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Ex-Twitter officials admit mistake squelching Hunter Biden story

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  • FILE - This Oct. 26, 2016 file photo shows a Twitter sign outside of the company's headquarters in San Francisco. A new study published Thursday, March 8, 2018, in the journal Science shows that false information on the social media network travels six times faster than the truth and reaches far more people. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu), File

WASHINGTON >> Former Twitter Inc. officials acknowledged that blocking the spread of a news story about Hunter Biden’s laptop was a mistake, but they told lawmakers the action was not politically motivated or directed by FBI or U.S. intelligence officials.

The comments came today at a hearing House Republicans scheduled to probe the social media company’s alleged cooperation with the FBI to squelch the story of the now-infamous laptop, the opening salvo in their investigation into the finances of President Joe Biden’s family.

At the hearing, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee focused on the platform’s decision to limit distribution of the unflattering piece by the New York Post that Republicans say show the younger Biden traded on his family name. It was published just weeks before the 2020 election that then-President Donald Trump lost to Biden.

“I think you guys wanted to take it down,” House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, who also sits on the Oversight committee, said. “I think you got played by the FBI.”

James Baker, a former lawyer for Twitter who also previously worked for the FBI, said he did not act “as an agent or an operator of the government” while working for the social media company. Baker acknowledged that many people may disagree with how Twitter handled the Hunter Biden story, but he said the company’s actions were “fully consistent with the First Amendment.”

“I am aware of no unlawful collusion with, or direction from, any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation,” Baker told the panel.

Committee chair James Comer and other Republicans assert without evidence that the FBI advised senior Twitter executives to question the validity of any Hunter Biden story. Comer also alleged that the federal government used a private company “to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: limit the free exercise of speech.”

“We owe it to the American people to provide answers about this collusion to censor information about Joe Biden’s involvement in his family’s business schemes,” Comer said.

The tabloid had claimed that information from Hunter Biden’s laptop showed he introduced a top executive from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, to his father while he was vice president and overseeing the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. Hunter Biden also served on Burisma’s board.

Republicans during the hearing continued to assert Twitter officials had regular meetings or contact with the FBI, but fell short of substantiating that U.S. intelligence officials had played a role in suppressing the New York Post story. The witnesses did acknowledge regular meetings with law enforcement in the months ahead of the 2020 election focused on worries about foreign interference and misuse of social media.

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the hearing “an abuse of public resources, an abuse of public time.”

Vijaya Gadde, a former top lawyer at Twitter, testified that when the New York Post first tweeted articles about Hunter Biden’s laptop, some of images or information “looked like they may have been obtained through hacking.”

Gadde said the company applied its 2018 policy to prevent Twitter from being a “dumping ground for hacked materials” and blocked links to articles embedding the source materials.

Twitter, she said, reversed course within 24 hours and should have acted sooner. But “at no point did Twitter otherwise prevent tweeting, reporting, discussing or describing the contents of Mr. Biden’s laptop,” she said.

The former officials’ testimony did not sit well with Republicans. “You exercised an amazing amount of clout and power over the American electorate,” Republican Andy Biggs said, even if just for a short period.

Some of the GOP questions were far ranging and combative — including complaints from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that her own personal Twitter account had been shut down, after warnings, over her sharing of theories about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Democrats have criticized the GOP-led investigations, saying they are purely political and will take time away from more pressing issues, such as the debt ceiling and inflation.

“House Republicans are making it their top priority to stage a bizarre political stunt” instead of working with Biden on issues he laid out in the State of the Union address, White House spokesman Ian Sams said in a statement.

“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and re-litigate the outcome of the 2020 election. This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on,” Sams said.

The committee’s first Biden-centric hearing attracted a crowd, with visitor seats full and staff standing along the side walls of the room. Most committee members were in attendance and appeared to be listening intently to the opening statements from the witnesses.

Behind Comer on the dais was a poster of the front page of the New York Post the day it ran the Hunter Biden story, featuring “Biden Secret E-mail” as the headline and a picture of Biden and his son.

Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter, said the company and other tech companies had been working to deal with Tweets of foreign threats to elections and other issues.

“I believe Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid the mistakes of 2016,” Yoel said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, called the hearing “tragic” in his own opening remarks, pointing to the proliferation of right-wing messaging on social media that ultimately led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“If our colleagues wanted to examine a serious problem involving American democracy and social media, it is staring us in the face right now,” Raskin said. “Twitter and other social media companies acted as central organizing and staging grounds for the Jan. 6 violent insurrection against Congress and the vice president.”

The hearing marks the latest attempt to delve into actions by Twitter, now owned by billionaire Elon Musk. In December, Musk had heralded the release of the so-called Twitter Files, internal emails about the New York Post article that were obtained and then tweeted by writer Matt Taibbi, but they failed to produce definitive conclusions on the matter.

Republicans on the committee referenced those emails throughout the hearing, but witnesses, who said they no longer had access to their Twitter email accounts, did not provide any information indicating they were under orders from the FBI.

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