous documents produced during discovery have so far shown no First Amendment violation.
State attorneys general leading the suit said in a recent statement that the litigation is part of a broader strategy to defend constitutional rights.“This case is about the Biden administration’s blatant disregard for the First Amendment and its collusion with Big Tech social media companies to suppress speech it disagrees with,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said.Bailey’s office has promoted emails between the White House and Facebook, in which a White House official flags posts related to coronavirus vaccinations that he finds concerning.In one message, the official says that “the top post about vaccines today is Tucker Carlson saying they don’t work.” Biden has previously called on social media companies to address coronavirus misinformation.Throughout the hearing, Republicans repeatedly praised Elon Musk, hailing the “chief Twit” for bringing the Twitter Files to the public.“God bless Elon Musk,” said Rep.Pete Sessions (R-Tex.).“It was Elon Musk that revealed data that uncovered a disturbing cabal.” But Democrats disassociated themselves from the executive.
“For me, it’s God bless my country, God bless my family, God bless my friends,” Mfume said.“Mr.Musk can take care of himself.” Will Oremus and Drew Harwell contributed to this report..