Hearing Brings Attention To US Agency's Effort To Compel Twitter To Identify Journalists Working On 'Twitter Files'

Hearing Brings Attention To US Agency's Effort To Compel Twitter To Identify Journalists Working On 'Twitter Files'
Journalist Matt Taibbi, who testified before the United States House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government about his work on the "Twitter Files"

A hearing convened by a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee brought further attention to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) effort to compel Twitter to identify “all journalists and other members of the media” who have had access to any files from Twitter.

Matt Taibbi, the most prominent journalist who has spent several months combing through hundreds of thousands of files, said he found the FTC’s request to be “scary.”

“I think it’s none of the government’s business which journalists a private company talks to and why,” Taibbi declared. “I think every journalist should be concerned about that, and the absence of interest in that issue by my fellow colleagues in the mainstream media is an indication of how low the business has sunk.”

On March 7, 2023, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee and the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released an “interim report” on the FTC’s actions since Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter in October 2022.

The report contained a request from December 13, 2022, where the FTC named Taibbi and others who were working on the “Twitter Files.” It pointed to the “broad and expanding access to Twitter’s files” that reporters were granted and claimed they had “extensive, unfiltered access to Twitter’s internal communication[s] and systems.”  

Twitter was urged to “identify all journalists and other members of the media to whom you have granted any type of access to the company’s internal communications (e.g. Slack, emails), resources, internal documents, and/or files since October 27, 2022.

The effort by the FTC to compel the identification of journalists working on not only the “Twitter Files” but any stories about Twitter was condemned by the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF).

“Anyone who cares about the free press should be concerned by the FTC’s demand that Twitter identify journalists who have received information that might embarrass the administration, regardless of what they think of Elon Musk or Twitter,” stated FPF advocacy director Seth Stern. “The FTC should not have to violate the privacy of journalists to protect the privacy of Twitter users.”

Select Subcommittee Ranking Member Stacey Plackett, a Democrat, maintained that the FTC had been concerned with protecting user data that may have been hacked or inappropriately disseminated.

However, Taibbi made it clear during the hearing that he did not have access to human resources files or any personal information of any kind. He mentioned that reporters had signed some kind of a waiver and was willing to share a copy of the waiver with the select committee.

Multiple times, Democrats tried to pressure Taibbi to reveal his sources. Plaskett asked, “Who was the individual that gave you permission to access the emails?”

“Well, the attribution for my story is sources of Twitter and that’s what I’m going to refer to,” Taibbi replied.

Plaskett continued, “Did Mr. Musk contact you, Mr. Taibbi?”

“Again, the attribution for my story is sources at Twitter,” Taibbi repeated.

Democratic Representative Sylvia Garcia during a United States House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government hearing on the "Twitter Files"

Democratic Representative Sylvia Garcia tried to continue the line of questioning started by Plaskett. “When was the first time that Mr. Musk approached you about writing the ‘Twitter Files’?”    

"I just need a date,” Garcia added, when Taibbi did not immediately answer.

“I can’t give it to you unfortunately because this is a question of sourcing, and I don’t give them. I’m a journalist. I don’t reveal my sources,” Taibbi said.

Garcia insisted this was a “question of chronology,” and claimed, “You earlier said that someone had sent you some message through the internet about whether you’d be interested in some information.”

“Yes, and I refer to that person as a source,” Taibbi told Garcia.  

"So you’re not going to tell us when Musk first approached you?” Garcia asked.

"You’re asking a journalist to reveal his sources,” Taibbi stated.  

“So then you consider Mr. Musk to be the direct source of all of this?” Garcia asked.

“No, now you’re trying to get me to say that he is the source,” Taibbi replied.

“He either is, or he isn’t. If you’re telling me you can’t answer because he’s your source, well, then the only logical conclusion is he is in fact your source,” Garcia suggested.

“Well, you’re fine to conclude that,” Taibbi answered.

For the second time in the hearing, Republican Select Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan called out Democrats for asking Taibbi to reveal his sources.

Plaskett contended it was reasonable to ask the question because if Musk was not the source then Taibbi could discuss his conversations with the source.

If Twitter employees were Taibbi's sources, they would be far more vulnerable to retaliation or risks to their livelihood if their anonymity was compromised than Musk. They likely would not be someone with the wealth and power to deal with scrutiny from the press and government agencies, which may not like what they have helped to expose—the cooperative arrangements that Twitter had with U.S. security agencies to censor, suppress, or moderate content.

When Taibbi was asked again about the FTC’s interest in other reporters he was collaborating with on the files, he further described why it upset him.

“I lived in Russia during the 1990s,” Taibbi shared. “I was there when Putin took power. I was friends with a group of very brave muckraking reporters in Russia, many whom didn’t make it. A few of them were murdered when Putin came to power.”

“So I’ve always been conscious of how the risk that other reporters take in other countries are incredibly severe, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m motivated to protect the First Amendment because our country has the best protections for reporters in the world.”

“But this kind of thing, where the government is looking for information about reporters—it’s usually a canary in the coal mine that something worse is coming in terms of an effort to exercise control over the press,” Taibbi concluded.

Taibbi mentioned an Aspen Institute report, "Information Disorder," that recommended the FTC be empowered to search the data of private companies so they “could more freely investigate the speech of ordinary citizens.”

As FPF advocacy director previously Seth Stern put it, “It’s especially disturbing that the demand could enable future efforts to obtain the journalists’ newsgathering materials.

“The Biden FTC’s actions add to the long list of reasons why conservatives, and all Americans, should support passing the PRESS Act. It’s the only way to ensure that all administrations, and all government agencies, are prohibited from surveilling or retaliating against journalists.”

The Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act is a proposed reporter’s shield law that was introduced by Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin during the previous session of Congress. It passed in the House, but the Senate did not pass the legislation.