Twitter is fighting a Jan. 6 committee request for its employees’ internal communications — including Slack messages about moderating Tweets related to the Capitol attack, three sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone.
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.
In a statement, Twitter did not comment directly on the dispute but said: “Since last year, we have had an ongoing, productive engagement with the Select Committee, and have provided appropriate, relevant information to contribute to this important investigation” and that that it is “committed to continuing this work with the Select Committee.”
The company added that it takes “a principled approach to responding to requests for information from governments, and will continue to closely evaluate the merits of each request to protect the rights of the people who use our service, as well as the rights of Twitter and its employees.”
A Jan. 6 committee spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
In January, the committee outlined two “key questions” before the panel, one of which included “what steps—if any—social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence.” The Slack messages requested by the committee would help flesh out in detail how Twitter handled insurrection-related content but Twitter contends that providing such granular-level deliberative data violates its constitutional rights.
It’s unclear whether or how far the House select committee investigating the Capitol assault intends to press the issue following Twitter’s assertion of First Amendment privilege. But the debate is over how to balance the competing equities, says Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute.
“It’s a really tricky issue. These private companies are making systemically important public interest decisions so how should we think about their own private right to do it? Who do we trust less: the companies or the government?”
The incident comes amid what has at times been a rocky relationship between the panel and tech companies.
In August 2021, The committee sent letters requesting data from 15 different social media companies in a request that sought information from tech giants like Google, Meta, and Twitter as well as more niche far-right platforms like 4chan and the Qanon mecca, 8kun.
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.
Thompson referenced allegations that January 6th rioters had used Twitter to communicate over “the planning and execution of the assault on the United States Capitol” and amplify election conspiracy theories.
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 dispute also goes back to a larger, long standing debate about whether — and how much — social media companies should be allowed to moderate content on their platforms.
In Texas and Florida, conservative legislators have tried to hamstring social media companies with laws that would effectively ban moderation of any political speech, from boring posts about capital gains tax rates to rabidly pro-Nazi commentary. The laws, blocked by federal courts, also contain mandatory transparency provisions demanding tech giants disclose details of their moderation decisions in a move that Netchoice, the trade association representing social media giants, has argued would violate their First Amendment rights.
“This is a really live and difficult issue that’s playing out in the litigation around the Texas and Florida laws as well,” Douek says. “The concern is that if the government can peer into those kinds of decisions, companies will be chilled in making them and not be able to discuss them candidly. They’ll be scared that at some point in the future something like this will happen.”