Twitter Files: Ex-FBI lawyer tried to label Trump ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid’ post as misinformation

A top Twitter executive wanted to label as misinformation President Trump’s upbeat post telling Americans “Don’t be afraid of Covid” after he overcame the viral disease in October 2020.

According to documents released Monday as part of Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files,” James Baker, Twitter’s since-fired deputy general counsel, linked to the post in an email to Yoel Roth, the social media giant’s head of trust and safety.

Mr. Baker, a former FBI lawyer and a key facilitator of the bureau’s much-criticized investigation into purported Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 presidential election, asked why the presidential tweet was not a “violation of our COVID-19 policy” on misinformation.

Mr. Trump sent the post upon ending his convalescence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Feeling really good!” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Mr. Baker, a staunch anti-Trump commentator for CNN in between his tenures at the FBI and at Twitter, was adamant that the president’s post had gone too far.

“Especially the ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid statement,’” Mr. Baker said in the email to his colleagues.  

Mr. Roth replied that he was unable to remove the post because it didn’t “fall with the published scope of our policies.”

“This tweet is a broad, optimistic statement,” Mr. Roth told Mr. Baker. “It doesn’t incite people to do something harmful, nor does it recommend against taking precautions or following mask directives (or other guidelines).”

“Curious whether you have a different read on it, though,” Mr. Roth wrote back.

The episode was one of several revealed Monday by independent journalist David Zweig in the latest Twitter Files installment focusing on “how Twitter rigged the COVID debate.”

Mr. Zweig said Twitter executives and White House officials worked together to stifle COVID-related posts “by censoring info that was true but inconvenient to U.S. govt. policy, by discrediting doctors and other experts who disagreed [and] by suppressing ordinary users, including some sharing the CDC’s *own data*.”

That pressure came from both the Trump and Biden administrations, Mr. Zweig said.

Meeting notes taken by Twitter executives show that, early on during the pandemic, the Trump administration was “especially concerned about panic buying” and looked to Big Tech to help fight misinformation about “runs on grocery stores” and related public fears.

“The Trump White House, specifically Michael Kratsios, led the Trump administration’s calls for help from the tech companies to combat misinformation,” the notes read. “Areas of focus included conspiracies around 5G cell towers, runs on grocery stores, and misinformation that could stoke panic buying behavior.”

That pressure continued under the Biden administration.

“One of the first meeting requests from the Biden White House was about COVID misinformation,” the notes read. “Per regular process, Public Policy took the meeting. Biden’s staff focused on vaccines and high-profile anti-vaxxer accounts, including Alex Berenson.”

Mr. Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, was removed from the platform in the summer of 2021 after President Biden lamented publicly that social media companies were “killing people.”

Mr. Berenson later sued the platform over his removal.

Internal correspondence between Twitter employees uncovered as part of Mr. Berenson’s lawsuit revealed that the Biden White House pressured Twitter directly to remove Mr. Berenson from the platform.

“How was WH…?” one employee asked over Slack.

“Overall pretty good!” another employee responded. “They had one really tough question about why Alex Berenson hasn’t been kicked off from the platform; otherwise their questions were pointed but fair — and mercifully we had answers.”

Mr. Berenson’s lawsuit ended in a settlement with Twitter. After Mr. Musk took over the platform this year, his account was restored.

Other summaries of White House meetings by Twitter’s head of U.S. public policy Lauren Culbertson reveal further pressure from the Biden administration to censor posts about COVID-19.

“The Biden team was not satisfied with Twitter’s enforcement approach as they wanted Twitter to do more and de-platform several accounts,” Ms. Culbertson’s notes read. “Because of this dissatisfaction, we were asked to join several other calls. They were very angry in nature.”

Mr. Zweig wrote that a review of internal documents showed that the platform did not always capitulate to White House requests to censor COVID-related posts. Twitter’s internal communications, he wrote, “revealed employees often debating moderation cases in great detail, and with more care than was shown by the government toward free speech.”

“But Twitter did suppress views — many from doctors and scientific experts — that conflicted with the official positions of the White House,” Mr. Zweig wrote. “As a result, legitimate findings and questions that would have expanded the public debate went missing.”

When it came to posts about COVID-19, he said, Twitter’s “bias bent heavily toward establishment dogmas.”

In one example, Twitter site moderators tagged as “false information” a post by Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff stating that while COVID-19 vaccines were “important for older and at-risk people and their care-takers,” they were not needed by children and those with prior natural infection.

“Kulldorff’s statement was an expert’s opinion — one which also happened to be in line with vaccine policies in numerous other countries,” Mr. Zweig wrote.

“Yet it was deemed ‘false information’ by Twitter moderators merely because it differed from CDC guidelines,” he wrote.

Twitter ultimately labeled Mr. Kulldorff’s post as “misleading” and barred users from replying to or liking the post.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on natural immunity and the dangers that COVID-19 poses to younger children have since shifted in the direction of Mr. Kulldorff’s “misleading” post.

“In my review of internal files, I found countless instances of tweets labeled as ‘misleading,’ or taken down entirely, sometimes triggering account suspensions, simply because they veered from CDC guidance or different from establishment views,” Mr. Zweig wrote.

“Twitter made a decision, via the political leanings of senior staff, and govt pressure, that the public health authorities’ approach to the pandemic – prioritizing mitigation over other concerns – was ‘The Science,’” he wrote.

The latest Twitter Files release follows installments showing the platform’s left-leaning bias that led to the censorship of conservative perspectives, the suppression of news reports about Hunter Biden’s laptop computer just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, and the decision to permanently ban Mr. Trump from the platform in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Other installments have also revealed the extent to which the FBI worked with the platform to suppress speech that falls under First Amendment protection from government censorship.

The revelations have set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill and have spurred an investigation by House Republicans into the FBI’s involvement in online censorship.

Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Twitter’s internal documents raised concerns that “the FBI maintained this relationship with Twitter apart from any particularized need for a specific investigation, but as a permanent and ongoing surveillance operation.”

“From disclosed Twitter documents and publicly available information, it is clear the FBI worked extensively with Twitter to advance censorship of certain speech on Twitter’s platform,” he wrote in a letter Friday to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. “These revelations sadly reinforce our deep concerns about the FBI’s misconduct and its hostility to the First Amendment.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.