When Facebook and Twitter moved quickly 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 illustrated the slippery control that even the largest tech companies have over the flow of information, particularly in the midst of a raucous presidential election campaign.
Although Facebook and Twitter have often been slow to combat apparent misinformation and other violations of their rules, their response in this case shows how fast they can move when they want. Disinformation often surpasses the truth on social networks, academic studies have found. But if social media titans aren̵
For the first time in recent memory, the two social media platforms have imposed rules against disinformation on a story from a traditional 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 that would be discovered by allies of President Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign took hold of the report, though it raised more questions than answers, including whether the emails at the heart of the story were hacked or fabricated. Neither company answered the question of whether they had previously taken similar action against a mainstream news article, although Facebook said degrading the material pending a fact-check is common practice.
Facebook used the possibility of false information as a reason to limit the reach of the article, which means that its algorithm shows it to fewer people, just as you might not see as many posts from friends you don’t interact with often. Twitter, meanwhile, prevented users from tweeting the link to the story and sending it in private messages.
While they acted quickly, both companies stumbled upon communicating their decision to the public. Partly because of this, and partly because of the simple act of trying to limit history, tech platforms quickly became history, especially in conservative circles, where the alleged Big Tech bias is already a major talking point. The fact that a major newspaper in a large city was getting the treatment usually reserved for more fringe outlets added extra fuel to the fire.
“I find this behavior jaw-dropping 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 sue Dorsey for testifying over his platform’s actions.
In a somewhat unusual move Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesperson brought to Twitter to announce that the company was “reducing” the distribution 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 completely banned from its service, but that is likely to spread lies or cause 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 the company’s policy of banning hacked content. But it didn’t warn its users why they couldn’t share the link until a few hours later.
In a Twitter thread, the company’s security group said the images in the article included personal and private information in violation of its rules and said it considered the material included in the article a violation of its compromised materials policy.
Dorsey he tweeted shortly after that it was “unacceptable” that the company did not provide more context on its action.
The Post followed on Wednesday an article focusing on the alleged “censorship” of technology platforms. And the tabloid’s printed Thursday cover features a photo of Biden and his son with a large blue “CENSORED” stamp and the headline “Facebook and Twitter Block Exposing Hunter Biden File Posts.”