1 of 7 | The investigations are being led by new Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Wednesday's hearing was titled "Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias, Part 1: Twitter's Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story." Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 8 (UPI) -- House Republicans took aim at the Biden family and big tech on Wednesday in a hearing on Twitter's handling of a news story regarding a laptop belonging to President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden.
The hearing, titled "Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias, Part 1: Twitter's Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story" comes after the new Republican majority last week started a string of investigations expected to run through the 2024 elections.
White House spokesperson Ian Sams issued a statement Wednesday calling the meeting a "bizarre political stunt" in a report by The Hill.
"The morning after President Biden delivered a State of the Union Address emphasizing the significant progress we've made as a nation to generate historic job and economic growth and the work still to be done to address Americans' top priorities like tackling inflation, raising wages, and investing in manufacturing and infrastructure jobs, House Republicans are making it their top priority to stage a bizarre political stunt," Sams said.
For Republicans, the investigations are seen as a way to bring long-sought accountability to the Biden administration, even if their efforts go no further than the chamber. For Democrats, the probes amount to political score-settling that aims to use the committees as a two-year campaign commercial.
The investigations, led by new Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and House Oversight Chair Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., covered numerous topics, but the discourse over an alleged bias against conservatives took center stage.
The committee on Wednesday began with the probe of Twitter and its handling of a New York Post story about the laptop once owned by Hunter Biden. The social media platform limited the article's posting. Comer accused Twitter and the FBI of "colluding" to censor the story, though little evidence was presented showing that this was the case.
"Americans deserve answers about this attack on the First Amendment and why Big Tech and the Swamp colluded to censor this information about the Biden family selling access for profit," Comer said in a statement announcing the hearing. "Accountability is coming."
Three former Twitter officials were called forward by the GOP: Vijaya Gadde, a former legal officer; Jim Baker, a former Twitter and FBI legal consultant; and Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety. None of the three corroborated the GOP claims that they colluded with the FBI to silence the New York Post story, according to Politico.
Instead the former Twitter officials maintained what they have said before: a mistake was made and ultimately fixed with a policy change within a few days.
"I've been clear that in my judgment at the time, Twitter should not have taken action to block the New York Post's reporting," Roth said.
In front of a backdrop of headlines about Hunter Biden's alleged laptop blown up on poster boards, Republicans on the committee asserted that there was a social-media bias against conservatives that has been orchestrated between the government and various social-media companies. Meanwhile Roth said Twitter's decisions about content often enflamed both sides of the aisle, Politico writes.
Democrats did not sit in silence on Wednesday. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., contended that the New York Post attempted to subvert journalism ethics by sharing a story that other news organizations, such as The Washington Post, could not confirm.
"Twitter did not let them and now they're upset," she said. "I believe that political operatives who sought to inject explosive information with The Washington Post couldn't get away with it and now they're livid. And they want the ability to do it again."
"They're weaponizing the use of this committee so they can do it again," she continued. "A whole hearing about a 24-hour hiccup in a right-wing operation."
Ocasio-Cortez then questioned former Twitter employee Anika Collier Navaroli, a witness called by committee Democrats. She asked about a tweet from former President Donald Trump that was directed at her, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, telling them to "go back to where you came from." Navaroli, a member of Twitter's content moderation team at the time said it was the first tweet from Trump that Twitter moderators considered taking action against.
Navaroli said that, while the moderators found Trump to be in violation of a policy specifically barring tweets that say "go back to your country," or "go back to where you came from," as abusive language toward immigrants, the team was overruled by a higher-ranking Twitter official. The policy against those types of tweets was then removed from Twitter's rules.
"So much for bias against right wing on Twitter," Ocasio-Cortez said.
The probe into Twitter's handling of the story is likely the tip of the iceberg of Republican investigations into the platform. Paul Lekas, senior vice president of global policy for the Software and Information Industry Association, told UPI that further oversight will likely have to do more with the changes at the company under new owner Elon Musk.
"There are a number of questions around the ways in which Twitter is managing information in moderating content, whether it is allowing or not allowing different voices to be heard," Lekas said.
"From an industry perspective, there are other platforms out there with very responsible and thorough approaches to addressing the really challenging issues of content that is available online. I think some of the focus on Twitter stems from the fact that there's so much uncertainty right now."
Lekas said that while he believes Congress has an important role to play as far as content moderation, it would be beneficial to its users and the industry to work in a bipartisan fashion and ensure its debates and recommendations don't fall along ideological lines.
He said there is a potential to find some bipartisan support around TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese firm. Lawmakers from both parties believe there are legitimate concerns over privacy.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced last month that it will hear testimony from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chow in March about the company's links to the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the app's consumer privacy and data security practices and its impact on children.
With TikTok, "there are concerns that are very specific around privacy and data protection and the safety and security of that particular platform," Lekas said. "That may not be reflective of other social media platforms that are out there. So, I think that that investigation is very, very important."
Another early focus for the Republican House has been immigration, with a hearing on the "Biden border crisis" last week seeing Republicans blaming Biden for high numbers of migrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats, including ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., accused Republicans of using the hearing for "showboating."
On Tuesday, the House Oversight Committee heard testimony from border agents who claimed an influx of immigrants has made it difficult to stem the flow of drugs and human smuggling into the United States.
Mike Howell, director of the Oversight Project at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the House investigation into migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexican border should lead to the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
"From our view, there's not much investigation required," Howell said. "The proof is in the pudding. There are well over 5 million illegal border crossers that have basically been invited to this country. There are border policies that have been ripped off the books on purpose to cause mass chaos and laws that are being ignored and drugs that are pouring into the country.
"So my take on this and the Heritage Foundation's take is what is there to investigate for the House?"
Lindsey Cormack, associate professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, said, such an investigation, like many others, will be used to keep GOP issues on the minds of voters for the next two years.
There are simply not the votes in the Senate to remove Mayorkas and the Republicans know it, regardless of what they come up with in their investigation.
"The Senate doesn't have a majority that probably thinks Mayorkas should be impeached even though the House might bring charges," she said. "It's a bit of like a two-year campaign issue. There are people who are legitimately unhappy about what's happening at the border.
"As far as the politics of it goes, it's going to be really hard to see that one through just because the numbers aren't there in the Senate."
Republicans also plan to put Democrats on the hot seat leading up to the 2024 presidential election after two years during which Democrats called many Republican lawmakers to task in its investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Howell said target-rich for investigations are bills Biden has championed as his signature achievements, such the infrastructure law, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.
He said House investigations into those bills will target how the money is being spent, and who is directly benefitting, while trying to establish some checks and balances to where the money is going.
The Oversight Committee is also looking into John Kerry's work as Biden's international lead on climate change, along with alleged waste and fraud connected with COVID-19 pandemic relief programs.
Cormack said efforts to look into, for example, how money was spent during the COVID-19 pandemic may fall flat because of the public fatigue around the issue.
"Bringing up those issues are more for the purpose of making sure that it's on the national radar," Cormack said. "The hearings will do some of that work for them. I think [pandemic investigations] will be a little bit less useful because I don't think that's probably as good of a political issue moving forward."
Regardless of what investigations the House gets into moving forward, Howell said there is enough for every committee and time is of the essence with the presidential election coming.
"It should be all go and no brakes," Howell said. "I want to emphasize that every committee needs to be an oversight and investigative committee. This House leadership understands that it's about accountability, not just oversight."