Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi release Twitter docs on Hunter Biden tapes

WASHINGTON — Elon Musk promoted a series of tweets Friday that shows Twitter executives struggled with handling tweets surrounding a report on Hunter Biden’s laptop before the 2020 presidential election as the company took steps to block it. 

“This will be awesome,” Musk, CEO of Twitter, wrote before the release of what he billed “The Twitter files” – a lengthy Twitter thread by journalist Matt Taibbi detailing internal documents that Musk apparently fed Taibbi. 

Musk, who last month urged his followers to vote for Republicans, seemed to push the material to expose what he claims is the political left’s grip over Big Tech. 

Taibbi said he had to “agree to certain conditions” to report on the story but did not disclose what they were. USA TODAY was unable to verify the authenticity of screenshots of emails and other documents that form the bulk of Taibbi’s reporting. The White House declined to comment. 

The emails focus on the debate within Twitter whether censoring tweets promoting a 2020 New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop was the right call. The Post story provided sensitive information that news organizations including USA TODAY could not verify at the time.

Biden, his allies and former intelligence officials said the story was likely Russian disinformation. However, then- Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said the emails targeting the younger Biden weren’t connected, even as federal authorities continued to review whether the material was part of such a campaign.

According to Taibbi, Twitter blocked tweets from former Trump administration officials publicizing the article prompting them to contact and admonish the company for its actions. Meanwhile, members of Biden’s campaign reported specific tweets to Twitter and requested they be blocked. 

USA TODAY has since verified the contents of the reported tweets by the Biden campaign through open-access tools and found they were pornographic in nature or alluded to Hunter Biden’s sexual activities.

Here’s what the documents show – and what they don’t:

Biden campaign flagged tweets in lead-up to the election 

  • Taibbi’s report reveals requests from President Joe Biden’s campaign in the days before the 2020 election for Twitter to remove tweets the campaign flagged.  An email from a Twitter employee dated Oct. 24, 2020 includes six links to tweets. “More to review from the Biden team,” the employee wrote. Another Twitter worker replied, “Handled these.”
  • Taibbi goes on to write, “Requests from both Donald Trump’s White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored.” He does not provide examples of tweets the Trump team flagged to Twitter.

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  • Taibbi argues “this system wasn’t balanced” because he says the majority of Twitter’s employees are Democrats. To make that case, he pointed to the Twitter team’s significantly greater campaign contributions to Democrats over Republicans.
  • Notably, Taibbi’s reporting does not show the Biden campaign flagging the 2020 New York Post report that first revealed the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop. 

‘Caution is warranted’: Twitter debated what to do about New York Post story

  • Twitter removed links to tweets linking to the story, marked them as “unsafe” and blocked the ability to send the story in direct messages. The Twitter team said the Hunter Biden laptop material fell under its “hacked materials policy.”
  • But some at Twitter raised concerns. “I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe,” Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter communications official wrote in an email. Kennedy advised that the company say it is “waiting to understand” whether the New York Post story is the result of hacked material.
  •  “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?” Brandon Borrman, former vice president of global communications asked in an email. Jim Baker, deputy general counsel for Twitter, replied that “caution is warranted” because it is “reasonable to assume” that materials reported in the story were hacked. 
  • A Democratic congressman, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district includes Silicon Valley, reached out to a top Twitter executive with concerns the decision to block the story violated “1st Amendment principles.” 

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‘A Twitter circus show,’ analysts say

Since his $44 billion takeover of Twitter at the end of October, Musk has been trying to find a way to bring more money in.

In November, Twitter briefly offered verified checks through an $8-per-month “Twitter Blue” subscription and has discussed other ways to attract advertisers such as relaunching the short-form video platform Vine. Musk has also gutted the staff through mass layoffs. 

The financial pressures come after Musk saddled Twitter with $13 billion in debt to finance the deal, meaning the company must pay more than $1 billion annually in interest alone, the New York Times reported.

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Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives calls Taibbi’s Twitter thread a “Twitter circus show,” with Musk using his new ownership and his showmanship to create as much political noise as possible to drum up engagement on the platform which has foundered in recent years.

“At the end of the day, there are 44 billion reasons that Musk needs to increase engagement on Twitter. This will go down as the most overpaid M&A transaction in the history of tech, and I think Musk realizes the challenges ahead.”

Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, wrote that it’s common practice for political campaigns to complain to social media companies and that Taibbi offered no evidence that Twitter gave the Biden campaign special treatment. “We already know that major social media companies debate internally about their moderation policies and are inconsistent with applying their decisions,” he wrote. “So, what is exactly new about Taibbi’s revelations? I would argue almost nothing, so far.”

Musk’s political views shift to the right

Musk’s push to bring the Biden story back in the spotlight comes after the billionaire has shown signs of aligning more closely with the political right.

On Nov. 7, Musk tweeted a recommendation to vote for a Republican Congress in the midterms, “given that the Presidency is Democratic.” He went on to say that he agrees “with some of the Democrat and some of the Republican policies, but not all.”

In a Nov. 25 tweet, Musk confirmed that he would support Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in 2024. In May, he acknowledged that he had previously voted Democratic but now believed it to be “the party of division & hate.”

Twitter has also invited right-wing accounts back onto the platform under Musk, including former president Donald Trump. Trump later was banned from the platform in Jan. 2021 due to risks he would incite further violence following the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol by his support.    

What politicians are saying and what could be next

  •  Republicans seized on the material as proof Twitter sought to hide a story unfavorable to Biden ahead of the election. “We’re learning in real-time how Twitter colluded to silence the truth about Hunter Biden’s laptop just days before the 2020 presidential election,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said. He vowed Republicans will “get answers for the American people” when they take control of the House next year.
  •  Democrats said there was no story. “Here is the BIG REVEAL,” U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. “Twitter got complaints from lots of folks, including the Biden campaign, the Trump White House and your cousin’s friend. Sometimes Twitter listened and sometimes it didn’t.”