Future Tense

Facebook and Twitter Take Steps to Limit Spread of Controversial New York Post Article

Joe Biden is smiling at a rally behind a podium that says BIDEN PRESIDENT, standing next to his wife Jill Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owens. People with Biden signs cheer in the background.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden (L) and sister Valerie Biden Owens, attend a Super Tuesday event at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center. David McNew/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter took steps to limit the spread of a controversial New York Post story about Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son’s work in Ukraine—and in response, conservative figures are decrying the platforms for improperly censoring speech.

The unverified article claims that a “smoking gun” email shows Hunter Biden introducing his father to an executive at a Ukrainian company that Hunter used to work for. The information supposedly comes from a hard drive left at a computer repair shop in Delaware that made its way to Rudy Giuliani. But some, including New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, believe that, if real, the email (and others) may have been hacked, perhaps by Russia.

On Wednesday morning, Facebook communications director Andy Stone said in a tweet that his platform would be limiting the article’s ability to spread.

“This is part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation. We temporarily reduce distribution pending fact-checker review,” he said in a follow-up tweet.

The Verge notes that “Facebook partners with a variety of fact-checking institutions and downranks content that is rated partially or completely false, adding a warning label and making users less likely to see it.” It also points out that it’s currently not clear whether Facebook might also decide to limit the distribution of articles that are aggregating the New York Post story.

Twitter, meanwhile, is blocking the article from being tweeted entirely, as seen below.

When asked for comment, Twitter specified its Hacked Material Policy states  “we don’t permit the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information, may put people in physical harm or danger, or contains trade secrets.” That suggests the platform may be concerned that the emails were stolen. New York Post reporter Noah Manskar tweeted Wednesday afternoon that the Post’s Twitter account had been locked, too.

Both platforms’ decisions have sparked backlash from Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who have accused social media platforms of censoring conservative views. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a frequent critic of social networks, accused the Biden team of pressuring Facebook and Twitter to block the spread of the article. “The seemingly selective nature of this public intervention suggests partiality on the part of Facebook,” Hawley wrote. “And your efforts to suppress the distribution of content revealing potentially unethical activity by a candidate for president raises a number of additional questions, to which I expect responses immediately.”

But conservative politicians aren’t the only ones questioning this approach. Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School who studies content moderation, noted that Twitter’s explanation for blocking links to the article appears to be at odds with another part of its policy:

This is just the most recent examples of platforms struggling to decide what content to block. New York Times’ Ben Smith tweeted, “The platforms are just flailing, without clear rules, to give journalists and critics what platforms think they want.” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, echoed that sentiment, tweeting: “I’ve said over and over again that both the media and platforms need detailed policies, measured against realistic scenarios, that they publicly commit to, so that making the right call in the heat of the moment is easier. This is exactly why.”

Update, Oct. 14, 8:36 p.m.: On Wednesday evening, Twitter Safety posted a thread giving more detail about how the New York Post violated its guidelines. Among other things, it said, “The images contained in the articles include personal and private information—like email addresses and phone numbers—which violate our rules.” It reiterated that the emails violated its policy on hacked materials but said “Commentary on or discussion about hacked materials, such as articles that cover them but do not include or link to the materials themselves, aren’t a violation of this policy. Our policy only covers links to or images of hacked material themselves.” Additionally, it acknowledged: “We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner. We should provide additional clarity and context when preventing the Tweeting or DMing of URLs that violate our policies.” Here is Twitter’s private information policy.

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