3 former Twitter executives to testify Wednesday at House hearing over handling of Hunter Biden laptop story

Three former Twitter executives are testifying Wednesday at the House Oversight Committee over Twitter’s decision to temporarily suppress a New York Post story regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop, in what’s set to be the first high-profile hearing for the new Republican majority investigating President Joe Biden’s administration and family.

House Oversight Chairman James Comer — a Kentucky Republican who has launched a broad investigation into the Biden family’s business dealings — is probing the social media giant in the wake of Twitter’s new owner and CEO Elon Musk releasing internal communications from Twitter staff about the decision to temporarily block users from sharing the New York Post story in the closing weeks of the 2020 presidential election campaign season.

The hearing is the first time that Twitter’s former Deputy Counsel James Baker, also a former top official at the FBI, will speak publicly since Musk fired him in December.

Musk himself has suggested that the internal communications released as part of his so-called “Twitter files” show government censorship, suggesting Twitter acted “under orders from the government” when it suppressed the laptop story. The “Twitter files” have fueled Comer’s belief that the government may have been involved in the suppression of the story.

“We basically want to know what the Twitter policy was with respect to how they determined what was disinformation,” Comer said. “We want to know what role the government played in encouraging Twitter to suppress certain stories and certain Twitter accounts. We want to know if and how much tax dollars were spent from federal agencies to Twitter because that’s kind of what we look into — tax dollars.”

CNN has previously reported, however, that allegations the FBI told Twitter to suppress the story are unsupported, and a half a dozen tech executives and senior staff, along with multiple federal officials familiar with the matter, all denied any such directive was given in interviews with CNN.

“I am 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,” Baker plans to testify, according to a copy of his opening statement reviewed by CNN. “Even though many disagree with how Twitter handled the Hunter Biden matter, I believe that the public record reveals that my client acted in a manner that was fully consistent with the First Amendment.”

In addition to Baker, Twitter’s former Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde and former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth are appearing before the committee.

Democrats, meanwhile, plan to feature Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Twitter employee turned whistleblower, as their witness during Wednesday’s hearing.

“Here’s the serious issue, what happens when a social media platform is actually used for the incitement of violent insurrection against the government of the United States? What are we going to do about that? And that’s what we learned from this Twitter whistleblower,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, told CNN. “So, I think the gravity of her testimony is pretty extraordinary compared to the trivia that the majority is engaged in.”

Raskin plans to say in his opening statement that in the lead-up to January 6, 2021, Twitter “became the national and global platform for incitement to seditious violence against our government and a forum on the day of attack for coordinating logistical movements and tactical maneuvers in the mob violence against our officers,” according to an excerpt from his prepared remarks.

All of the witnesses requested subpoenas to appear before the committee.

The hearing marks the second-straight election where social media companies and the FBI have faced scrutiny for decisions made in the final weeks of a presidential election. After 2016, social media companies like Twitter were under fire for doing too little to police their platforms for misinformation campaigns, particularly from foreign governments like Russia.

Now they’re back in the hot seat for taking that policing too far, according to Republicans.

When the New York Post published its story on Hunter Biden’s laptop in October 2020, Twitter executives were hyper suspicious of anything that looked like foreign influence and were primed to act, even without direction from the government. Roth had spent two years meeting with the FBI and other government officials and was prepared for some kind of hack and leak operation.

“There were lots of reasons why the entire industry was on alert,” Roth said at a conference in November, not long after he resigned from Twitter. Roth insists he was not in favor of blocking the story and thought the company’s decision was a mistake.

For Republicans, the testimony of Twitter’s former executives gives them the opportunity to raise questions not just about the laptop story but other long-running conservative complaints about the social media company that Musk purchased last year. The Oversight Committee’s Republican ranks are full of the conference’s conservative hardliners who have complained about alleged suppression of conservative voices on Twitter.

“I’ll get to ask the executives of Twitter why they felt they could ban a member of Congress — permanently being a member of Congress. My Twitter account was permanently banned for nearly a year,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican.

Greene’s account was suspended last January for repeated violations of Twitter’s Covid-19 misinformation policy, the company said at the time. Her account was restored in November after Musk purchased Twitter.

Democrats say they intend to poke holes in the Republican allegations surrounding the laptop story — while questioning the committee’s decision to hold the hearing in the first place.

“They’re cherry-picking witnesses who fit their narrative. It’s not like an objective examination of how Twitter functions and good and bad practices that could lead to genuine reform or regulation. That’s not what their objective is here” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

Ahead of the hearing, Musk traveled to Capitol Hill and met with a number of House Republicans, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Comer. The Kentucky Republican said that Musk offered him tips on lines of questioning, though Comer declined to offer more details ahead of the hearing.

“We’re going to save it,” Comer said. “Thank God for Elon Musk.”

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