Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
In an unprecedented move Wednesday, both Facebook and Twitter took steps to limit the distribution of a news story from a mainstream publication, on the grounds that it was a) based on hacked emails and b) of questionable accuracy. Twitter actually prevented users from posting a link to the story, and in some cases prevented users from clicking on existing links to it as well, showing them a warning instead with a message saying the story violated the company’s terms of service. Facebook didn’t stop anyone from posting a link to the story, but reduced its reach by tweaking the News Feed algorithm so fewer users would see it.
The story was a New York Post report alleging that Hunter Biden introduced his father Joe to the head of a natural gas company in the Ukraine. The source? Emails allegedly retrieved from the younger Biden’s laptop by a computer repair shop and given to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. In Twitter’s case, the company argued that the story breached its policy against distribution of content obtained through hacking, and said documents included with the story also contained an individual’s name and identifying information, which is against privacy rules. Facebook, meanwhile, said its position against “hack and leak” operations required it to reduce the distribution of the story while it was being fact-checked by third-party partners.
These moves, not surprisingly, triggered an avalanche of accusations of censorship from conservatives. Sen. Josh Hawley went so far as to argue in a letter to the Federal Election Commission that removing the story was a benefit to Biden, and therefore amounted to a campaign finance violation, and said the Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to explain his actions. Others, including Sen. Ted Cruz, argued that Facebook and Twitter had breached the First Amendment. Rep. Doug Collins said that the blocks were “a grave threat to our democracy.” These arguments, of course, ignore the fact Facebook and Twitter are protected by the First Amendment, and also by Section 230 of the CDA, which allows them to make content-moderation decisions without penalty.Continue reading