Twitter and Facebook moved quickly this week to clamp down on an unverified New York Post story. But the social media giants' decisions, and their failure to communicate them, led to accusations of censorship and forced Twitter to quickly change its policies on handling hacked content.
Twitter had banned users from sharing links to the story late on Wednesday, because it violated the company's policy that prohibits hacked content. But it didn't alert its users as to why they couldn't share the link until hours later, forcing CEO Jack Dorsey to publicly apologize.
"Straight blocking of URLs was wrong, and we updated our policy and enforcement to fix," Dorsey tweeted on Friday.
The company revised its policy about a day after initially blocking the Post's story. Twitter's head of legal, policy, trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde, said on Thursday the company will no longer remove hacked material unless it's directly shared by hackers or those working with them.
And instead of blocking links from being shared, tweets will be labeled to provide context, Gadde said.
"We want to address the concerns that there could be many unintended consequences to journalists, whistleblowers and others in ways that are contrary to Twitter's purpose of serving the public conversation," she said.
Facebook, meanwhile, used the possibility of false information as the reason to limit the Post article's reach, which means its algorithm shows it to fewer people, much the way you might not see as many posts from friends you don't interact with often.
In a somewhat unusual move Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesman took to competitor Twitter to announce that the social network was "reducing" the story's distribution on the platform while waiting for third-party fact-checkers to verify it. Facebook regularly does this with material that isn't banned outright from its service, but that risks spreading lies or causing harm in other ways.
Accusations of censorship
It was the first time in recent memory that the two social media platforms enforced rules against misinformation on a story from a mainstream media publication. The story in question, which has not been confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son that were reportedly discovered by President Donald Trump's allies through what they described as a hacked laptop computer.
The decision, and the social media companies' failure to communicate it to the public, quickly led to accusations of private-sector censorship, especially from conservative circles.
"I find this behavior stunning but not surprising from a platform that has censored the President of the United States," wrote Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Republican lawmakers on Thursday announced plans to subpoena Dorsey to testify about Twitter's actions.
The criticism wasn't limited to Republicans. Glenn Greenwald, a prominent left-wing journalist, wrote that the platforms "cross[ed] a line far more dangerous than what they censor."
"Just over two weeks before a presidential election, Silicon Valley giants — whose industry leaders and workforce overwhelmingly favor the Democratic candidate — took extraordinary steps to block millions, perhaps tens of millions, of American voters from being exposed to what purports to be a major exposé by one of the country's oldest and largest newspaper," Greenwald wrote.
The Post followed up Wednesday with an article focused on the tech platforms' purported "censorship" — a word usually reserved for government actions and not what private businesses do or don't do with information they own or manage. And Thursday's print cover of the splashy tabloid shows a photo of Biden and his son with a big blue "CENSORED" stamp and the headline "Facebook and Twitter block Post expose on Hunter Biden files."
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