FactChecking GOP’s Censorship Claim in Arizona Over Deleted Tweets

Republican officials have called for state and federal investigations of Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs after learning her office on Jan. 7, 2021, asked Twitter to review two tweets about the state’s voter registration database that it deemed to be election misinformation. Twitter subsequently removed the tweets.

Republicans claim Hobbs — a Democrat who was recently elected to become the state’s next governor — used her government office to censor free speech and benefit her election effort. But there’s less here than meets the eye.

The email asking for a review of the tweets was sent nearly five months before either Hobbs or her Republican opponent, Kari Lake, even declared their candidacies for governor. The subject of the tweets, a company that helped facilitate the state’s new voter registration database, was hired by Hobbs’ Republican predecessor, and the database has nothing to do with the state’s voter tabulation system.

On Jan. 7, 2021, the day after an attack on the U.S. Capitol that was the culmination of months of false claims about election fraud, C. Murphy Hebert, communications director for the Arizona secretary of state’s office, sent an email to the nonprofit Center for Internet Security asking for a review of two tweets that she said, “falsely assert that the Voter Registration System is owned and therefore operated by foreign actors.”

“This is an attempt to further undermine confidence in the election institution in Arizona,” Hebert wrote.

CIS turned Hebert’s email over to Twitter officials, who promised to “escalate” its review. Several hours later, Twitter reported that it had removed both the tweets.

The email exchange recently came to light through a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general for Missouri and Louisiana against President Joe Biden and members of his administration alleging they “colluded” with social media companies to censor free speech “under the guise of combating ‘misinformation.’”

On Dec. 4, Christina Bobb, an attorney for former President Donald Trump’s campaign, tweeted a screenshot of a redacted version of the exchange between Hebert, CIS and Twitter, citing it as evidence that Hobbs “censored her political opponents.”

Later that day, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reposted Bobb’s tweet and commented, “The SOS of AZ and Gov candidate, Katie Hobbs, used the power of the AZ SOS to collude w/ Twitter to unconstitutionally violate 1st Amendment rights of Americans for her own political gain. This is communism and Hobbs can not be governor. I’m calling for a Federal investigation.”

The following night, Dec. 5, Lake, who lost the governor’s race to Hobbs in November, appeared on Fox News, where host Tucker Carlson said Hobbs “worked with Big Tech to censor her (Lakes’) voters.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if her office was trying to silence people,” Lake said.

On Dec. 6, Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward sent a letter to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich citing the “bombshell” revelation that Hobbs “pressured Twitter to remove posts while she was running to become Governor of Arizona.” The letter called on Brnovich “to immediately investigate the Secretary of State over a government agency directing a private company (Twitter) to suppress free speech.”

“The First Amendment protects citizens’ speech from the government — not the other way around,” Ward wrote. “As Americans, we have the right to be critical of our government and vocalize those concerns.”

According to Ward, when Hobbs “privately asked” Twitter to “take down messaging she presumably viewed as detrimental to her campaign,” she “may have crossed the line into unlawful coordination.”

In his first “Twitter Files” report on internal company documents obtained by sources at Twitter, journalist Matt Taibbi wrote that requests for Twitter review came from Democrats and Republicans.

“Both parties had access to these tools,” Taibbi wrote. “For instance, in 2020, requests from both the Trump White House and the Biden campaign were received and honored.” 

Also missed in all of this is that the email from Hebert was sent on Jan. 7, 2021, nearly five months before Hobbs launched her gubernatorial bid, which came a day after Lake announced her candidacy.

So, the request to review the 2021 tweets — whatever one thinks of it — isn’t evidence that Hobbs “worked with Big Tech to censor her (Lakes’) voters,” as Carlson claimed. It’s also not evidence that her office was “directing” Twitter since such decisions are ultimately made by Twitter.

The Tweets

The tweets at issue come from an account that went by the name “What are you hiding?” It has since been suspended.

But we captured the tweets via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Both take aim at a company hired by Arizona to create a new voter information database.

The first tweet, sent on Jan. 4, 2021, stated, “Southerland Government Solutions (SGS) is contracted under the State of Arizona. They are supervised by the SOS to implement the new ACCESS Voter Information Database (AVID) which went live in Oct 2019. SGS has 4 sub-contractors and one is foreign.”

“Personally I do not want any of my personal information being processed or handled in another State,” the person wrote.

The following day, the same account posted, “Sutherland Global Services Inc is the main contractor for Arizona Voter Information Database and is a foreign corporation according to AZ Corporation Commission Director Ted Vogt. Is our entire election system foreign owned?”

The tweet linked to a screenshot of a 2017 certificate from Ted Vogt, then executive director of the Arizona Corporation Commission, certifying that Sutherland Global Services Inc. was “a foreign corporation organized under the laws of New York” and which was qualified to transact business in Arizona.

Allie Bones, assistant secretary of state, gave us a statement that said Hebert’s email exchange was “taken entirely out of context” and that “it has nothing to do with this year’s midterm election.”

“This is yet another example of conspiracy theorists trying to create chaos and confusion by casting doubt on our election system,” Bones said. “It’s unfair to Arizona voters and it’s harmful to our democracy.”

As for claims about it being inappropriate for Hebert, as a representative of the secretary of state, to send a message seeking review of a social media post, Bones said that was “standard practice for government entities.”

“It is standard practice for government entities, organizations, and corporations alike to report content on social media that violates a platform’s terms of service,” Bones said. “It’s the Secretary of State’s job to make sure that voters are informed about how to vote and how our election system works. One of the ways we do that is by working to counter disinformation online that can confuse voters.”

It should be noted that Hebert didn’t complain directly to Twitter. Rather, she sent her email to the nonprofit Center for Internet Security, which had set up a pathway for election officials to “report identified disinformation and misinformation.” CIS said it would forward such complaints to “the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security who will submit it to the relevant social media platform(s) for review.”

Kelly Wyland, the media relations manager for CIS, told us CIS is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization formed in 2000 to improve the state of global cybersecurity by leveraging collaboration among government, industry, and academia.”

“During the 2020 General Election season, CIS supported elections offices by functioning as a place for reporting information appearing on social media that is about election administration and factually incorrect, such as poll times and locations and other aspects of the administrative process,” Wyland said. “CIS forwarded these misinformation reports to the appropriate social media organization for their review against their policies and terms of use. This service was established to relieve individual elections offices from dealing with the different modes and formats required by the various social media companies in reporting potential violations of their terms of service.”

But ultimately, she said, it was up to Twitter to determine whether a flagged tweet had violated its policy and should be removed.

“The decision to report the factually inaccurate information rests with the election office and the decision to act with regard to the reported content rests with the social media platform,” Wyland said.

In other words, the secretary of state’s office did not “direct” Twitter to remove the posts, as Ward put it in her letter to the attorney general, but rather it requested their review.

Arizona’s Voter Database Project

The decision to replace Arizona’s voter registration database predated Hobbs.

In 2017, then-Secretary of State Michele Reagan, a Republican, initiated a project to replace the state’s “aging” voter registration database with the newer Access Voter Information Database known as AVID. Sutherland Government Solutions, a wing of Sutherland Global Services Inc. headquartered in Rochester, New York, was awarded the $3.9 contract.

“This new system will employ the most current security protocols,” Reagan wrote at the time. “It will be hosted in the same environment that banks and the US Military maintain essential data. This shift maintains the highest level of integrity of the voter rolls in Arizona while still having the ability to grow as needs shift.”

Hobbs, who took office in January 2019, inherited the in-progress project, which was implemented during her tenure.

In October 2019, Hobbs told KGUN 9 News the new technology was a necessary upgrade and would allow voters to look up their voter information, see their voting history and make sure their status is accurate.

Richard Hamilton, who was vice president of the state sales market for Sutherland when the company won the contract in 2017, told us the person who wrote the tweets in question didn’t understand how the system works and how it relates to the election process in Arizona.

The data is all in the cloud and controlled by the state, he said. Hamilton, who no longer works at Sutherland, said that while Sutherland is a global company, it is headquartered in Rochester, New York, and there was no ability for any foreign actors to access that data any more than anyone else could gain access to the secure system.

And, he said, the voter registration database doesn’t have anything to do with the voting system – contrary to the tweet, sent by What are you hiding?, that asked “Is our entire election system foreign owned?”.

“That is a whole different set of solutions,” Hamilton said. “There is a lot of confusion about election software. The election voting tabulation system is something completely different.”

Contract documents show that Sutherland subcontracted with BPro Inc. of South Dakota to act as project director, leading the technical design of the database and implementation of it. The company, which has since been sold, helped create and implement voter registration and other election database systems for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Vermont and Nebraska.

But regardless, Sutherland does not operate the system.

“We operate the database,” Hebert told us in a phone interview. “The state is in control of the database.”

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