Twitter Fights Back Against January 6th Committee’s Dangerously Intrusive Subpoena Demands
from the good-for-them dept
With the whole Congressional January 6th Committee effort moving into prime time this week, this is probably pretty far down on the list of issues around it, but apparently Twitter is quietly fighting demands from the Committee to reveal internal communications.
The social media giant is asserting a First Amendment privilege to push back on the panel’s demand for communications about moderating tweets related to the Capitol insurrection.
Twitter’s pushback, the sources say, has caused consternation among the committee, whose members believe the internal communications would help them paint a fuller, more accurate portrait of how online MAGA extremism contributed to the day’s violence and mayhem. But the fact that the company is being asked for its internal communications at all raises tricky issues about the balance between free expression and the government’s authority to investigate an attempt to subvert democracy. And it shows just how wide Congressional investigators have been willing to cast their net in the run-up to their primetime hearings, which begin this week.
As you may recall, we talked about this issue last summer, when the Committee first sent information demands to a long list of social media companies, trying to understand the policies those sites had in dealing with extremism on their sites. At the time, we said that the companies should resist those demands, in part because some of the information that was being requested seemed very likely to lead to Congress threatening and intimidating companies over their 1st Amendment protected editorial decision making.
And that definitely appears to be the case. From the article, it appears that at least some of the companies did resist, leading Congress to step things up from a mere request for information to an actual subpoena.
The panel escalated the issue in January and sent formal subpoenas to Twitter, Meta, Google, and Reddit in January, citing “inadequate responses to prior requests for information” by the companies.
Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson lamented that the committee “still do[es] not have the documents and information necessary to answer” questions about how the tech companies handled January 6th-related communications, more than four months after its initial request.
With Twitter, at least, the demands seem deeply intrusive on basic editorial decision making, including some fairly basic internal communications.
In a letter accompanying the subpoena sent to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal in January, Thompson demanded three specific categories of documents that he said Twitter had failed to turn over to the committee. They included “documents relating to warnings [Twitter] received regarding the use of the platform to plan or incite violence on January 6th” and an alleged failure to “even commit to a timeline” to send over “internal company analyses of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation relating to the 2020 Election.”
Thompson also faulted Twitter for failing to turn over material concerning Twitter’s decision to suspend Trump from the platform two days after the insurrection—a decision set for reversal should billionaire Elon Musk complete his planned acquisition of Twitter.
The demands are asking for some internal communications, including internal Slack messages about moderating tweets regarding the invasion of the Capitol on January 6th. Even if you agree with the work of the Committee, this should greatly concern you for multiple reasons. First, opening up internal communications regarding editorial decisions raises all sorts of 1st Amendment issues. Imagine Congress similarly demanding internal editorial discussions for Fox News or the NY Times or CNN. People would be rightly concerned about that.
Second, Slack messages, in particular, are designed to be more informal. It’s quite easy to see how Slack messages, taken out of context, could be completely misrepresented to suggest something inaccurate.
Third, just the idea that such internal messages may go before a Congressional Committee (and potentially be released to the public) creates massive, stunning, chilling effects on the kinds of internal discussions that trust and safety teams need to have all the time as they figure out how to deal with dynamic, rapidly changing scenarios. It’s important that teams be able to communicate freely and discuss different ideas and perspectives about how to deal with different challenges, and if they’re constantly worried about how those messages will look when someone in Congress reads them from the floor, that’s going to create huge chilling effects, and make it much more difficult for people at these companies to do their job.
Finally, just think about how this power will be abused. If you support the Jan. 6 Committee, it’s quite likely that the Republicans will be the majority in Congress next year. Do you think they should then be able to demand these same internal communications from Twitter, Facebook, and others about their moderation choices? Do you honestly think that they will do so in good faith, and not to try to pressure and intimidate these companies into leaving up partisan propaganda and nonsense?
And, if you’re on the other side, and believe that the Jan. 6th Committee is a fraud on the American public, then you should already be concerned about these demands, but think about how those same powers might be used against companies you like. Should Congress be able to investigate Fox News or OAN’s internal editorial meetings and decisions about who they’ll put on air? Should Congress be able to subpoena Truth Social to find out why it’s blocking critics of President Trump?
There are some things Congress should not be able to do, and that includes interfering with the editorial choices of companies. It’s offensive to the 1st Amendment.