When Facebook and Twitter moved swiftly this week to limit the spread of an unverified political story published by the conservative New York Post, it led to predictable cries of censorship from the right. But it also exemplified the slippery take even the biggest tech companies have on the flow of information, especially in the midst of a boisterous presidential election campaign.
While Facebook and Twitter have often been slow to combat apparent misinformation and other rule violations, their response in this case shows how fast they can move when they want to. Disinformation often goes beyond the truth on social media, according to university studies. But if the social media titans aren’t careful, their attempts to suppress a story can amplify it further. And even when they are cautious, they risk generating their own headlines with every move.
For the first time in recent memory, both social media platforms enforced anti-disinformation rules on an article from a mainstream media publication. The story in question, which has not been confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails from the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden allegedly discovered by allies of President Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign took hold of the report, though it raised more questions than answers, especially whether the emails at the center of the story were hacked or fabricated. Neither company responded when asked if they had ever taken similar action against a mainstream news article, though Facebook said demoting the material pending a fact-check was standard practice.
Facebook used the possibility of fake news as a reason to limit the scope of the article, meaning that its algorithm shows it to fewer people, in the same way you might not see as many posts from friends with whom you don’t interact often. Twitter, meanwhile, prevented users from tweeting the link to the story and sending it in private messages.
Although they acted quickly, both companies stumbled over communicating their decision to the public. Partly because of this, and partly from the simple act of trying to limit the story, tech platforms have quickly become history, especially in conservative circles where the alleged Big Tech bias is already. a main topic of discussion. The fact that a big newspaper in a big city got the treatment usually given to more fringe outlets added additional fuel to the fire.
“I find this behavior astonishing but not surprising from a platform that has censored the President of the United States,” wrote Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) In a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey . Republican lawmakers on Thursday announced plans to subpoena Dorsey to testify on his platform’s actions.
In a somewhat unusual move on Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesperson taken to twitter to announce that the company was “cutting back” on the dissemination of the story on the platform while waiting for third-party fact-checkers to verify it. Facebook does this on a regular basis with material that is not outright banned from its service, but which risks spreading lies or causing harm in other ways.
Later Wednesday, Twitter began banning its users from sharing links to the article in tweets and direct messages because it violated company policy that prohibited pirated content. But it didn’t warn its users of the reasons why they couldn’t share the link until hours later.
In a Twitter thread, the company’s security group said the article’s images contained personal and private information in violation of its policies, and said it considered the material included in the article to violate its policy on pirated materials.
Dorsey tweeted shortly after that it was “unacceptable” that the company did not provide more context around its action.
The Post continued on Wednesday with an article focusing on the alleged “censorship” of technology platforms. And Thursday’s print cover of the tabloid shows a photo of Biden and his son with a big blue “CENSORED” stamp and the headline “Facebook and Twitter block posting to Hunter Biden files.”