The Twitter Files show how the factually accurate Hunter Biden laptop story was suppressed. They also reveal the secret FBI operation targeting social media executives and high-level journalists that led to this suppression.
Welcome to the second episode of The Private Citizen on the Twitter Files. In this one, we are going to talk about the behind-the-scenes of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
After this episode, I’m planning a producer feedback episode before wrapping the podcast up with the usual end of year review. I’m scrambling to get these shows recorded and out to you before my holiday break, so please understand that I can’t also be running live streams of the episodes right now.
For an introduction to The Twitter Files, please see my first episode on the topic.
Recap on the Hunter Biden Laptop Story
Previously, I’ve talked about the Hunter Biden laptop story in my discussion of the 2020 election with Mike and in an update on the story in episode 111. It is such an important event, because it was the first time in history that large social media platforms censored legitimate reporting from a major newspaper. At the behest of the FBI, as we now learn.
In the case that you are new to this story – with the abysmal reporting on it in the mainstream media, who could blame you – here is a quick refresher of what happens. Michael Shellenberger actually has a very good and up-to-date recap of the story in his latest writings on Substack on The Twitter Files.
The story begins in December 2019 when a Delaware computer store owner named John Paul (J.P.) Mac Isaac contacts the FBI about a laptop that Hunter Biden had left with him. On Dec 9, 2019, the FBI issues a subpoena for and takes Hunter Biden’s laptop. It likely would have taken a few hours for the FBI to confirm that the laptop had belonged to Hunter Biden. Indeed, it only took a few days for the journalist Peter Schweizer to prove it. And yet the FBI did nothing to investigate the many signs of criminal activity revealed by emails and other documents on the laptop.
After waiting patiently for months to hear back from the FBI, Mac Isaac in August 2020 emailed Rudy Giuliani, and gave him a copy of the laptop. Giuliani was under FBI surveillance at the time and thus the FBI almost certainly knew what had happened. In early October, Giuliani shared the laptop’s hard drive and its contents with The New York Post.
Then, a series of strange events occurred. Shortly before 7 pm ET on October 13, Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, emailed Mac Isaac. Hunter and Mesires had just learned from The New York Post that its story about the laptop would be published the next day. Two hours later, an FBI Special Agent in San Francisco named Elvis Chan sends 10 documents to Twitter’s then-Head of Site Integrity, Yoel Roth, through Teleporter, a one-way communications channel from the FBI to Twitter.
The next day, October 14, 2020, The New York Post runs its explosive story revealing the business dealings of President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. The article was accurate and has stood the test of time. And yet, within hours, Twitter and other social media companies censored the NY Post article, preventing it from spreading and – more importantly – undermining its credibility in the minds of many Americans.
How Twitter Supressed the Story
Matt Taibbi has reported in the first installment of The Twitter Files, how Twitter suppressed this story.
Twitter had established a system whereby political actors in Washington could call on the company to delete tweets they didn’t like. This system was based on personal contacts instead of an automated process and it was primarily being used on one side of the political aisle – the Biden campaign.
By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine. One executive would write to another: “More to review from the Biden team.” The reply would come back: “Handled.”
Which isn’t surprising as Twitter, much like other Silicon Valley companies, was largely staffed by people who voted Democrat and whose opinions slanted accordingly.
This system wasn’t balanced. It was based on contacts. Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right.
When the Post story came out, people at Twitter who were involved in doing the bidding of political operatives from “Team Biden”, as they put it, decided that the reporting was based on “hacked materials” and therefore fell within a Twitter policy that prohibited such material to be included in tweets. They decided that by themselves, without any kind of formal training or expertise (legal or otherwise) and without then-Twitter-CEO Jack Dorsey knowing about it. The decision was made in spite of the understanding that the deleted links in question did not, in fact, link to hacked materials, but to journalistic reporting by one of the oldest newspapers in the US, which itself was based on something that might, with a lot of good will, be construed as “hacked materials” — but probably wouldn’t hold up to this label. The material in question wasn’t even obtained illegally. But even if it had been, reporting on it would still have been legal.
Twitter’s former executive, and head of legal, policy and trust, Vijaya Gadde took a leading role in this mess, which is probably one of the main reasons why Musk fired her. Gadde was later also behind the decision of banning then-president Donald Trump’s account. When deciding to suppress the Post story, Gadde immediately faced questions from other Twitter executives, who were skeptical of her reasoning.
You can see the confusion in the following lengthy exchange, which ends up including Gadde and former Trust and safety chief Yoel Roth. Comms official Trenton Kennedy writes, “I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this as unsafe”.
Many people at Twitter, despite being sympathetic to the decision, seemed to doubt that it could be publicly justified. But the company went ahead with their idiotic and ill-conceived pro-Biden activism anyway.
Former VP of Global Comms Brandon Borrman asks, “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?”
To which former Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker again seems to advise staying the non-course, because “caution is warranted”.
Even when a Democratic (!) congressman privately wrote Gadde, hinting at “backlash on the Hill” because of the free speech implications of what Twitter was doing, the company’s head of legal, policy and trust didn’t seem to understand that what they were doing was actually wrong. Morally, and maybe even legally.
In one humorous exchange on day 1, Democratic congressman Ro Khanna reaches out to Gadde to gently suggest she hop on the phone to talk about the “backlash re speech.” Khanna was the only Democratic official I could find in the files who expressed concern.
Gadde replies quickly, immediately diving into the weeds of Twitter policy, unaware Khanna is more worried about the Bill of Rights.
Khanna tries to reroute the conversation to the First Amendment, mention of which is generally hard to find in the files.
The people running Twitter, a company that owns what probably amounts to the biggest and most influential platform for public discourse in the world, did not – on a fundamental level – understand free speech at all, it seems.
“THE FIRST AMENDMENT ISN’T ABSOLUTE” – Szabo’s letter contains chilling passages relaying Democratic lawmakers’ attitudes. They want “more” moderation, and as for the Bill of Rights, it’s “not absolute”.
All of this really speaks to how messed up the culture at Twitter was. And maybe it also explains why Musk fired that many people. What kind of company makes devastating, potentially business-destroying decisions like this without the knowledge of its CEO? And does so repeatedly, again and again? There were obviously deep-seated structural problems at Twitter. Not only because decisions like this could even be made without involving the CEO, but also because Dorsey apparently wasn’t able to reverse course quickly once he discovered what was going on. I’ve never been a fan of the man, but it seems he ran his company even worse than I had previously assumed. I always knew the hobo beard wasn’t a good sign.
The FBI Involvement
They way in with Twitter internally decided to suppress that story isn’t actually that surprising to those of us who have been paying attention to the story and to how Silicon Valley has been developing in recent years. It pretty much matches the “conspiracy theory” I’d built in my mind about this. Now, once again, it turns out another conspiracy theory was right because there actually was a conspiracy after all. Except it was much bigger and sinister than any of us could have imagined. Enter the FBI…
We now learn that the FBI, an intelligence service ostensibly in charge with protecting Americans from organised crime and terrorism, is now in the business of cataloguing – and censoring – the opinions of ordinary citizens all over the world. Apparently, the Feds took on this mission after the 2016 presidential election and the so-called misinformation campaign around Hilary Clinton’s leaked emails – which in fact was factual information, released by Wikileaks. It might have been acquired from Russian state hackers, but it was factual (also see notes on journalists publishing secret materials above).
The FBI has enmeshed itself with Twitter (and other social networks) to build a surveillance and censorship machine that looks as follows:
- Twitter sells its firehose data to companies like Dataminr, ZeroFox and Meltwater
- These companies have contracts with the FBI and other intelligence services to filter that data for stuff the agencies find interesting
- They pass interesting tweets and accounts on to the FBI and the FBI, in turn, goes to Twitter (as we have just discussed) to have accounts shut down and tweets deleted
It’s a big, happy circlejerk designed for monitoring and censorship of public speech on the internet.
But the FBI doesn’t only put pressure on social media companies to censor ordinary citizens. They also, as Michael Shellenberger’s reporting shows, concocted a crafty scheme to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story:
Before describing the new information, it’s important to understand that Hunter Biden earned tens of millions of dollars in contracts with foreign businesses, including ones linked to China’s government, for which Hunter offered no real work. (In the video above, investigative journalist Schweizer offers an overview.)
And yet, during all of 2020, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies repeatedly primed Twitter’s head of Site Integrity (and later Head of Safety and Trust) Yoel Roth to dismiss reports of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a Russian “hack and leak” operation. FBI did the same to Facebook, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Were the FBI warnings of a Russian hack-and-leak operation relating to Hunter Biden based on any new intelligence? No, they weren’t. “Through our investigations, we did not see any similar competing intrusions to what had happened in 2016,” admitted FBI agent Elvis Chan in November 2022.
Then, in July 2020, the FBI’s Elvis Chan arranged for temporary Top Secret security clearances for Twitter executives so that the FBI can share information about threats to the upcoming elections. And on August 11, 2020, the FBI’s Chan shares information with Twitter’s Roth relating to the Russian hacking organization, “APT28,” through the FBI’s secure, one-way communications channel, Teleporter.
Recently, Twitter’s Roth told tech journalist Kara Swisher that he had been primed to think about the Russian hacking group APT28 before news of the Hunter Biden laptop came out. When it did, Roth said, “It set off every single one of my finely tuned APT28 hack-and-leap campaign alarm bells.”
In August, 2020, FBI’s Chan asks Twitter: does anyone there have top secret clearance? When someone mentions Jim Baker, Chan responds, “I don’t know how I forgot him” — an odd claim, given Chan’s job is to monitor Twitter, not to mention that they worked together at the FBI.
Who is Jim Baker? He’s the former general counsel of the FBI (2014-18) and one of the most powerful men in the U.S. intelligence community. Baker has moved in and out of government for 30 years, serving stints at CNN, Bridgewater (a $140 billion asset management firm), and the Brookings Institution. As general counsel of the FBI, Baker played a central role in making the case internally for an investigation of Donald Trump.
Baker wasn’t the only senior FBI executive involved in the Trump investigation to go to Twitter. Dawn Burton, the former deputy chief of staff to FBI head James Comey, who initiated the investigation of Trump, joined Twitter in 2019 as director of strategy.
As of 2020, there were so many former FBI employees — “Bu alumni” — working at Twitter that they had created their own private Slack channel and a crib sheet to onboard new FBI arrivals.
Now, get this: The FBI was running an organised campaign, targeting social media executives and high-ranking journalists at large publications with the aim to prevent the story from being picked up.
Efforts continued to influence Twitter’s Yoel Roth. In September 2020, Roth participated in an Aspen Institute “tabletop exercise” on a potential “Hack-and-Dump” operation relating to Hunter Biden The goal was to shape how the media covered it — and how social media carried it. The organizer was Vivian Schiller, the former CEO of NPR, the former head of news at Twitter, the former general manager of The New York Times, and the former Chief Digital Officer of NBC News. Attendees included Facebook’s head of security policy and the top national security reporters for The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post.
And it worked.
By mid-September, 2020, the FBI’s Chan and Roth had set up a special encrypted messaging network so employees from FBI and Twitter could communicate. They also agreed to create a “virtual war room” for “all the internet industry plus FBI and ODNI” (Office of the Director of National Intelligence).
Then, on September 15, 2020, the FBI’s Laura Dehmlow, who heads up the Foreign Influence Task Force, and Chan, requested to give a classified briefing for Jim Baker, without any other Twitter staff, such as Yoel Roth, present.
On October 14, shortly after The New York Post publishes its Hunter Biden laptop story, Roth says, “it isn’t clearly violative of our Hacked Materials Policy, nor is it clearly in violation of anything else,” but adds, “this feels a lot like a somewhat subtle leak operation.”
In response to Roth, Baker repeatedly insists that the Hunter Biden materials were either faked, hacked, or both, and a violation of Twitter policy. Baker does so over email, and in a Google doc, on October 14 and 15.
And yet it’s inconceivable Baker believed the Hunter Biden emails were either fake or hacked. The New York Post had included a picture of the receipt signed by Hunter Biden, and an FBI subpoena showed that the agency had taken possession of the laptop in December 2019.
Finally, by 10 am, Twitter executives had bought into a wild hack-and-dump story. “The suggestion from experts - which rings true - is there was a hack that happened separately, and they loaded the hacked materials on the laptop that magically appeared at a repair shop in Delaware,” wrote Roth. At 3:38 pm that same day, October 14, Baker arranges a phone conversation with Matthew J. Perry in the Office of the General Counsel of the FBI.
The FBI’s influence operation persuaded Twitter executives that the Hunter Biden laptop did not come from a whistleblower, even though it did. In the end, the FBI’s influence campaign aimed at executives at news media, Twitter, and other social media companies worked: they censored and discredited the Hunter Biden laptop story. By December 2020, Baker and his colleagues even sent a note of thanks to the FBI for its work.
I am convinced that Twitter bent over backwards here because they were politically in line with the FBI and deluded enough to honestly believe they were doing the right thing. We’ve discussed that in the first episode on The Twitter Files. But, to help matters along, Twitter was also being paid by the FBI.
The FBI’s influence campaign may have been helped by the fact that it was paying Twitter millions of dollars for its staff time. “I am happy to report we have collected $3,415,323 since October 2019!” reports an associate of Jim Baker in early 2021.
Misguided Reporting on Behalf of the Security State
The FBI is engaged in censoring the press as well as the opinions of ordinary citizens on the internet. This is a huge story. To me, this is almost as big as the Snowden revelations and certainly the biggest story in tech in 2022. It is therefore dismaying to see how many of my colleagues are ignoring this story.
But what is worse is that some of them are actively running interference on behalf of intelligence services like the FBI. An especially egregious example is that of Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, who uses Shellenberger’s disclosure of the FBI payment to Twitter as an excuse to declare that there’s nothing going on. No scandal at all. Nothing to see here.
He starts his story with the condescending introduction of “Look.” Anybody who starts an explanation by saying this is almost certainly full of shit. This simple rule hasn’t let me down yet and it’s once again proving to be true here.
The problem is that, once again, that’s not what “the Twitter Files” show, even as the reporters working on it — Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger — either don’t understand what they’re looking at or are deliberately misrepresenting it. I’m no fan of the FBI, and have spent much of the two and a half decades here at Techdirt criticizing it. But… there’s literally no scandal here (or if there is one, it’s something entirely different, which we’ll get to at the end of the article). What the files show is that the FBI would occasionally (not very often, frankly) using reporting tools to alert Twitter to accounts that potentially violated Twitter’s rules. When the FBI did so, it was pretty clear that it was just flagging these accounts for Twitter to review, and had no expectation that the company would or would not do anything about it.
This is idiotic. First of all, unlike Taibbi, Weiss and Shellenberger, he doesn’t know what exactly The Twitter Files show, because he doesn’t have access to them. This is just a take on the reporting on others. Which is fine, unless you are using it as evidence to disprove them. That’s just faulty logic.
Also: Does he really expect us to believe that the FBI, an intelligence service with immense powers (some of them extra-constitutional), was “just flagging” tweets and accounts and “had no expectation that the company would or would not do anything about it”? The Twitter Files reporting clearly shows that Twitter did comply in a lot of cases. And in an extremely servile and submissive way to boot.
Now, we could have an interesting discussion (and I actually do think it’s an interesting discussion) about whether or not the government should be flagging accounts to review as terms of service violations. Right now, anyone can do this. You or I can go on Twitter and if we see something that we think violates a content policy, we can flag it for Twitter to review. Twitter than will review the content and determine whether or not it’s violative, and then decide what the remedy should be if it is.
How can someone working as a journalist be possibly this deluded? Does he really think you or me sending an email to Twitter support is the same as the ASAC San Francisco using established backchannels to high level executives within Twitter’s censorship team? What the fuck.
If there were evidence that there was some pressure, coercion, or compulsion for the company to comply with the government requests, that would be a different story. But, to date, there remains none (at least in the US).
He’s right when he observes that there’s not much pressure in these emails from the FBI to Twitter. But he’s not thinking about this critically. Why would there be? As we’ve seen time and time again in the reporting of this story, employees within Twitter were largely in line with the FBI politically. They wanted to enact this censorship. They thought it was the right thing to do. The FBI didn’t have to threaten them. They just had to convince them and, as we’ve just seen, they did that very skilfully. The FBI wasn’t treating Twitter like a law enforcement agency would treat a suspect or an accessory to a crime, they were treating high level people within the company like an intelligence service would treat agents. The FBI was handling these Twitter executives.
Because Elon Musk tweeted, based on Shellenberger’s reporting, that the FBI was paying Twitter to censor people, Masnick uses this as an excuse to explain the whole FBI involvement away. He argues that the FBI paid Twitter to comply with lawful requests for assistance in criminal investigations. Which might well be true. The problem is Shellenberger never argued the payments were for censorship. He just used them offhandedly to further illustrate how tight Twitter and the FBI were. And as we have seen, Twitter employees were happy to comply without being coerced or paid.
This had nothing to do with any “influence campaign.” The law already says that if the FBI is legally requesting information for an investigation under a number of different legal authorities, the companies receiving those requests can be reimbursed for fulfilling them. But note what this is limited to. These are investigatory requests for information, or so called 2703(d) requests, which require a court order.
Looking at that, you can see that if they can get a 2703(d) order (again, signed by a judge) they can seek to obtain subscriber info, transaction records, retrieved communications, and unretrieved communications stored for more than 180 days (in the past, we’ve long complained about the whole 180 days thing, but that’s another issue).
You know what’s not on that list? “Censoring people.” It’s just not a thing. The reimbursement that is talked about in that email is about complying with these information production orders that have been reviewed and signed by a judge. It’s got nothing at all to do with “censorship demands.” And yet Musk and friends are going hog wild pushing this utter nonsense.
Meanwhile, Twitter’s own transparency report again already reveals data on these orders as part of its “data information requests” list, where it shows that in the latest period reported (second half of 2021) it received 2.3k requests specifying 11.3k accounts, and complied with 69% of the requests. Given all that, it looks like there were probably in the range of 8,000 requests for information, covering who knows how many accounts, that Twitter had to comply with. And so the $3 million reimbursement seems pretty reasonable, assuming you would need a decent sized skilled team to review the orders, collect the information, and respond appropriately.
What Masnick is doing here is assuming that the money Shellenberger reported on was for these requests. He doesn’t have any proof, though. So it’s not refuting Musk’s claim at all. I think Masnick could be right, but he’s not “debunking” (as he calls it) Shellenberger’s reporting because Shellenberger didn’t even claim the thing he’s refuting.
All Masnick is doing here is running interference for the fired Twitter executives and the FBI. Even if his point is right, it doesn’t dispute the fact that the FBI was engaged in the mass cataloguing and censoring of speech on Twitter. That’s the scandal.
But what do you expect from a guy who thinks that a social network should censor the press because it’s executives are unclear whether a story is based on materials retrieved in a hack. Never mind that the actual information was factual or that it’s completely legal for the press to publish these materials (see note above).
This guy doesn’t know how journalism works, who journalists are beholden to, who they shouldn’t listen to or what an intelligence service actually does. And he can’t think critically, it seems. A pretty poor showing for a journalist. But sadly, these days he seems to be in the majority. It now seems to be more important to be on the right line of the political divide of a given story than to actually think it through critically and report on what you see in the process of that.
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