Former Twitter execs tell House committee that removal of Hunter Biden laptop story was a 'mistake'

The former executives testified in front of the House Oversight Committee.

February 8, 2023, 5:09 PM

Former Twitter executives told a House committee Wednesday that the social media company made a mistake in its handling of a controversial New York Post story on Hunter Biden's laptop.

The action by the social media platform just weeks before the 2020 election unleashed a wave of backlash from Republicans, who accused Twitter executives of suppressing the story to shield President Joe Biden and his family from what they say was damaging material found on a laptop hard drive belonging to the president's son.

During a hearing of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Republicans grilled the three executives about the company's decision to block users from sharing the story on the younger Biden, and suggested the social media giant acted under orders from the government when it suppressed the story.

"America witnessed a coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news and the intelligence communities to suppress and de-legitimize the existence of Hunter Biden's laptop and its contents," Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., said in his opening remarks.

The former Twitter employees called the platform's decision regarding the story a "mistake," but denied that they had acted in concert with government officials.

"I've been clear that in my judgment at the time, Twitter should not have taken action to block the New York Post's reporting," said Yoel Roth, former head of safety and integrity. He said the company made the decision because the Biden laptop story was reminiscent of the 2016 Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's former chief legal officer, echoed Roth by saying that Twitter admitted that "its initial action was wrong" and changed its policy within 24 hours.

PHOTO: Vijaya Gadde, former chief legal officer of Twitter, testifies during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing about Twitter's handling of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden and his laptop, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 8, 2023.
Vijaya Gadde, former chief legal officer of Twitter, testifies during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing about Twitter's handling of a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden and his laptop, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 8, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

"The New York Post chose not to delete its original tweets, so Twitter made an exception after two weeks to retroactively apply the new policy to the Post's tweets," Gadde said. "In hindsight, Twitter should have reinstated the Post account immediately."

During the hearing Roth also said that Twitter's relationship with government employees would benefit from increased transparency.

"Transparency is at the heart of this work, and it's where I think Twitter -- and all of social media -- can and must do better," Roth said. "Trust is built on understanding, and right now the vast majority of people don't understand how or why content moderation decisions are made."

Republicans accused former Twitter executives of "being terrified" of Joe Biden not winning 2020 election and colluding with the FBI.

"You were entrusted with the highest level of power at Twitter, but when you were faced with the New York Post story, instead of allowing people to judge the information for themselves, you rushed to find a reason why the American people shouldn't see it," said Comer. "In a matter of hours, you were deciding on the truth of a story that spans years and dozens of complex international transactions. You did this because you were terrified of Joe Biden not winning the election in 2020."

Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, accused the Twitter executives of having "weekly meetings" with the FBI and accused the executives of colluding with the agency to remove the New York Post article.

"I think you guys wanted it to be taken down," Jordan said. "They send you all kinds of emails ... I think you guys wanted to take it down. I think you guys got played by the FBI."

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who was briefly suspended by Twitter in 2021 for tweeting the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, also accused the former Twitter employees of "colluding with the FBI."

"I am angry for the millions of Americans who were silenced because of your decisions, because of your actions, because of your collusion with the federal government," Boebert said.

"We don't know where the FBI ends and Twitter begins," Boebert said.

But Roth denied the accusations, telling the committee that the FBI did not tell Twitter the laptop hard drive was fake or hacked.

Twitter's former Deputy Counsel James Baker, who was fired by new Twitter CEO Elon Musk in December, also said he was not in communication with the FBI about the company's decision to suppress the article.

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked former Twitter employee Anika Collier Navaroli about a request made by the Trump White House that Twitter remove a tweet from celebrity Chrissy Teigen that insulted then-President Donald Trump.

"The White House almost immediately thereafter contacted Twitter to demand the tweet be taken down. Is that accurate?" Connolly asked Navaroli.

"I do remember hearing we'd received a request from the White House to make sure we evaluated this tweet, and they wanted it to come down because it was a derogatory statement directed at the president," Navaroli replied.

Hunter Biden walks to a vehicle after disembarking from Air Force One with his father, President Joe Biden, at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, Feb. 4, 2023.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Twitter did not remove the tweet, she said.

During the hearing, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said that Republicans were focusing on a "two-year-old story" about a private company that is allowed to make decisions on what content to allow on its platform.

"The key point here is that it was Twitter's decision," Raskin said in his opening statements. "Twitter is a private media company. In America, private media companies can decide what to publish."

"Instead of letting this trivial pursuit go, my colleagues have tried to whip up a faux scandal about this two-day lapse in their ability to spread Hunter Biden propaganda on a private media platform," Raskin said of the hearing. "Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession."

Democrats instead focused on how the social media platform may have helped to incite violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

"What makes this hearing tragic is that, if our colleagues really wanted to examine a serious problem involving American democracy and social media, my friends, it is staring us in the face right now, "said Raskin.

Navaroli also argued that lawmakers should be focusing on "Twitter's failure to act before Jan. 6."

"Twitter leadership bent and broke their own rules in order to protect some of the most dangerous speech on the platform" in the months leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Navaroli said.