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3 former Twitter executives testify over handling of Hunter Biden laptop story

PIX Now -- Wednesday morning headlines from the KPIX newsroom
PIX Now -- Wednesday morning headlines from the KPIX newsroom 10:39

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.

The testimony comes in 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.

In his opening statement, Comer claimed that Twitter was biased toward conservatives, while accusing the social media company of engaging in "collusion" to censor the laptop story.

"America witnessed a coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news and the intelligence communities to suppress and de-legitimized the existence of Hunter Biden's laptop and its contents," Comer said in his opening statement, adding that Twitter "worked hand-in-hand with the FBI to monitor the protected speech of Americans, receiving millions of dollars to do so."

CNN has previously reported, however, that allegations the FBI told Twitter to suppress the story are unsupported, and a half-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 said in his opening statement. "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."

Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, said in his opening statement that Republicans were trying to "whip up" a scandal involving a private company rather than focusing on issues that matter to voters.

"The majority has called a hearing to revisit a two-year-old story about a private editorial decision by Twitter not to allow links to a single New York Post article made for a two-day period that had no discernible influence on anyone or anything" Raskin said. "Instead of letting this trivial pursuit go, my colleagues have tried to whip up a faux scandal about this two-day lapse in their ability to spread Hunter Biden propaganda on a private media platform. Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession."

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.

Navaroli argued that Congress should be focusing on "Twitter's failure to act before January 6th."

"Twitter leadership bent and broke their own rules in order to protect some of the most dangerous speech on the platform" in the months leading up to January 6, 2021, Navaroli said.

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.

"It isn't obvious what the right response is to a suspected but not confirmed cyberattack by another government on a presidential election," Roth said in his opening statement. "I believe Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016."

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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