What We Learned From Elon Musk's Twitter Files
ILYA MARRITZ From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Ilya Marritz, a reporter covering democracy for ProPublica.
ILYA MARRITZ A week ago. Last Friday, late in the evening, journalist Matt Taibbi dropped a long and portentous thread on Twitter that he titled “the Twitter Files.”
NEWS CLIP Saying that he was going to, in his words, reveal what really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression, adding again, in his view, this is going to be awesome.
ILYA MARRITZ These documents pull back the curtain on Twitter's internal conversations around a decision the company made in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign. Twitter locked the New York Post's account on the platform for 16 days. The triggering event was reporting about Hunter Biden's laptop in the Post.
NEWS CLIP Taibbi claims that Twitter staff had an open line of communication to both the Trump White House and to the Biden campaign at the time. And he says that both camps pretty often reached out to Twitter to either block stories or tweets they felt were unfair, inaccurate or straight up misinformation. Taibbi makes the claim that that system was unbalanced in favor of left-leaning requests because what Taibbi argues, Twitter's staff leans left.
ILYA MARRITZ Political campaigns and the federal government can and sometimes do ask social media platforms to remove content for various reasons. But in this case, upon closer examination, there wasn't much hard evidence of the bombshell story that was teased — an explicit conspiracy between the government and Twitter to suffocate the Post's reporting.
NEWS CLIP I think, look, the one missing link so far from Elon Musk's dump of the Twitter Files is the FBI involvement.
ILYA MARRITZ So a little underwhelming. But was there any there there at all?
BLAKE MONTGOMERY Suppressing a media organization story is an extraordinary act by a tech company, and the public deserves to know how that happened.
ILYA MARRITZ Blake Montgomery is the tech news editor at Gizmodo.
BLAKE MONTGOMERY Twitter said at the time, ‘we could not verify the story,’ which is a really damning thing to say and part of the enormous mistake that they made. Twitter is not in the business of verifying news stories. There are thousands of news stories published to Twitter every single day, and no one at Twitter is tasked with going through and reading them and saying, ‘Well, I don't know about the sourcing on this one.’ That's not what Twitter's stated mission has ever been.
ILYA MARRITZ We spoke to Montgomery on the Wednesday after the first drop. On Thursday night, opinion writer Barry Weiss shared part two of the Twitter Files, a selection of internal Twitter discussions about how to handle popular tweeters spreading hate and disinformation. Referring to the first drop, Montgomery defined the terms of the discussion as he sees them.
BLAKE MONTGOMERY These documents are newsworthy. They are not scandalous. They are not revealing of some kind of internal machination that we did not know about. I would also say that the people who are involved have suffered professional consequences. Vijaya Gadde, who played a key role in this decision as Twitter's chief legal officer, was fired. Most of the people who were really involved in it have suffered the consequences of being fired or forced out of the company or what have you. I saw a New York Post columnist go on Tucker Carlson and say this is not the smoking gun that we hoped for. And if someone from The New York Post says that you, as a regular news consumer, have other things that you should pay attention to and deserve your attention more so than this. If you're looking for a really complicated thing to get into and you don't like novels like you could read this — that could be fun.
ILYA MARRITZ Blake Montgomery is the tech news editor at Gizmodo.
Before the headlines were about content, moderation, they were about coverage. And before they were about coverage, they were about Hunter Biden's laptop, a topic that had all the ingredients for a good conspiracy. The son of a famous politician doing questionable deals overseas and a generous serving of sex, drugs and dysfunction. In other words, a marketable mess.
OLIVIA NUZZI I read the tabloids. I read the right-wing press, and it was impossible to not be confronted with the story all the time. It was just a ceaseless stream of stories based on information allegedly taken from this hard drive. And yet, in the mainstream press, it was basically radio silence.
ILYA MARRITZ Which is why Olivia Nuzzi, together with Andrew Rice, spent six months reporting out every detail of this story for New York Magazine. Their article, published in September, is titled “The Sordid Saga of Hunter Biden's Laptop,” and it begins with a Tik Tok of the events that led up to the New York Post story.
OLIVIA NUZZI In the popular version of the story, the one that people might be familiar with, Hunter Biden, out of sorts, drops a laptop off at a Mac repair shop in Delaware, and it's water damaged. And the guy knows who he is because everyone in Delaware knows the Biden family. And then he never comes to pick it up. And according to this guy, the fine print of this agreement that Hunter Biden allegedly signed —the laptop became his possession after I think it's 90 days.
ILYA MARRITZ Right. Like a dry cleaner or whatever. The Mac repair shop says, like, if you don't come pick it up, it's ours.
OLIVIA NUZZI There's some dispute as to whether or not that is legally sound, but he's quite a character, John Paul Mac Isaac. He sometimes wears a kilt. He's really into Pink Floyd. But he's a conservative. In his telling, he's going through the laptop as he's transferring files over something about the particular way that this computer was damaged, he claimed required him to kind of drag and drop things. And he starts to notice that a lot of what he's seeing seems to overlap with a lot of what he's seeing in the news media related to Hunter Biden's business dealings and the impeachment of President Trump. And he makes a copy of this thing, and he informs the FBI that he has it. And at some point they come in, they retrieve it, and then nothing happens and nothing happens. And he starts to feel a bit paranoid and like, maybe he ought to do something. So he starts trying to find an avenue to publicize this — what he has. And he finally has a breakthrough by reaching out to Rudy Giuliani on a contact form on a website that Giuliani has related to one of his businesses. And there the email was intercepted allegedly by Robert Castello, who is Rudy Giuliani's attorney.
ILYA MARRITZ Right. And Castello sees this and he's interested in what this tipster might have to share.
OLIVIA NUZZI According to text of an email that Castello shared with New York Magazine from August 27th, 2020. John Paul Mac Isaac wrote — subject line: "why is it so difficult to be a whistleblower when you're on the right? — “For almost a year, I've been trying to get the contents of Hunter Biden's laptop to the proper authorities. I first reached out to the FBI, and they came and collected it. But I have reason to believe they have destroyed it or buried it in a filing cabinet. Luckily for my protection, I made several copies, and I've been trying quietly to bring it to people's attention." John Paul Mac Isaac claimed to have email proof that Hunter and a business partner had been paid more than $1,000,000 in fees by Burisma and that they had used, quote, “their influence at the White House to pressure the Ukrainian government to stop investigating the company.” Quote, “I feel the closer we get to the election, the more this will be ignored.” And then Costello wrote right back to Mac Isaac and told him that basically he and Giuliani were in a position to bring this information to light as long as it was, quote, “obtained lawfully.”
ILYA MARRITZ Then what happens?
OLIVIA NUZZI Once it was in Rudy Giuliani's possession, he brought it to the attention of Steve Bannon. And Steve Bannon was pretty skeptical at first in his telling. He sort of thought, this is just Rudy being obsessed with Ukraine again, and there's nothing to this. Giuliani said that it was not just about Ukraine, it was also about China. And that really piqued Bannon's interest. And he decided to come up to New York and take a look at what they had. And in his telling, it actually, quote, “stunned me.” And from there, Bannon thought about the logistics in his telling of how you could try and get something like that out into the public with such a short window before the election. And, you know, the election was the deadline for them.
ILYA MARRITZ Well, both of these guys have podcasts and presumably have a lot of reporters’ phone numbers saved in their phones. Why did this seem to be such an obstacle?
OLIVIA NUZZI You know, it's fascinating. Bannon, in his telling, reached out to someone that he knows in the mainstream media and, I guess, gave this person the gist. And their answer was, ‘look, this is going to be impossible — verifying something this complicated and this big with the mainstream news media. It's going to take them a really, really long time to do their due diligence.’ And so he decided to go the route of the tabloids. And first, he invited someone from The Daily Mail to review the materials. And The Daily Mail's response was that they were not the type of place that could be the first to publish this, that they were sort of in the celebrity tabloid photo business. They were not in any sort of position to do investigatory work, but that they would do their part to blow the story up if it was published elsewhere.
ILYA MARRITZ Okay.
OLIVIA NUZZI And so the next stop for them was The New York Post.
ILYA MARRITZ And The New York Post says.
OLIVIA NUZZI The New York Post says yes. I mean, you know, it wasn't that simple. But basically, the political editor of The New York Post is a young woman named Emma Jo Morris, who sort of had a kind of scrappy vibe, leaned into being a bit of an outsider and considers herself a populist and a nationalist.
ILYA MARRITZ By the way, I should insert that she is Canadian.
OLIVIA NUZZI Yes, she did grow up in Canada, and she's an interesting character. If you met her in Williamsburg, where she was living at the time that I met her, you would not think this is the person who brought Hunter Biden's laptop into the world. You know, she's got puppies and a wife and she's stylish and young and vapes, you know, and she got a call from Steve Bannon, and, in true Steve Bannon fashion, it was very cinematic. This is someone, Steve Bannon, who used to write screenplays and he was trying to make it in Hollywood before he got into politics. So everything that he does and says, I think is sort of with cinematic reenactment in mind. And he told her, quote, “I'm calling because I have a story that's going to change your life.”
ILYA MARRITZ Wow.
OLIVIA NUZZI Yeah. She was skeptical, too. And after a lot of back and forth and a lot of wrangling to go and see the material at Robert Costello's house and negotiating with Giuliani and with Bannon to get a copy of the hard drive so that the New York Post could go through their legal vetting process and she could review the materials more in-depth, she got the go ahead that they could publish.
ILYA MARRITZ So I'm looking at the story from October 14th, 2020, published at 5 a.m.. The headline is “Smoking Gun Email Reveals How Hunter Biden Introduced Ukrainian Businessman to VP Dad.” So this publishes October 14th. We now know that Twitter suppressed the story. Facebook did what they did, but it's The New York Post. Lots of people read this story, but the underlying ideas contained in the story mainly stayed in right-wing media and were not very much in the mainstream airwaves in the weeks and months that followed. Why?
OLIVIA NUZZI I think it's a couple of different things, I guess. I think that first thing is that not only had there been an impeachment already about Donald Trump relying on his henchmen to go out and try and find oppo that could destroy Joe Biden through his son, Hunter Biden. Not only had there been years and years of unfounded claims being thrown out there every hour on the hour, sometimes it felt like by Donald Trump and his allies. And then I think in general, there's always reluctance and nervousness when it comes to reporting on a presidential candidate or a president's family. The exception to that is when the family members, as they were in the Trump administration, are working in the White House or are working on the campaign. But in a case like this, I think it was less clear how people ought to handle it, especially given that Hunter Biden at this point had already been quite public about his struggles with addiction. And so I think there was an unseemliness to this story, right. The Bannon like catch phrase about this thing was “you come for the porn, and you stay for the compromise.”
ILYA MARRITZ “You come for the porn,” because there were a lot of photographs of his own private parts and other people in different states of nudity among those files.
OLIVIA NUZZI There were a lot of explicit images of Hunter Biden using drugs or obviously under the influence of drugs. And there were a lot of just personal images too. One of the parts of our reporting that really sticks with me was Andrew Rice went out to see the data, before we had a copy of this hard drive ourselves, at Robert Costello's house. And as they're scrolling through the images, he paused at a photo of Beau Biden just days away from his death in a hospital bed.
ILYA MARRITZ This is Hunter Biden's brother and Joe Biden's son, who died tragically young from brain cancer.
OLIVIA NUZZI And then there are photos of this decline in Hunter Biden's life in the aftermath of that when he sort of spiraled into addiction and debaucherous behavior. But those were the images that were most associated with the story. The images of him in a feather boa or his teeth, mid-dental work sawed down to nubs, and I think it made it very unappealing for people who are not ideologically motivated right-wing actors to wade into this at all. So I think that's part of it. I also think just the high alert for misinformation was a big part of it — the concern that you don't want to be the reporter or the news outlet to get fooled into reporting or publicizing something that ends up being either a fabrication or a complete misrepresentation of the facts or otherwise distorted. And then, lo and behold, the results of the election are on you because you screwed up because you're an idiot. I don't think anyone wanted that. And I think it made it so that the environment was right for people to ignore it.
ILYA MARRITZ You and your coauthor, Andrew Rice, published your back story to the story of the Hunter Biden laptop and files in September. And one line really jumped out at me reading the story this week because it seemed prophetic: “the present stalemate in which one side treats the subject with polite indifference while the other side foments and fundraises off it is unsustainable.” Did you expect something like this to happen at some point? And do the Twitter Files change anything for how you see what happened?
OLIVIA NUZZI When Andrew Rice and I wrote that in the story about the stalemate and how it could not hold, it was also in the context of the Republican Party, in no small degree, campaigning for the midterms by campaigning in part on the idea that they would investigate Hunter Biden, they would investigate big tech for its role in suppressing the story of Hunter Biden's laptop. So no matter what, it seemed like this was going to become more central to our politics. And even if it wasn't the case that congressional Republicans were talking about it or requesting information about it, it would still be the case that Donald Trump, who is again seeking the presidency, would be talking about it in some capacity as he goes into 2024. So it was always going to come up again.
ILYA MARRITZ I think one of the most provocative things about your story is actually at the beginning where you ask your reader to imagine the entirety of your digital existence plotted out before you. Your accounts and passwords, your avatars, your contacts, your sexts, your emails. And you go on to invite the reader to imagine that they're the adult child of a presidential candidate, someone who's in a lot of personal turmoil and making a lot of bad life choices. What did you learn by putting yourself in Hunter Biden's shoes?
OLIVIA NUZZI I mean, I'm someone who grew up on the Internet, right? So to sit there and think for a minute about what it would look like to collect all of the digital selves that I have been since I first logged on when I was six or whatever. I mean, it's terrifying. I just think about the extent to which my devices are this extension of my subconscious and how there is no amount of context in the world that would make that raw metadata of all of that into a portrait of who I think I am as a person. You know, what I kept thinking about was, yes, this is a matter of public record. Yes, you can look through the most personal images or notes that Hunter Biden had preserved in this trove of data. But should you? I think just because this is a story that the context for it is American politics and presidential politics and extremely partisan warfare, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it's also a story about privacy and decency and the type of society we want to have as it relates to what we will tolerate.
ILYA MARRITZ Was this worth six months of your life?
OLIVIA NUZZI After we published, I heard from people who were like, ‘You know, I didn't know what the laptop was before this’ or, ‘you know, I didn't know that this character was involved or that this took this trajectory or that this claim had been made or that there was this alternative theory.’ And I think it's like, in our terror, looking away from this unseemly, sketchy story, we sort of missed an opportunity to establish early on what we could prove and what we could not prove. And the entire narrative then for more than two years almost was defined by ideologically-motivated actors on the right who were seeking to re-elect Donald Trump.
ILYA MARRITZ Olivia Nuzzi is the Washington correspondent for New York Magazine and coauthor of the article “The Sordid Saga of Hunter Biden's Laptop.” Thank you so much, Olivia.
OLIVIA NUZZI Thank you for having me.
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