Late Friday night, journalist Matt Taibbi released “The Twitter Files,” a batch of emails sent by Twitter executives discussing the company’s decision to stop an October 2020 New York Post story in its online tracks.
What is in the Twitter Files? Are they truly “bombshell” documents, as the New York Post and Fox News call them? Or are they “not really the smoking gun,” as a Post columnist admitted? Read on.
How did this all get started?
In October 2020, three weeks before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, The New York Post published an exclusive, possibly explosive story: Biden’s Secret Emails: Ukrainian exec thanked Hunter Biden for ‘opportunity to meet’ veep dad. The story purported to report the contents of a laptop brought to the tabloid by the owner of a Delaware computer repair shop, who said it had belonged to, and been abandoned by, President Biden’s second son, Hunter Biden. Emails and files found on the laptop revealed how Hunter had peddled influence with Ukranian businessmen, the Post claimed –and also included “a raunchy, 12-minute video” showing Hunter smoking crack and having sex.
After the Post story was published, Twitter barred anyone from tweeting a link to it or sending it via direct message, labeling it “hacked material.” The company also suspended the Post’s account for multiple days, preventing it from tweeting further.
Why? Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, said in an interview this week that Twitter could not verify the story, implying he and others at the company did not trust the Post.
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It has rarely, if ever, been part of Twitter’s stated purpose to verify news stories. This exception appeared to be an intentional interference in the political process. This story in particular was especially hard to verify because the people who claimed to have found the laptop refused to give it to outlets other than the Post, so other newspapers couldn’t confirm the Post’s conclusion. (Much of the story, including parts about Hunter’s controversial business dealings in Ukraine and China, would be confirmed nearly two years later.)
“Everything about it looked like a hack and leak,” Roth said.
So what are the “Twitter Files?”
Twitter’s decision to bury the story became a scandal on the political right, and new Twitter CEO Elon Musk had promised an accounting of Twitter’s controversial decision. Enter: The Twitter Files, named in the fashion of a Facebook whistleblower’s leaked documents.
Musk first teased the release late in the day on Friday afternoon, promising exclusive details of “what really happened” with Hunter Biden. “This will be awesome,” he promised, punctuating the tweet with a popcorn emoji.
Three hours later, journalist Matt Taibbi kicked off a long thread of more than three dozen tweets, based on internal Twitter documents, that revealed what he described as “a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer.”
To Musk, this release clears a dark cloud hanging over Twitter as he works to mold Twitter in his image, cleansing and redirecting both its public perception and internal culture. It is possible that the CEO himself handed the documents to Taibbi, but we do not know for sure. Musk did hype the document dump ahead of and during its publication, but Taibbi cited only “internal sources.”
In the thread, Taibbi shares screenshots from emails showing Twitter execs discussing the Post story and making efforts to block its distribution on the social network. The emails, Taibbi says, show the “extraordinary steps” Twitter took “ to suppress the story.”
The most damning quote within the Files comes from an executive who discussed the decision as it unfolded, Twitter communications chief Brandon Borrman. He asked in an email, “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?” The story was so outlandish as to seem impossible. It seemed it could not have arisen from anything but a hack… or could it? And could Twitter, which ex-CEO Dick Costolo called “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” defend censoring a news story, whatever its provenance?
Much of the reaction to the Twitter Files–especially from the company’s critics on the right–says the bombshell is proof that Twitter acted at the behest of Democrats. Taibbi writes, “Both parties had access to these tools. For instance, in 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and Biden campaign were received and honored.” He goes on to say that the system of reporting tweets for deletion was unbalanced because of the slant towards Democrats of Twitter employees’ political donations. That could be true. It is possible that more Democrats were more connected to Twitter staff because of these donations, but it is also possible they were not. There are no emails in Taibbi’s cache demonstrating these alleged illicit relations or, more importantly, any actions Twitter employees took as a result of such undue influence.
Many observers, even among the crowd of Musk’s usual supporters, thought the drop was a flop. A New York Post columnist, Miranda Devine, told Tucker Carlson that the documents were “not really the smoking gun we’d hoped for.” Conservative pundit Sebastian Gorka wrote on Truth Social, according to The Daily Beast, “So far, I’m deeply underwhelmed. We know the Dems in DC collude with the Dems in Palo Alto. Big Whop.” Joe Simonson, a reporter for the conservative news outlet The Washington Free Beacon, wrote that the “Twitter files [are] underwhelming so far. Just revealing what we already knew: Twitter was staffed by democrats who did the bidding of Democrats.” (Do they even do that?)
Why do “The Twitter Files” matter, if they do at all?
There is genuine news value to a story along the lines of “These Are the Emails That Led to Twitter Suppressing the Hunter Biden Laptop Story.” It is rare for a company as large and valuable as Twitter to account so thoroughly for wrongdoing, perceived or actual. The emails resemble the documents received in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. They detail internal drama at a company whose power is on the order of a government agency, maybe greater. BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos tweeted, “Any news outlet would’ve loved to have this scoop! It’s just not a ‘scandal’ as teased.”
Twitter’s new owner considers it “the de facto public town square,” suggesting he believes in a level of public accountability. Again, not unlike a government agency. Though it is thrilling to receive once-hidden documents in response to a FOIA, it is also possible that those documents are boring, that they tell you what you already know. Such is the case with the Twitter files. We learned how Twitter came to its decision to block the Post’s story, but we did not learn a shocking new reason why. We knew Twitter suppressed the story before the release of these documents, and, for the most part, we knew who was involved.
Those people have since suffered professional punishment and left Twitter. Vijaya Gadde, the former chief legal officer who played a “key role” in the decision, according to Taibbi, was fired by Musk. Roth quit over Musk’s “dictatorial edict.” Borrman left before Musk arrived. Jack Dorsey, CEO at the time, is gone. When deciding to digitally quarantine the Post’s story, did those people act out of fealty to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party? Out of opposition to the Republican Party and hatred for Donald Trump? Out of distaste for the New York Post? Judging by the documents we have, we can’t say they did. Was it drastic interference in the political process and the press? It was. We already knew that.
Taibbi interviewed several anonymous ex-Twitter employees on the decision, all of whom expressed shock and outrage at the company’s actions: “Everyone knew this was f–ked,” he quotes one source. But since Taibbi doesn’t quote that expletive from the leaked emails, we can reason they included few or no quotes as sensational for his purpose. Ergo, we can deduce that those executives said little to support claims of nefarious purposes.
Outlets far more vested in the Hunter Biden story than Gizmodo also seem vexed by the release, and delivered the news below muted headlines. If the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop belongs to any one outlet, it belongs to the New York Post, which has never shied away from a blaring headline in its 221-year life. Yet the Post’s two Friday-night notifications about Musk’s actions were restrained. The first was a simple curtain-raiser about Musk’s promise: “Elon Musk to drop Twitter files on NY Post-Hunter Biden laptop censorship today.” The other was a “Read these documents”-style headline: “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell: Elon Musk’s Twitter drops Post censorship details.” Fox News’ push alert, delivered via Apple News, read “Elon Musk drops bombshell docs on Twitter censorship.”
Bombshell, bombshell, bombshell… what, exactly, is the bombshell? I’ve yet to hear it explode. Maybe we’ve heard too much about this story, and we’re missing the forest for the trees. Or maybe these documents detail a decision where the outcome was already well-documented.
On its website, the Post argues why you should care. Twitter is censoring things willy-nilly and concocting reasons to do as it goes along, its headline implies: “Hunter Biden laptop bombshell: Twitter invented reason to censor Post’s reporting.”
And yet, it is not shocking that Twitter used an ad hoc decision to moderate a piece of content from one of America’s most infamous tabloids. The social network had done that exact thing for years as it struggled with toxic users—violent white nationalists, virulent transphobes, harassers and bullies of all political stripes, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum et ad nauseam. The company never had a handle on content moderation, and it certainly doesn’t now, no matter how much Musk crows. Back in 2016, a lengthy investigative story published by Buzzfeed showed how Twitter had been struggling with abusive posters since its 2006 founding. Jack Dorsey and all his executives made things up as they went along, just like Musk.
Lastly, did the United States government run interference on a social media company for the former vice president? That would be shocking indeed, a bonafide bombshell. Musk himself said as much Friday: “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.” That is true! And Taibbi once believed that is what happened. In August 2022, he tweeted: “The laptop is by the far the secondary issue. The real problem is the FBI stepping in to cut distribution of true story [sic],” as pointed out by Columbia professor and New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufecki. But on Friday night, Taibbi rescinded the assertion: “There’s no evidence—that I’ve seen—of any government involvement in the laptop story.”
What’s the bottom line?
After all this time and hand-wringing—after dozens of New York Post stories, after hundreds of hours of Fox News airtime, after thousands of tweets—I’m still not clear what the actual stakes are in the Hunter Biden scandal. In short: The profligate son of then-senator Joe Biden left his laptop with a repairman of dubious ethics? And the FBI seized it? But the repairman had made a copy, which he gave to a lawyer for Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s right-hand lawyer? And Steve Bannon gave it to the Post? And on that laptop were videos of Hunter Biden naked, smoking crack, cavorting with prostitutes, as well as emails about introducing his father to a Ukrainian businessman who worked for a oil company Hunter served on the board of for $50,000 a month? And then Joe Biden urged officials in Ukraine to axe a prosecutor investigating that company? And they did? The throughline of the story seems to be alleged corrupt business dealings on the part of the Biden family, yes?
That throughline is of no matter, anyway; the discussion has moved far beyond it now. The censorship of the story, not the story itself, is the story now. In the poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich wrote of “the thing I came for/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” The wreck of Hunter Biden’s laptop is over and done with, no matter how far into the depths we may go. It is the story of the wreck that matters now.
My head is spinning. BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller wrote of Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearing, “I know who I believe, and you probably do, too. But to believe one is to disbelieve the other, which leaves us implicated in the decision; there’s no getting out of this situation.” I find myself in the same conundrum. Hunter Biden’s laptop is the political scandal of the decade; Hunter Biden’s laptop is an expedient political fabrication. You believe in one or the other. I know which I believe.
That belief may change. The drama of The Twitter Files is not over. Taibbi ended his thread with “There is much more to come.” My head is spinning.