Politico

The strange backstory of Twitter, Hunter Biden and Elon Musk’s latest stunt

It was last week that Elon Musk dangled the arrival of a promised multiday blitz of internal company documents, a stunt he pumped up to his 120 million followers — starting with the backstory on the company’s late-2020 decision to block users from sharing coverage of Hunter Biden’s leaked laptop files.

The first episode came on Friday night, in a 40-tweet thread from journalist Matt Taibbi, who had been provided some of the company’s internal files and emails.

Five days later, for all Musk’s promotion and drum-rolling, there have been no further releases — just a freewheeling online chat Saturday night that featured a cast of colorful personalities talking about free speech.

The delay offers a window into some of the challenges Musk is facing as he attempts a radical overhaul of the platform he just bought — changing not just the company’s staffing and strategy, but its politics, shifting a largely progressive-leaning platform to one committed to a more libertarian vision of free speech.

Taibbi said Tuesday that complications involving a Twitter lawyer had been holding up the rest of the documents, suggesting the lawyer was working at odds with Musk’s executives. Musk had tweeted 20 minutes earlier that the lawyer had been “exited” from the company.

In an earlier text exchange with POLITICO, Taibbi had pointed to internal conflict — and Twitter’s own corporate culture — as the source of the delay. “The company is used to operating in open defiance of its CEO,” Taibbi said. “Now, most of those higher-ranking people are gone, but this is still a logistical battle more than anything. So if you see delays and other head-scratching things, please keep that in mind.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.

According to Musk, the company’s internal files have been opened to both Taibbi and to Bari Weiss, a former New York Times and Wall Street Journal opinion writer. Both writers are outspoken critics of perceived liberal groupthink in mainstream media — a cause to which Musk is increasingly devoting his new platform.

Taibbi, whose tweet thread Friday night is the only release of internal documents so far, said that Weiss would be posting the next installment. Weiss did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In offering fresh details on the Hunter Biden laptop story, Musk is reviving a favorite hobbyhorse of conservative media critics. In the runup to the 2020 election, Twitter decided to block any links to the New York Post’s coverage of the contents of Hunter Biden’s stolen laptop. Users couldn’t post the story or even link to it in private messages, and the Post itself got its account suspended for more than two weeks for refusing to delete a tweet about the story.

Twitter reversed the suspension and the restrictions, but the episode was widely seen by conservative and libertarian critics as a Biden-friendly move by a social media platform whose leaders increasingly leaned progressive. Twitter’s CEO at the time, Jack Dorsey, later said he regretted the decision.

The release is the latest political frenzy Musk has waded into since he bought Twitter for $44 billion in late October. After laying off much of its staff and attempting to reassure advertisers that Twitter would take a cautious approach to restoring banned accounts, Musk then reinstated former President Donald Trump’s account based on the outcome of an informal online poll, engaged in a brief spat with Apple over rumors it might remove Twitter from its app store, and banned rapper Ye, better known as Kanye West — whom Musk had seemed to embrace just a few weeks earlier — after he tweeted an image of a swastika.

On Tuesday night, Taibbi tweeted that he and Weiss had received the company’s internal files from a lawyer close to Musk’s team.

The correspondence he reviewed ahead of the Friday release, Taibbi said, was a subset of internal Twitter records that had been preserved for litigation. At least some of those records were set aside as part of Twitter’s response to a Federal Election Commission complaint filed against Twitter by the Tea Party Patriots Foundation, he said.

In the 2020 complaint, which has since been dismissed, the Tea Party Patriots Foundation alleged that Twitter’s suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s computer files amounted to an in-kind contribution to Joe Biden’s campaign.

In addition to the internal correspondence released by Taibbi, Twitter had given one earlier window into how it handled the laptop story: In December 2020, it filed a public response to the FEC complaint.

In a sworn declaration filed with the response, former Twitter executive Yoel Roth said he had participated in regular meetings with representatives of the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and “industry peers,” to discuss disinformation and hacking threats in the runup to the presidential vote. At those meetings, Roth said in the declaration, he was told to expect a hack-and-leak operation in October and picked up rumors that Hunter Biden would be a target of such an operation.

Roth, who left Twitter following Musk’s takeover, has said it was a “mistake” to censor the New York Post’s story. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s former communications chief, who was named alongside Dorsey as a defendant in the FEC complaint, and whose communications were part of Friday’s disclosures, condemned the release of internal Twitter communications.

“It’s quite disappointing how little concern there is for the harm this can do to the people who weren’t involved,” he told POLITICO.

Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots Foundation, said in an interview that she had instructed her lawyer to review the released files to determine if they provided an avenue for appealing the dismissal of her FEC complaint.

Friday’s release showed Twitter executives grappling with how to handle the New York Post’s story. It included no evidence that government officials asked the platform to censor it.

Trump reacted to the release by suggesting it provided a basis for overturning the results of the 2020 election, drawing rebukes from both Musk and the Biden White House.

Taibbi said he is continuing to review the internal files and has only seen a portion of them thus far. He said the documents he had reviewed as of Sunday night provided more fodder for his longstanding critiques of online censorship, but have yet to yield major bombshells. “So far what I’ve seen mostly just confirms what we know, though it’s embarrassing to read,” he said.

Hailey Fuchs contributed to this report.

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