An old headline making new waves on social media falsely claimed Twitter was caught leaking President Donald Trump’s private messages to the Justice Department as part of an undercover sting operation.
"Twitter caught leaking Donald Trump’s private messages in undercover sting," said a Jan. 11, 2018, headline from Neon Nettle, an online news site created to provide an "educational and thought provoking" alternative to the mainstream news media, according to its about page.
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"One of Twitter's senior engineers has admitted to hacking the president's private data and leaking it to the Department of Justice," the Neon Nettle story said.
The headline is based on comments made by a Twitter engineer, but the engineer never said he had leaked information to the Justice Department.
The story cited a video from Project Veritas, an investigative outlet run by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count in 2010 for using a fake identity to enter a federal building and was sued for $1 million in 2017.
Project Veritas has a proven history of using undercover reporting, hidden cameras and selectively-edited video recordings to serve a predetermined narrative. In 2017, the organization sent a woman posing as a sexual assault victim of Roy Moore — a candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama — to the Washington Post in an apparent effort to discredit the paper’s investigation into Moore’s predatory behavior.
For this particular sting video, Project Veritas used hidden cameras to surreptitiously record two separate conversations between undercover journalists and Clay Haynes, a senior network security engineer at Twitter, according to LinkedIn. The journalists, dressed in disguises, asked leading questions in a clear effort to elicit certain responses from Haynes.
"We’re more than happy to help the DOJ with their little investigation (into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election)," Haynes, who also expressed his personal disdain for Trump, said at one point. "Basically, giving them every single tweet that he’s posted. Even the ones he’s deleted, any direct messages, any mentions."
In the second interview, Haynes said of the possibility of turning over Trump’s messages, "We have a subpoena process for that very reason." When asked whether Twitter was working with the Justice Department, he declined to comment.
Both interviews occurred in January 2018, and Twitter issued a statement after Project Veritas published its video. "The individual depicted in this video was speaking in a personal capacity and does not represent or speak for Twitter," a company spokesperson said. "Twitter only responds to valid legal requests, and does not share any user information with law enforcement without such a request."
"We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a predetermined narrative," the spokesperson said. "Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules."
It is unclear from the video whether Haynes knew he was being recorded, though he does not seem to be aware. It is illegal to record a private conversation without the consent of both parties in California, where the video was taken.
As Snopes previously noted, Project Veritas’ videos are "virtually impossible to fact check without complete clips of the involved conversations" because they use "stitched-together, out-of-context remarks with no indication of what occurred or what was discussed just before and after the included portions."
According to Twitter’s Help Center, legal processes are required to trigger the release of private messages. "Non-public information about Twitter users will not be released to law enforcement except in response to appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process," the company policy said. "Requests for the contents of communications … require a valid search warrant or equivalent from an agency with proper jurisdiction over Twitter."
Haynes did not say that Twitter leaked private messages from Trump. He said only that the company would be "more than happy to help the DOJ" were such help ever triggered by a legal process.
We searched Google and Nexis and did not find any reports that Twitter was cooperating in this fashion with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 election, although the company did meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss Russian bot accounts on its site.
But even if we were to take Project Veritas’ video at face value, the Neon Nettle headline was misleading. The video showed Twitter to be capable of granting access to Trump’s private messages — a capability that most technology companies maintain — but the company was not caught leaking them.
Neon Nettle did not respond to a request for comment.
We rate this statement False.