Twitter Files explained: unbiased review of the Hunter Biden laptop story's timeline
Sunday evening read: My painstakingly unbiased review of the facts surrounding the newly revealed "Twitter Files" and a complete timeline of events
Update 2: This news story explaining “The Twitter Files” has been updated in light of new information on Sunday, December 4. I’ll continue to add to this page to offer the most comprehensive, unbiased review of the Twitter content moderation decisions regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop and 2020 blocking of the New York Post story.
This is a painstakingly unbiased review of the facts. Both sides will likely hate this article, meaning I’ve done my job right. Signing up for The Shortcut – FREE or paid – helps me 🙏:
Update: So far, The Twitter Files explainer doesn’t have the Part 2 promised by Elon Musk, but our timeline has been updated – again – with more facts about the unraveling insight into how Twitter came to block a New York Post story from being shared 20 days before the 2020 Presidential election. The rarely used tool to block links to the story in tweets and even Direct Messages marked the first time – that we know of – that it was used for something that wasn’t a link to porn, malware, SPAM, doxxing, etc.
However, so far, there aren’t any signs that the Biden campaign petitioned any tweets about the NY Post story to be deleted (it’s just not present in the series of emails). It did request tweets by users be deleted, though these tweets depict porn originally found on the laptops. That said, from what we’ve seen, Twitter execs – with bias or not (that’s your call, dear reader and hopefully subscriber) – acted on their own to suppress and even outright block a news story, a news outlet’s Twitter account and a sitting press secretary using a “hacked materials” policy that was immediately questioned by Twitter employees.
➡️ The Shortcut Skinny: ‘Twitter Files’ explainer
📝 Fellow Substacker Matt Taibbi reveals Twitter’s internal debate over the Hunter Biden laptop leak
🐦 In 2020, Twitter took unprecedented action to stop the NY Post story from being shared via tweets and even DMs
📆 This politically-charged story was suppressed 20 days before the election
🚀 Elon Musk has hyped this reveal as a case of government suppression
🙇♂️ Then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was allegedly out of the loop on suppression
🙅♂️ We haven’t seen Biden’s campaign request takedowns of the Hunter Biden laptop story yet
🤮 So far, my deep dive into the archive of these pulled tweets shows only takedowns of nude Hunter Biden photos (My eyes! The goggles do nothing!)
👎 However, the internal debate to suppress what turned out to be a true story doesn’t reflect well on Twitter’s former management
🙃 This won’t solve anything – I see these reactions about the same exact tweets:
🟦 Democrats take: “No, you don’t have a 1st Amendment right to post Hunter Biden’s d—- pics. It can’t be gov’t interference if Biden was not in office.”
🟥 Republicans: “Yes, but it proves Twitter’s bias. More importantly: how does crack-addicted Hunter get a $3m job at a Ukrainian gas firm? And why do his payment arrangement emails ask for ‘10 held by H for the big guy?’”
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The Twitter Files explained in detail
I got a message from a friend as soon as this story broke: “Confirms what we all knew happened.”
That’s the perfect reaction to the newly revealed emails behind Twitter executives’ unprecedented 2020 decision to prevent anyone from sharing the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop files. It happened in October 2020, just 20 days before the US Presidental election involving Hunter’s father, now-sitting-President Joe Biden, and former President Donald Trump.
It can be taken in two ways: it finally confirms the bias at Twitter and the extreme, politically charged measures taken to silence what ended up being factual news, or it’s a mega-long “meh” Twitter thread that confirms there’s no smoking gun of a government hit-job originally suggested by White House critics.
Naturally, I’ll cover all sides. Here’s a timeline of what matters and why.
Why trust my Twitter Files explainer
Political independence: I’m a registered independent and grew up in the most purple part of one of the most purple states (Pennsylvania, outside of Philly)
School smart: I have a journalism degree, which often means nothing these days, but I was fortunate enough to have stellar professors who stripped me of political bias (I don’t feel everyone is lucky enough to have had that experience)
Street smart: More importantly, I began writing professionally was age 14, starting a video game and tech website in 1999
Twitter expert: I have one million Twitter followers, so I’ve done a lot of research on this particular social media platform
The Twitter Files timeline begins, but now is a good time to subscribe if you haven’t yet:
Hunter Biden's laptop timeline (unbiased facts)
April 12, 2019: Hunter Biden, son of the current US President (more than a year before the 2020 election), allegedly dropped off three liquid-damaged damaged laptops to a Wilmington, Delaware computer repair shop. One laptop was said to be beyond repair, according to the Washington Post, but at least one liquid-damaged 13-inch MacBook Pro with an SSD had data that could be retrieved. Another just needed an external keyboard to work. One of the laptops “bore a sticker for the Beau Biden Foundation.” There’s an entire Washington Post interview (background notes, so it’s rough audio) with the repair shop owner.
July 11, 2019: After 90 days, Hunter Biden’s laptops become the property of the repair shop (which has now been now-shuttered as the owner said he “basically was financially ruined” after these events). The laptops were likely abandoned because Biden had a lot going on: since 2016, he’d been so addicted to hard drugs (crack) and alcohol that, in his own memoir, he said “I was smoking crack every 15 minutes.” By early 2019, he was on the road to recovery, having gotten married to his current wife Melissa Biden in May 2019, six days after meeting her. It’s fair to assume he damaged three laptops during a years-long bender and, in early 2019, as part of picking up the pieces of his life, he wanted to get them repaired. It’s unfair to assume that given the copious amounts of alcohol in photos, these were “water-damaged” laptops as you’ll read in the other press.
December 9, 2019: The computer repair shop turned over the laptops to the FBI. However, the owner of the repair shop, John Paul Mac Isaac, had made a copy to a flash drive. He indicated to the Washington Post that because the MacBook Pro shut down when he tried to recover data all at once, he did it piecemeal. In doing so, he saw some “disturbing” content that “raised red flags.” According to Mac Isaac, Hunter Biden “had a messy” desktop with “millions” of things on there.
Early 2020: Repair shop owner Mac Isaac is surprised that the laptop contents he saw weren’t part of Trump’s first impeachment investigation. Recalling the December 9 interaction with the FBI and subsequent hacking theory, he told the NY Post: “they took all my notes, all my information that I had provided them, and so they had ample time to review that data and realize that it wasn’t Russia.”
August 2020: Mac Isaac gave a copy of the laptop drive contents to Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on the condition that it would be made public. It got passed around to notable Republican campaign operatives.
September 19, 2020: Then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while on the campaign trail, went on the record to say “I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.” This is contradicted by the emails on the laptop. Hunter was on the board of Ukrainian natural gas producer Burisma.
*Flashback* March 2014: Hunter Biden and business partner Devon Archer paid themselves $3 million while at Burisma going to their firm Rosemont Seneca Partners LLC. The Hill notes this legal for board members to do – as long as it was because it helped the Burisma’s bottom line, but says “prosecutors never got to determine the merits of the payments to Rosemont because of the way the investigation was shut down.”
*Flashback* March 2016: Then-Vice President Joe Biden pressures the Ukraine government to fire a Ukrainian state prosecutor Viktor Shokin. It’s alleged that the Shokin was looking into these payments, though investigations as to the real reason why he was fired have contradicted this theory.
*Flashback* January 2018: In a videoed speech, as a private citizen, Biden brags about withholding US money in 2016 until the prosecutor was fired: “I said, you’re not getting the billion…I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a b—-. [Audience laughter]. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.” Ironically Trump is later impeached for pressuring the Ukrainian President to investigate this via a “perfect phone call” (his words), also implying he’d withhold money.
October 4, 2020: Giuliani shows the material to the New York Post for the first time.
October 11, 2020: The New York Post is in full possession of the hard drive contents.
October 14, 2020 at 5am ET: The New York Post published its infamous story about emails obtained from Hunter Biden’s laptop, revealing a Burisma exec’s message: “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure.” Republicans allege Hunter Biden, a person without experience in the gas sector and also addicted to crack at the time, is receiving cash for setting up meetings between his father and foreign executives. Joe Biden’s campaign denies knowing the Burisma exec, noting no such meeting is on the books.
October 14, 2020 at 9:30am ET: Twitter blocks the New York Post story from being shared citing a “hacked materials” policy. Internal emails, revealed by independent journalist Matt Taibbi, show the debate within Twitter. This is notable from Taibbi: “They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases, e.g. child pornography.”
October 14, 2020: Researcher Aric Toler illustrated the error message that popped up for users who tried to talk about the New York Post story with a link included, and the serious lengths Twitter went to block the links to the story when it was submitted in tweets or DMs – you couldn’t even use a link shortener to post to Twitter. He notes two cases in which this tool was used before. Once to stop a Russian disinformation website posing as ring-wing website Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC) and one more time to block WikiLeaks-style activist group DDOSecrets. In both of those cases, popular link shorteners like Bit.ly worked, showing that Twitter took extra measures to block in New York Post story. Also, the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, making it America’s oldest daily newspaper still in publication, so it’s fair to say without bias that the action taken by Twitter execs was unprecedented.
October 14, 2020: The New York Post Twitter account is locked down by Twitter. To continue to participate on the Twitter platform, it’s being forced by Twitter to delete the tweet that links to its story. The New York Post refuses and its ban on being able to tweet is in place for another two weeks.
October 14, 2020: Then-White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany is also locked out of her account for “simply talking about the New York Post story.” She likely tweeted just before links to the story were blocked that morning. This led Trump campaign staffer Mike Hahn to issue an email to protest to his Twitter contacts for the censoring of a news article and a sitting press secretary, with his email signing off with “At least pretend to care for the next 20 days.”
October 15, 2020 at 5am ET: A second New York Post story derived from the Hunter Biden laptop files reveals emails from another business venture. The emails, dated May 13, 2017, and August 2, 2017, suggest that Hunter was negotiating payments with China’s largest energy company CEFC China Energy. In the end, Hunter Biden and his uncle were paid $4.8 million from CEFC in 2017 and 2018, according to government records, court documents and bank statements dug up by The Washington Post in 2022.
The Washington Post says the documents “illustrate the ways in which his family profited from relationships built over Joe Biden’s decades in public service.” But, they don’t spell out evidence that Joe Biden directly benefitted from the CEFC transaction. The uncovered laptop emails detailed in the second New York Post story reveal transaction requests. Hunter Biden wanted “850” (likely $850,000) for himself as Chair, another “850” for business partner Tony Bobulinski as CEO, “500,000” for his uncle James.
One of the emails, ending with this potentially important line about equity in the CEFC deal, asks that: “10 held by H for the big guy ?” which Tony Bobulinski (who says he was cut out of the deal later) claims meant 10% was to be held by “H,” Hunter Biden, for “the big guy,” Joe Biden. This email message and Bobulinski’s interviews with the media are the only suggestion of possible impropriety by the sitting president. As noted by current NewsNation host (and former MSNBC anchor) Dan Abrams: “The allegations are serious, and Bobulinski has some documentation to back it up,” though he labels the current evidence against Joe Biden’s wrongdoing “weak.” Abrams later says, “Let’s be clear. Most in the left-wing media are just trying to ignore Tony Bobulinski.” Few outlets outside of right-wing media interviewed Tony Bobulinski or mentioned his name.
October 15, 2020 at 7:24am PT: A few hours after the second New York Post article is published, Twitter public policy executive Caroline Strom sends out an early morning message about the New York Post ban fallout: “Hi team! Are you able to take a closer look here? Thank you!”
Despite the cheery tone of the email, Taibbi reports that “Several employees noted that there was tension between the comms/policy teams, who had little/less control over moderation, and the safety/trust teams.”
October 15, 2020 after 7:24am PT: An ops analyst says the story “was bounced by Site Integrity for violating our Hacked Materials policy.” Only the New York Post wasn’t the one to hack the files (and they were technically never hacked by any party; Hunter Biden failed to pick up his laptop after 90 days). Taibbi quotes one former unnamed Twitter employee: “Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it.”
Internally, the story begins to fall apart when Twitter comms official Trenton Kennedy says he’s “struggling to understand the policy” and “we’ll face hard questions on this if we don’t have some kind of solid reasoning for making the link unsafe.”
Another Twitter policy comms staffer asks a good question: “Will we mark similar stories unsafe?” pointing to a link from Fox News about the New York Post emails story. Basically, what’s their policy going to be on sharing thousands of articles that re-blog the New York Post story? You can see how this could snowball.
Then-Twitter safety chief Yoel Roth says internally that the lessons of the 2016 election have them erring on the side of caution, either a poor excuse for blocking a story or a good idea, depending on your perspective. They put up a warning about the story when it’s linked and prevent the content from being amplified. But, Taibbi reports that one former employee told him, “By this point ‘everyone knew this was f—-ed.’”
Twitter’s Director of Global Policy Communications Ian Plunkett, in a very PR directive, says “Whatever we do in the comms (this will become a bias claim for Jack pre-hearing immediately), let’s make it clear we’re proactively but cautiously interpreting through the lens of our hacked materials policy.” This is despite the fact that there’s no proof this is hacked material and reporting on hacked materials is usually not against Terms of Service in other instances.
Immediately questioning this PR narrative, Twitter’s former VP of Global Comms Brandon Borrman asks “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of that policy?”
Former Twitter Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker suggests “it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been [hacked] and that caution is warranted.” There’s no evidence of it being hacked aside from speculation in the media, as equally unfounded as everything else known about the laptop files at the time. He does acknowledge that there are “others indicating that the computer was abandoned” and the repair shop could access it for at least some purposes.
Maybe one of the more important tweets in the thread: “Although several sources recalled hearing about a ‘general’ warning from federal law enforcement that summer about possible foreign hacks, there’s no evidence - that I've seen - of any government involvement in the laptop story. In fact, that might have been the problem...” This checks out. When Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned this same warning in an August 2022 podcast, it didn’t sound like it was specifically about the Hunter Biden laptop (although people took that and ran with it). However, Zuckerberg said the story did fit the pattern. Others, including then-Twitter safety chief Yoel Roth note the FBI was having monthly meetings with social media companies, which has raised eyebrows for some people.
October 24, 2020 at 5:30pm PT: According to an internal Twitter email, “The Biden campaign” petitioned for tweets to be deleted by Twitter, and both major US parties had access to these tools to flag tweets. Taibbi notes that “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.”
Backing up this claim, Taibbi, cites OpenSecrets, a nonprofit website that tracks campaign finance and lobbying. It shows a majority of political donations made by Twitter employees go to Democrats. On its face, this political imbalance is far from evidence that Twitter suppressed the New York Post story for political reasons, but it’s certainly led to people drawing a conclusion that there was bias within the company. The FEC-sourced numbers are notable, too: 99.73% to Democrats and just 0.27% to Republicans. It’ll be very interesting to see how this extremely lopsided ratio plays out in 2024 among employees who stick with Twitter under the direction of Elon Musk.
October 24, 2020 at 8:28pm PT: “Handled these” was the response to five Twitter URLs the Biden team requested be removed. However, while this is seen as a smoking gun by many Republicans, I’ve unfortunately seen an archive of these particular tweets and they depict nude photos of Hunter Biden (ugh, the things I do for journalism), some with an unidentified female subject, which, since it’s not authorized by the parties in the photograph, would be against the Terms of Service. These were not, as far as I can tell, about the New York Post laptop story, but photographs derived from the laptop files.
October 25, 2020: Two more tweets are deleted the next day, one from actor James Woods. It reads “Feet don’t fail me now” (that’s not why it got deleted) with a photo of Hunter Biden smoking a crack pipe while getting some adult services done to his toes. The photo is dressed up as a Joe Biden campaign ad, “I’m on Team Toe.” Although the photo is blurred, it still shows enough to violate the terms of service and for me to want to wash out my eyes – repeatedly.
March 2021: Then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, before he stepped down from the company, attended a virtual hearing for the US House Energy and Commerce Committee. He called the blocking of the New York Post story a “total mistake.” When asked why the New York Post Twitter account was banned from posting any tweets for nearly two weeks, Dorsey said it is because The Post was required to delete their tweet to the online version of the Hunter Biden laptop leak story. “Even though the tweet was accurate?” asked a puzzled US Rep. Steve Scalise before bringing up Section 230 protections (these protections offer immunity for “interactive computer services” like Twitter and Facebook where third-party users produce content, but when social media platforms start censoring one side vs the other, essentially picking political winners and losers, government officials begin to threaten to revise or strip them of Section 230). “It was literally just a process error,” said Dorsey. “We changed that [policy].”
November 29, 2022: At the Knight Foundation’s Informed 2022 conference, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety who recently quit the company in November, spoke to moderator Kara Swisher about the New York Post’s story removal: “Ultimately, for me, it didn’t reach a place where I was comfortable removing this content from Twitter. But it set off every single one of my finely tuned APT 28 hack-and-leak campaign alarm bells.” He went on to say of the notion of removing the New York Post story: “It didn’t get there for me.” When asked by Swisher if it was a mistake, Roth responded, “In my opinion, yes.” This now seems to be contradicted in part by his 2020 messages (seen below) among the “The Twitter Files” emails in which he explained tools to suppress the story from the Twitter platform.
Where do ‘Twitter Files’ leave us?
This is just part one of “The Twitter Files” by independent journalist Matt Taibbi. So far, the lengthy Twitter thread gives us insight into how the social media company’s former executives and managers botched the content moderation job in the lead-up to an important US Presidential election. Other media outlets have finally copped to the fact that the laptop data was real – two years later (their alleged reasoning is they weren’t given the files to verify them in the same way as the New York Post).
The “hacked materials” policy was always seen as a poor reason to block a story from the New York Post – for example when Trump’s tax returns did leak in September 2020 in the New York Times, there was no similar rush to block that information, even though we didn’t know where it came from. Now, with the “Twitter Files” exposed, we have insight into email communications of executives involved in the suppression and employees on background suggesting that the reasoning never held water. Even with doubts, decision makers like Yoel Roth and former head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde are seen as having played a key role in limiting the story’s reach.
But the Twitter Files don’t give us everything. Yes, the Biden campaign requested takedowns of tweets, and they seem like the most explosive portion of Taibbi’s thread. But from what I’ve seen from archives, these tweets show explicit (nude) material. If it had been the Biden campaign asking to pull down tweets about the story or shut down Kayleigh McEnany’s Twitter account, this would be a much, much different Twitter Files explainer.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped people – who haven’t done the research into looking at the explicit photos (the literal dirty work I’ve done) – from running with this narrative. And it hasn’t stopped the left from saying the story was only about the d—- pics, not even acknowledging the fact that 1) Twitter, right before an important election, blocked a factual story from America’s oldest newspaper, and 2) there are questions raised by these emails, like, how does the crack-addicted son of the then-VP get $3m from a Ukrainian gas firm while his dad is making policy there?
This may be less about direct government involvement and more about former Twitter execs’ bias and the perils of moderating content on social media in a fair way, which continue to this day, now under new management.
Speaking of which…
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Great explainer, glad I found this to be better informed. One question, I see from a comment from someone else that Twitter reversed the ban 2 days after it first went into effect…however this seems to be missing from your timeline. Is this indeed correct, that the ban only lasted 2 days?
It's also worth noting that the suppression of the story was literally only in place for two days, and the author of the NY Post story refused to have his name attached to it because it smelled off to him as well.