Free-speech crusader Elon Musk isn’t happy with Twitter’s years-old decision to suppress a news story about Hunter Biden’s laptop just ahead of the 2020 presidential election. So in an effort “to restore public trust” in Twitter, Musk indicated last month that he would release internal communications showing how it all went down.
That arrived Friday night in the form of a lengthy and arduously slow tweet thread (it took a full two hours to complete) from journalist Matt Taibbi, who Musk appears to have leaked the documents to and coordinated for his findings to be posted to Twitter.
Taibbi later deleted a tweet showing Jack Dorsey’s email address
Taibbi’s thread includes screenshots of emails between Twitter’s leadership, members of the Biden campaign, and outside policy leaders. At one point, there’s even a “confidential” communication from Twitter’s deputy general counsel.
The emails show Twitter’s team struggling with how to explain their handling of the New York Post story that broke the news of Hunter’s leaked laptop files — and whether they made the correct moderation decision in the first place. At the time, it was not clear if the materials were genuine, and Twitter decided to ban links to or images of the Post’s story, citing its policy on the distribution of hacked materials. The move was controversial even then, primarily among Republicans but also with speech advocates worried about Twitter’s decision to block a news outlet.
While Musk might be hoping we see documents showing Twitter’s (largely former) staffers nefariously deciding to act in a way that helped now-President Joe Biden, the communications mostly show a team debating how to finalize and communicate a difficult moderation decision.
“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this unsafe,” one former communications staffer wrote. “Will we also mark similar stories as unsafe?” asked another.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of trust and safety at the time, said the company had decided to err on the side of caution “given the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016.” Jim Baker, Twitter’s deputy general counsel, weighed in to agree that “it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been [hacked] and that caution is warranted.”
Musk claims this is proof of government meddling, but it plainly is not
The emails don’t show how the initial decision was reached — just that there were emails afterward in which leaders at Twitter discussed whether it was the correct choice. Taibbi reports that Jack Dorsey, who was then Twitter’s CEO, was not aware of the decision.
Musk seems to read the events as proof of government meddling. “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” he wrote in response to one leaked email. But the email appears to show the Biden campaign, which is not a government entity, flagging tweets to Twitter for “review” under their moderation policies before the election took place. Taibbi says, “there’s no evidence — that I’ve seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story.”
Meanwhile, Taibbi’s handling of the emails — which seem to have been handed to him at Musk’s direction, though he only refers to “sources at Twitter” — appears to have exposed personal email addresses for two high-profile leaders: Dorsey and Representative Ro Khanna. An email address that belongs to someone Taibbi identifies as Dorsey is included in one message, in which Dorsey forwards an article Taibbi wrote criticizing Twitter’s handling of the Post story. Meanwhile, Khanna confirmed to The Verge that his personal Gmail address is included in another email, in which Khanna reaches out to criticize Twitter’s decision to restrict the Post’s story as well.
“As the congressman who represents Silicon Valley, I felt Twitter’s actions were a violation of First Amendment principles so I raised those concerns,” Khanna said in a statement to The Verge. “Our democracy can only thrive if we are open to a marketplace of ideas and engaging with people with whom we disagree.”
The story also revealed the names of multiple Twitter employees who were in communications about the moderation decision. While it’s not out of line for journalists to report on the involvement of public-facing individuals or major decision makers, that doesn’t describe all of the people named in the leaked communications. And given the fervor around Hunter’s laptop, the leaked materials could expose some of those people to harassment. “I don’t get why naming names is necessary. Seems dangerous,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote tonight in apparent reference to the leaks.
Taibbi later deleted the tweet that included Dorsey’s email address. The one including Khanna’s is still up as of this writing. The Verge reached out to Taibbi for comment but didn’t immediately hear back. Twitter, which had its communications team dismantled during layoffs last month, also did not respond to a request for comment. Dorsey also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Update December 3rd, 8:28AM ET: Updated to add a statement from Representative Ro Khanna.