The House Republicans’ hearing on Twitter’s “role in suppressing the Biden laptop story” took some unexpected turns Wednesday, with one witness testifying that the White House had requested the platform remove a Chrissy Teigen tweet insulting then-President Donald Trump.
During a House Oversight Committee hearing on Hunter Biden, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., questioned Anika Collier Navaroli, a former employee of Twitter’s content moderation team, about a September 2019 exchange between Trump and Teigen. The president had tweeted about “boring” musician John Legend and his “filthy-mouthed” wife.
Teigen responded with a crude tweet insulting Trump, which included a word he famously used in the “Access Hollywood” tape.
“Almost immediately after, the White House contacted Twitter and demanded that the tweet be removed. “Is that correct?” Connolly enquired.
“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 said. The tweet, however, was not removed.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, used the hearing to refute Republican claims that Twitter is biassed against conservatives. She questioned Navaroli about the company’s response to a 2019 Trump tweet in which he urged Ocasio-Cortez and three other Democratic congresswomen of colour to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Navaroli said her team reviewed the tweet and determined it violated Twitter’s anti-abuse policies, which explicitly prohibited the phrase “go back to where you came from.”
Navaroli stated that her assessment was overruled, and Ocasio-Cortez inquired whether the policy was changed “a day or two later.”
“Yes, that trope, go back to where you came from, was removed from the content moderation guidance as an example,” Navaroli said.
“So Twitter changed their own policy after the president violated it in order to essentially accommodate his tweet?” Ocasio-Cortez enquired. “Yes,” Navaroli confirmed.
“So much for Twitter bias against the right wing,” the congresswoman said.
Democrats were not the only ones who deviated from the hearing’s topic. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., used her time to chastise the former executives in attendance for banning her personal account in January of last year for spreading Covid misinformation.
“Consider your speech banned because you banned mine,” Greene told the audience. “You violated my First Amendment rights,” she said, and “abused the power of a large corporation.”
“I’m glad you lost your jobs,” Greene told the former executives. “Thank God Elon Musk bought Twitter,” she added, referring to the billionaire who has since restored her account.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., took a similar stance, blaming former Twitter executives for limiting her account’s reach for 90 days in 2021. She claimed the action was taken in response to a tweet that was a “frickin’ joke about Hillary Clinton” and referred to the 2020 election as rigged.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Boebert yelled at the former executives.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, used her time at the hearing to complain about Twitter barring some doctors for expressing opposing views from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Covid and vaccines.
“I find it extremely concerning that Twitter’s unfettered censorship has spread into medical fields,” Mace said.
“I, like many Americans, have long-term effects from Covid,” Mace said. “Not only was I long-hauler, but I have effects from the vaccine. It wasn’t the first shot, but it was the second shot that caused me to develop asthma, which hasn’t gone away since. I have tremors in my left hand and occasional heart pain that no doctor can explain.”
She then questioned how Twitter knew how to censor certain medical professionals, and she asked former Twitter general counsel Vijaya Gadde, “You’re not a doctor, right?”
“No, I am not,” Gadde replied.
The hearing was supposed to be about Biden’s reporting.
The witnesses were called before the committee to answer questions about the platform’s handling of New York Post reporting in 2020 about the alleged contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, in which the social media company controversially blocked users from tweeting and direct messaging about it.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chair of the committee, claimed in excerpts of prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing that “Big Tech autocrats wield their unchecked power to suppress the speech of Americans to promote their preferred political opinions.”
Comer claimed that Twitter’s handling of the stories revealed a “coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news, and the intelligence community to suppress and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop” and its contents.
Twitter’s former deputy general counsel, James Baker, stated, “I was not aware of and certainly did not engage in any conspiracy” with government or campaign officials to suppress the story.
“Moreover, I’m aware of no illegal collusion with or direction from any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation,” Baker added.
The decision by Twitter executives to limit the spread of the Post articles came just weeks before the November 2020 presidential election. Twitter reversed course 24 hours later, allowing users to share links to the articles, but the main Post account was suspended for two weeks for refusing to delete its initial tweets, according to Gadde.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, said the company had concerns because the story “at first glance bore a lot of similarities to the 2016 Russian hack and leak operation targeting the DNC. We needed to make a decision. And in that moment, with limited information, we made a mistake.”
He went on to say that these “decisions aren’t straightforward,” and that the company “wanted to avoid making the same mistake as in 2016.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, blasted the hearing as a “trivial pursuit” over a news article that had “no discernible effect on anything” and was given significant exposure on other social media platforms and in right-wing media during the brief time it was blocked on Twitter.
“Silly does not even begin to describe this obsession,” Raskin said.
The White House dismissed the committee hearing as a “bizarre political stunt” a day after the president delivered his second State of the Union address.
“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to call into question and re-litigate the outcome of the 2020 election,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement.
“This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on. “As the president has stated and made his focus, the American people expect their leaders to work together in a bipartisan manner on the issues that most affect their lives and families, not to attack his family with long-debunked conspiracy theories,” he continued.
The House Oversight Committee hearing comes as the president’s and his son’s allies consider establishing a legal defence fund to assist Hunter Biden and others as they respond to Republican-led congressional investigations, as NBC News reported last month.
Republicans accuse Hunter Biden of profiting from his father’s political career and connections, following their criticism of a series of the younger Biden’s financial dealings in Ukraine and China.
Hunter Biden beefed up his legal team in December, amid an ongoing federal investigation and Republican plans to make him a key focus of investigations as soon as they take control of the House in January.
In an interview on Wednesday, President Joe Biden was largely dismissive of Republican efforts to investigate his family.
“The public isn’t going to pay attention to that,” Biden told PBS NewsHour. “They want these guys to do something. If all they can do is make up stories about my family, they’re not going to get very far.”
Upon his appointment as the new Oversight Committee chairman, Comer accused the president of “influence peddling” and immediately launched an investigation into Hunter Biden and other Biden family members and associates.