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Nude photos, arrest threats and Elon Musk: GOP airs grievances at ‘bizarre’ Twitter hearing

Republicans are using their new House majority to air two-year-old grievances about a New York Post story that was temporarily restricted from distribution on Twitter in October 2020

Andrew Feinberg
Wednesday 08 February 2023 20:18 GMT
Marjorie Taylor Green heckles Biden as president challenges GOP

A madcap House Oversight Committee hearing about a two-year-old New York Post story Republicans hoped would deal a fatal blow to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign has been condemned as a “bizarre political stunt” by the White House.

The Wednesday morning hearing, which Oversight chairman James Comer said would be the first in a series examining issues related to Mr Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, focused on Twitter executives’ temporary move to block distribution of an October 2020 Post story purporting to reveal email messages from Hunter Biden to an executive at the Ukrainian gas company he represented as an attorney and later served as a board member.

In his opening statement, Mr Comer called the session a “first step in examining the coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process” and claimed social media companies are “under the control of people who are hostile to the fundamental American principles of free speech and expression protected in the U.S. Constitution”.

He also accused the executives who ran the company before Elon Musk took it private last year of having “aggressively suppressed conservative elected officials, journalists, and activists” and cited the decision to temporarily restrict distribution of the Post piece as evidence of 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”.

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, dismissed the committee’s latest session as “an authentically trivial pursuit, all based on the obsessive victimology of right-wing politics”.

A spokesperson for the White House Counsel’s Office, Ian Sams, echoed Mr Raskin’s comments and contrasted the content of the Wednesday hearing to the State of the Union address delivered by the president Tuesday evening and suggested the hearing represented “the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election”.

“The morning after President Biden delivered a State of the Union Address emphasizing the significant progress we’ve made as a nation to generate historic job and economic growth and the work still to be done to address Americans’ top priorities like tackling inflation, raising wages, and investing in manufacturing and infrastructure jobs, House Republicans are making it their top priority to stage a bizarre political stunt,” he said. “As the President has said and made his focus, the American people expect their leaders to work together in a bipartisan way on the issues that most impact their lives and their families, not attack his family with long-debunked conspiracy theories”.

It didn’t take long for the Republican side of the committee to bear out Mr Sams’ predictions.

Mr Comer and his colleagues used their five-minute allotments to fling bizarre accusations and berate the witnesses, a panel of four former Twitter executives that included the company’s former deputy general counsel, James Baker; former chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde; and Annika Collier Navaroli, an ex-content moderation employee who previously testified to the House January 6 Select Committee on how Twitter executives ignored signs of brewing violence in the weeks leading to the Capitol attack.

The witness panel also featured Yoel Roth, the man who formerly headed the social media platform’s trust and safety efforts but left the company after a falling-out with Mr Musk, who in turn promoted QAnon-like conspiracy theories positing that Mr Yoel supports paedophelia by mischaracterising his University of Pennsylvania doctoral thesis. He told committee members that the death threats and vitriol ginned up by Mr Musk and his followers became so disruptive and so threatening to his safety that he has been forced to sell his home.

At one point, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene — who herself had been suspended for the platform for repeatedly tweeting out misinformation about Covid-19 — laid into Mr Roth and harangued him about his dissertation using the same false claims promoted by Mr Musk and other right-wing influencers, while giving him no opportunity to respond or correct the record.

The Georgia congresswoman proudly informed the witnesses that she would “censor” them by not letting them speak, and accused them of violating US law by suspending her Twitter account (such an action was not in any way contrary to any American law).

“You were censoring and wrongfully violating our First Amendment free speech rights. Guess what? None of you hold security clearances. None of you are elected and none of you represent 750,000 people like I do,” she said, nearly screaming into her microphone at the witnesses before gloating about their departures from their former employer.

“You abused the power of a large corporation, big tec, to censor Americans — and you want to know something? Guess what — I'm so glad that you're censored down. I'm so glad you've lost your jobs,” she said.

Mr Roth also found himself on the receiving end of vitriolic queries from Florida Representative Byron Donalds, who expressed outrage that Mr Roth and his former colleagues had entertained requests from Biden campaign representatives who asked for Twitter to remove nonconsentually-posted nude photographs of Hunter Biden.

“The email is very clear: ‘More to review from Biden team.’ The response three hours later: ‘Handled these,'” said Mr Donalds, whose aides placed behind him a giant posterboard emblazoned with the URLs of images depicting the president’s son’s genitals.

He then asked: “What does ‘handled these’ mean?”

When Mr Roth said the tweets had been “removed by the company under our terms of service” because they’d “contained nonconsensual nude photos of Hunter Biden,” Mr Donalds interrupted him to press him on how he’d known the tweets contained links to what was essentially revenge porn.

Mr Roth replied that there’d been “extensive public reporting” about the tweets in question.

In another ominous moment, a Louisiana Republican, Representative Clay Higgins, literally threatened the witnesses with arrest for allegedly interfering in the 2020 election.

“You ladies and gentlemen interfered with the United States of America’s 2020 presidential election, knowingly and willingly,” he said. “The bad news is it’s gonna get worse because this is the investigation part — later comes the arrest part”.

The premise of the bizarre hearing was built around a byzantine theory articulated by many prominent Republican officeholders and conservative activists, which holds that Twitter’s efforts to combat misinformation and work with law enforcement amounts to government-directed censorship. It also posits that the so-called censorship was part of a coordinated plot by liberals to swing the 2020 election by preventing Americans from seeing an unflattering story about Mr Biden and his son.

But one Democrat on the panel, Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, turned the tables on Mr Comer and his compatriots when he pointed out that it was Mr Trump’s White House that intervened with the social media giant to urge censorship of a private citizen.

“My, my, my,” said Mr Connolly, who pointed out it was the former president who personally threatened to “strongly regulate” the company if it didn’t stop applying its’ terms of service to conservative activists and officeholders.

He also queried the former executives about Mr Trump’s reaction to being called out in a 2018 tweet by influencer Chrissy Teigan.

Ms Navaroli told him it was the Trump White House — not any Democrat — who contacted the company to request that they take down a reply to one of Mr Trump’s tweets by Ms Teigan, who referred to the then-president in vulgar terms.

She said a colleague told her the White House’s request was based on the fact that Trump official said the tweet in question was “derogatory towards the president”.

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