As Facebook and Twitter moved quickly this week to curb the spread of an unconfirmed political story published by the conservative crooked New York Post, it led to predictable censorship from the right. But it also illustrated the slippery slope, even the largest technology companies have a stream of information, especially in the midst of a fierce presidential election campaign.
While Facebook and Twitter have often been slow to combat apparent misinformation and other violations of their rules, their responses in this case show how fast they can move whenever they want. Misinformation often surpasses the truth on social networks, academic studies have found. But if titans on social media are not careful, their attempts to squeeze down on a story can further reinforce that. And even when they exercise caution, they run the risk of generating their own headlines for every move.
For the first time in recent memory, the two social media platforms enforced rules against misinformation about a story from a regular media publication. The story in question, which has not been confirmed by other publications, quoted unconfirmed emails from the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was reportedly discovered by President Donald Trump̵
Trump’s campaign grabbed hold of the report, though it raised more questions than answers, including whether emails at the center of the story were hacked or fabricated. None of the companies responded when asked if they had previously taken similar actions against a regular news article, although Facebook said it is common practice to downgrade material while awaiting a fact check.
Facebook used the ability for false information as a reason to limit the article’s reach, which means its algorithm shows it to fewer people, much like you might not see as many posts from friends you don’t interact with often. Twitter, meanwhile, blocked users from tweeting the link to the story and from sending it in private messages.
Although they acted quickly, both companies stumbled upon to communicate their decision to the public. Partly because of this and partly by the mere act of trying to limit history, the technical platforms soon became history, especially in conservative circles, where alleged bias from Big Tech is already a primary talking point. The fact that a large newspaper in the big city got the treatment usually reserved for more fringes, added fuel extra fuel.
“I find this behavior astonishing, but not surprising, from a platform that has censored the President of the United States,” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Wrote in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Republican lawmakers on Thursday announced plans to convene Dorsey to testify about his platform’s actions.
In a somewhat unusual move Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesman took to Twitter to announce that the company was “reducing” the distribution of the story on the platform while they waited for third-party fact checkers to check it. Facebook does this regularly with material that is not directly excluded from its service, but which risks spreading lies or causing harm in other ways.
Later on Wednesday, Twitter began banning its users from sharing links to the article in tweets and direct messages because it violated company policy banning hacked content. But it did not warn its users why they could not share the link until hours later.
In a Twitter thread, the company’s security group said the images in the article contained personal and private information in violation of its rules, saying that the material included in the article was considered a violation of its hacked material policy.
Dorsey tweeted shortly after that it was “unacceptable” that the company had not provided more context around its action.
The post followed up on Wednesday with an article focusing on the technical platforms’ alleged “censorship”. And Thursday’s print cover of the tabloid shows a photo of Biden and his son with a large blue “CENSORED” stamp and the caption “Facebook and Twitter block Post exposes on Hunter Biden files.”