Twitter and Facebook said they were limiting the distribution of a series of news articles by the New York Post, supposedly containing unverified claims about Democratic president nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Facebook restricted users from linking to the articles until they could be fact-checked by the company’s third-party partners. Twitter, on the other hand, blocked users from posting the articles or even photos from them.

Twitter and Facebook’s actions come during a contentious period in American politics, just weeks ahead of the country’s presidential elections. This is also perhaps the first time either social media giant has blocked a news story from a major publisher.

What is the Post story about? The New York Post published a series of news stories, reporting on alleged links between Hunter Biden and Ukraine, claiming that Biden had tried to introduce a top Ukrainian company executive to his then-vice president father. It cited emails that were apparently sourced form Biden’s computer that had been left behind at a computer shop in Delaware.

Twitter blocks due to concerns about ‘hacked’, private information

Twitter, which arguably imposed greater restrictions, initially banned the content without making a public announcement. Users who tried to share the stories as tweets or as direct messages (DM) were unable to do so, only to be warned the stories were breaking Twitter’s policies.

After facing public backlash for the lack of information and context, Twitter elaborated its stance, citing its policy on sharing “hacked materials”. The Post, in its reportage, used multiple screenshots of emails, which it claimed were sourced from Biden’s laptop. By doing so, Twitter has essentially claimed, the publication is sharing hacked material. Furthermore, the company said that discussion about of hacked material, such as articles that cover them, wouldn’t have violated this policy, however the reproduction of hacked material (like the Post has done in the form of screenshots of emails) would.

Twitter also referred to a 2018 blog post about its work on protecting the integrity of elections. “We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials,” it said.

Later, CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that the lack of transparency and communication in the matter “was not great”. He also termed “unacceptable” the fact that users were given no context as to why the stories could not be shared.

Twitter’s approach to the stories indicates that it will continue to block the distribution of stories on a permanent basis, or at least as long as the Post’s stories have screenshots of Biden’s alleged emails.

Update (October 16): Twitter has now essentially reversed its policy on hacked materials. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s Legal and Policy lead, announced on Friday that the company will no longer remove hacked content unless it is “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them”. Another major change to the policy is that it will start labelling such tweets instead of blocking links outright. In essence, Twitter will not block the distribution of the Post’s articles on the alleged Biden emails. Gadde defended the policy change, saying that Twitter wanted to address concerns around “unintended consequences” to journalists, whistleblowers and others. “Content moderation is incredibly difficult, especially in the critical context of an election. We are trying to act responsibly & quickly to prevent harms, but we’re still learning along the way,” she added.

Facebook chooses a more mellow approach

Meanwhile, Facebook chose to go with a measured approach. The company only limited the distribution of the Post’s stories while third-party fact checkers could authenticate claims made in it. The stories were not linked high on users’ feeds, thereby reducing the number of times it is viewed. However, the sharing or posting of the stories itself was not blocked, unlike in Twitter’s case.

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, also tweeted that this is the standard process it has adopted to reduce the spread of misinformation during the run up to the elections.

Facebook’s efforts seem to have had little effect on the proliferation of the stories. According to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics and research firm acquired by Facebook in 2016, the Post’s “exclusive” story with Biden’s emails was seen over 900,000 times on Facebook at the time of publishing this article.

Last month, as part of its election-related effort, Facebook had announced it would try to restrict “hack-and-leak” operations — when a “bad actor” steals information on a public figure or journalist and strategically releases it to influence public debate.

Trump criticises both companies, calls for repeal of Section 230

US President Donald Trump tweeted his displeasure over Twitter and Facebook’s actions, criticising them for taking down stories on his opponent in the upcoming election, Joe Biden and his son Hunter. He then called for a repeal of Section 230.

Section 230 of the US’s Communication Decency Act of 1996, protects companies operating on the internet from liability for their users’ content. For instance, if a user posts hate speech on a social media platform like Facebook, it is the user, and not Facebook, who can be subjected to legal action. It basically ensures that the companies are not treated as publishers of this content. Without these safe harbour protections, companies would be forced to censor their users to prevent liability, thereby leading to curtailment of free speech on the internet.

The US government’s Justice Department had recently proposed a slew of amendments to dilute Section 230 protections. Earlier, three Republican senators had introduced a new bill proposing similar changes.

The Senate’s commerce committee has, in fact, scheduled a hearing on Section 230 on October 28, when the CEOs of Facebook and Google and Twitter are expected to testify. Referring indirectly to this hearing, the Senate Republican Conference tweeted “see you soon, @jack”, along with a video of a Twitter user trying to share one of the Post’s stories and failing at it.

Other Republican senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley sent letters to Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to express their protest and seek explanations from them.

Twitter, Facebook’s vigilance during elections

This is not the first time Facebook or Twitter have made controversial decisions as part of their strategy for the US elections. In August, Twitter flagged one of Trump’s tweets on mail-in ballots as “misinformation”. Earlier, Facebook had taken down a Trump re-election advertising campaign for using a Nazi symbol.

More recently, Facebook decided to stop all political ads after election day (November 8), to prevent candidates from declaring victory before all votes are counted. This was prompted by the idea that election results would not be final due to the unique nature of voting this year due to the pandemic, where most people would cast their ballots via mail. Twitter, too, had banned political ads last year, unrelated to the elections.

Related: Twitter had earlier taken down hacked ‘BlueLeaks’ police files

This is not the first time Twitter has enforced its policy on hacked materials. A few months ago, in June 2020, the company took down content from DDoSecrets, who shared links to a trove of damning, sensitive documents from over 200 police departments in the US. The documents had indicated at how law enforcement agencies were monitoring Black Lives Movement protestors’ communications in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

***Update at 11:36 IST, October 16 to add Twitter’s reversal of its policy on hacked materials. Originally published on October 15, 2020.

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