Former top Twitter exec: We've used 'visibility filtering' to suppress certain political content

Chairman Comer argued that Twitter worked with the FBI to 'monitor the protected speech of Americans' with the Hunter Biden laptop story as an example but a former Twitter exec says he doesn't recall talking to the FBI about it

Published: February 7, 2023 10:03pm

Updated: February 8, 2023 4:29pm

Former Twitter executives who worked for the company when the Hunter Biden laptop story was censored on the platform were in the hot seat on Wednesday at a marathon House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on "Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias."

The committee's chairman, James Comer, alleged that Big Tech giants such as Twitter are "under the control of people who are hostile to the fundamental American principles of free speech" and have colluded with federal agencies to censor stories embarrassing to President Joe Biden and his family. 

"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 at a committee hearing on censorship in America with former executives from Twitter.

Comer said his investigators had substantiated that there was "coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process" that began even before Twitter famously censored New York Post stories in October 2020 about the contents of Hunter Biden's now infamous laptop.

"In the months leading up to the laptop story, the FBI advised senior Twitter executives to question the validity of any Hunter Biden story," he said. "We also know that one of the witnesses before us today participated in an Aspen Institute exercise in September 2020 on a potential 'hack and dump' operation relating to Hunter Biden. Other Big Tech companies and reporters attended as well.

"This exercise prepared them for their future collusion to suppress and delegitimize information contained in Hunter Biden's laptop about the Biden family's business schemes." 

Censorship of such stories in the midst of a presidential election might in earlier generations have been unthinkable but Comer said it was made possible by troubling biases in the leadership of Big Tech companies.

"Many social media platforms 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 said. "We've witnessed Big Tech autocrats wield their unchecked power to suppress the speech of Americans to promote their preferred political opinions. Twitter was once one of these platforms — until Elon Musk purchased the company a few months ago ... 

"In the past, Twitter's employees made censorship decisions on the fly, often not following the company's own publicly stated policies. It worked hand-in-hand with the FBI to monitor the protected speech of Americans — receiving millions of dollars to do so."

James Baker, former deputy general counsel at Twitter, argued that Twitter was not working as a state actor.

"I think the best reading of the law is that as a private entity, the First Amendment protects Twitter and its content moderation decisions," he said.

Baker said he wasn't aware of unlawful collusion.

"Moreover, I'm 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," he said.

Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan asked Baker if he ever talked to the FBI about the Hunter Biden laptop.

"I don't recall speaking to the FBI at all about the Hunter Biden matter, laptop," Baker said.

Vijaya Gadde, former chief legal officer at Twitter, said the company had received inquiries from federal agencies to remove certain content from the platform. She didn't specify if the laptop story was one of them.

She acknowledged that Twitter uses labels such as "do not amplify" to ensure the platform does not recommend certain tweets to users for engagement. She elaborated on ways that Twitter filtered content during her time with the company, describing it as visibility filtering.

"There was an ability of preventing something from appearing in one of the tabs of search results," she said. 

Tennessee GOP Rep. Tim Burchett wrote on Twitter after his questioning that the labels like "do not amplify" equated to censorship. 

Jordan was able to confirm with Yoel Roth, former head of trust and safety at Twitter, that accounts that have been tagged for content filtering are not informed about it.

Comer said it was troubling that Twitter was "a private company the federal government used to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: limit the free exercise of speech."

The committee's ranking member, Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said Twitter had the right as a private company to censor stories like the Hunter Biden laptop New York Post report.

Roth said that he personally had advocated against taking the Hunter Biden laptop story off of Twitter.

"Twitter made a mistake," he said. "I’ll be the first to admit that we didn’t always get it right. Individual content moderation decisions will always be contentious, and reasonable minds can differ about whether a specific choice was right or wrong."

Democrats on the panel such as New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that the hearing was a distraction.

"We could be talking about the cost of prescription drugs, abortion rights, civil rights, voting rights, but instead we're talking about Hunter Biden's half fake laptop story. I mean, this is an embarrassment, but I’ll go into it," she said at the hearing.

Wednesday's hearing was only part one of the committee's investigation into political bias at social media platforms. 

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