The FBI warned Twitter explicitly of a “hack-and-leak operation involving Hunter Biden” ahead of the 2020 presidential election, documents filed with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) show, providing fresh insight around the social media platform’s decision to censor the New York Post’s explosive expose about the contents of a laptop linked to President Joe Biden’s son.
Twitter’s former head of site integrity Yoel Roth made the remarks in a signed declaration (pdf) attached to a Dec. 21, 2020 letter to the FEC’s Office of Complaints Examination and Legal Administration on behalf of Twitter.
That letter came in response to a complaint by the Republican National Committee (RNC) that Twitter had made an “impermissible in-kind contribution” to Biden’s presidential campaign when it removed from its platform articles published by the New York Post about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Roth said in the attached declaration that he was told by the FBI at a series of meetings ahead of the 2020 election that the agency warned of the threat of hacked materials being distributed on social media platforms.
“I was told in these meetings that the intelligence community expected that individuals associated with political campaigns would be subject to hacking attacks and that material obtained through those hacking attacks would likely be disseminated over social media platforms, including Twitter,” Roth stated in the declaration.
“I also learned in these meetings that there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden,” Roth added.
Twitter ‘Has Interfered in Elections’
In the run-up to the 2020 election, the New York Post published a story about a laptop abandoned at a computer repair shop that purportedly belonged to Hunter Biden and contained emails suggesting that then-candidate Joe Biden had knowledge of, and was allegedly involved in, his son’s foreign business dealings.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly insisted he had no knowledge of or involvement in his son’s business operations.
Roth said in the declaration that, after reviewing the New York Post’s articles about the laptop, Twitter’s Site Integrity Team determined that they violated the platform’s policies against the distribution of hacked materials and took action on Oct. 14, 2020, to suppress distribution of the articles.
“Per the procedures and sanctions set out in the policies, the Site Integrity Team blocked Twitter users who had previously sent Tweets sharing those articles from sending new Tweets until they deleted the Tweets violating Twitter’s policies,” Roth said.
Roth later acknowledged that it was a mistake for Twitter to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story.
“We didn’t know what to believe, we didn’t know what was true, there was smoke—and ultimately for me, it didn’t reach a place where I was comfortable removing this content from Twitter,” Roth said during a recent interview at the Knight Foundation conference.
“But it set off every single one of my finely tuned APT28 ‘hack and leak campaign’ alarm bells,” Roth added, referring to a Russian cybercrime operation.
Roth was then asked if he thinks that Twitter blocking the Hunter Biden laptop story was a mistake, and he replied: “In my opinion, yes.”
In the interview, Roth was asked whether he thinks safety on Twitter had improved after Elon Musk’s takeover, to which he replied, “no.”
Musk responded to a news article fearing Roth’s remark by saying that Twitter had long failed in its trust and safety operations and interfered in elections.
“The obvious reality, as long-time users know, is that Twitter has failed in trust & safety for a very long time and has interfered in elections,” Musk said in a post on Twitter.
Separately, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this year that the FBI had also warned Facebook to be on “high alert” for “Russian propaganda” ahead of the 2020 election.
Meta, which is Facebook’s parent company, issued a clarifying statement, saying in a Twitter post that remarks made by Zuckerberg to podcast host Joe Rogan were general in nature.
“The FBI shared general warnings about foreign interference—nothing specific about Hunter Biden,” the company said in the statement.
The FBI said in a statement to media outlets at the time that their warning to Facebook was of a general nature and didn’t include a call to action.
The agency said it “routinely notifies U.S. private sector entities, including social media providers, of potential threat information, so that they can decide how to better defend against threats” and that the agency “has provided companies with foreign threat indicators to help them protect their platforms and customers from abuse by foreign malign influence actors.”
However, the bureau “cannot ask, or direct, companies to take action on information received.”
Akin to Twitter’s censorship of posts sharing the Hunter Biden laptop articles, the story was also suppressed by Facebook in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election.