Elon Musk vicariously publishes internal emails from Twitter’s Hunter Biden laptop drama
Elon Musk reminded Twitter’s followers that he now controls all aspects of Twitter, including the conversations between employees.
Earlier this week, Musk teased the release of what he called “The Twitter Files,” declaring that the public “deserves to know what really happened” behind the scenes during Twitter’s decision to stifle a story about Hunter Biden back in 2020.
On Friday night, Musk delivered. Twitter’s new owner shared a thread by author and Substack contributor Matt Taibbi. He is now believed to have access to the entire trove of documents. He chose to share each tweet one at a time in narrative form.
Taibbi stated on his Substack, that he had “to agree to certain conditions” to land the story. However, he declined to give details. (We suspect that tweeting the documents to increase engagement on the platform was on the list. )
Taibbi didn’t take enough care to release a selection of documents one at a time in his tweet. One screenshot, now deleted was published Jack Dorsey’s private email address. Another shared an unredacted email from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), which expressed concern about Twitter’s actions at the time. Both incidents appear to run afoul of Twitter’s anti-doxing policy.
These documents are mostly internal Twitter messages and show the chaotic situation that caused Twitter to censor a New York Post article about Hunter Biden two year ago. In October 2020, The New York Post published a story that cited materials purportedly obtained from a laptop that the younger Biden left at a repair shop. With a presidential election around the corner and 2016’s hacked DNC emails and other Russian election meddling fresh in mind, Twitter decided to limit the story’s reach.
In conversation with members of Twitter’s comms and policy teams, Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth cited the company’s rules about hacked materials and noted the “severe risks and lessons of 2016” that influenced the decision making.
One member of Twitter’s legal department wrote that it was reasonable for Twitter to assume the documents were stolen. He also stated that more information is needed.
In his Twitter thread, Taibbi characterized the situation to make such a consequential enforcement decision without consulting the company’s CEO as unusual. In reality, Jack Dorsey, the former CEO, was known for being hands-off at company. He worked remotely from a private island off the South Pacific, and delegated even the most important decisions , to his policy team.
After Twitter acted, the outside response was quick — and apparently included one Democrat. “… In this heat of a Presidential Campaign, restricting the dissemination of newspaper articles (even though NY Post is far from right) seems to invite more backlash that it will do good,” Khanna wrote a member of Twitter’s policy team.
Facebook also took similar steps at the time. Twitter was the only one to take the unprecedented decision to block links from the story. This led to a storm of criticism and accusations that Twitter was putting a thumb to the scales for Democrats. The incident was described by the company’s former CEO and policy executives as a mistake based on an over-abundance caution. This story is now valid in light of the newly published emails.
Musk hyped the release of the emails as a smoking gun, but they mostly tell us what we already knew: that Twitter, fearful of a repeat of 2016, took an unusual moderation step when it probably should have provided context and let the story circulate. Musk has apparently stewed over the issue since at least April when he called the decision to suspend the Post’s account “incredibly inappropriate.”
Files from the laptop would later be verified by other news outlets, but in the story’s early days no one was able to corroborate that the documents were real and not manipulated, including social platforms. The Washington Post’s own story confirming the emails stated that “most of the data obtained from The Post lacks cryptographic tools that would allow experts to make a reliable determination about authenticity, especially in cases where the original computer or its hard drive are unavailable for forensic examination.” The decision inspired Twitter to change its rules around sharing hacked materials.
Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth shared more insight about the decision in an interview earlier this week, noting that the story set off “alarm bells” signaling that it might be a hack and leak campaign by Russian group APT28, also known as Fancy Bear. Roth stated that it didn’t reach a point where I felt comfortable removing the content from Twitter.
Dorsey apologised in a tangled manner at the time. Dorsey tweeted, “Straight blocking URLs was wrong, so we updated our policy enforcement to fix.” He stated that “Our goal is not to try to add context”, and that the company could now do this by labeling hacked materials.
Musk has been preoccupied with a handful of specific content moderation decisions since before deciding to buy the company. His frustration that Twitter suspended the conservative satire site The Babylon Bee over a transphobic tweet appears to be the reason he even decided to buy Twitter to begin with.
Two years later, the Hunter Biden social-media controversy is still a source of contention for conservatives, right-wing media, and Twitter’s new owners. Musk is now in control of the platform, so the past policy controversies are almost irrelevant. However, Biden still seems to have an axe to grind against the Twitter of old — and we’re witnessing that unfold in real time.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.