Facebook said Wednesday morning that it is reducing the spread of a New York Post story of unsubstantiated allegations with questionable procurement about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden. Shortly afterward, Twitter said it was preventing users from fully posting the story.
The efforts of both companies to limit the reach of a major news publisher are unusual and drastic at a time when many Republican lawmakers, President Trump, and political figures are threatening new regulations and accusing tech companies of censoring conservative political speeches. While these companies have historically narrowed or constrained the reach of viral political misinformation networks, a publication as prominent as the New York Post has immediately garnered attention and criticism. Though known for its conservative bias and track record of posting questionable stories, the tabloid is a widely used mainstream outlet.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone announced his company's decision in a tweet on Tuesday:
While I'm purposely not going to link to the New York Post, I want to make it clear that this story can be verified by Facebook's third party fact-checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing the spread on our platform.
– Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 14, 2020
Twitter blocked users from sharing the New York Post article. When someone tries to tweet the article, Twitter returns an error message warning users that the link has been identified as "potentially harmful".
"In accordance with our policy on hacked materials and our approach to blocking URLs, we are taking steps to block links or images of the material in question on Twitter," responded Twitter spokesman Nicholas Pacillo to Recode's question about why Twitter has the Item blocked. Twitter posted a longer series of tweets on Monday evening explaining the reasons.
There is a real argument that Facebook – a major news source for four in ten Americans – and Twitter should try to slow the spread of an unproven news story whose claims have not been confirmed by other major news outlets and whose origins come from questionable sources. Especially since the New York Post has been shown to sometimes promote viral conspiracy theories.
In April, the New York Post was responsible for promoting an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory advocated by former Trump adviser Roger Stone, alleging that Bill Gates developed the coronavirus for "microchiped" individuals. This story went viral on Facebook, according to a study by Joan Donovan, director of research at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Order at Harvard Kennedy School.
"It's really a problem for Facebook because without the platform's consensus they wouldn't be enjoying the same type of audience," Donovan said. “Stories that exceed the normal distribution rate often do so because of their novelty. They are one of the few outlets to report on it and are rewarded for not adhering to the same standards as more reputable news outlets. "
Wednesday's action is particularly unusual for Facebook as the company has long taken a laissez-faire approach to curating the endless stream of viral misinformation on its platform, particularly when it comes to politics. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, has often said he doesn't want the platform to be an "arbiter of the truth." Now it seems that Facebook is taking a more solid stance on moderating what's going viral on its platform – raising questions about when and how it will decide to step in weeks before a presidential election.
Facebook didn't respond to Recode's repeated inquiries as to why the spread of the story on its platform was reduced. Stone, the Facebook spokesperson, said in a follow-up tweet to his original post announcing reduced circulation of the New York Post story that it was "part of our standard process of reducing the spread of misinformation."
However, it is difficult to find other examples of Facebook that reduce the spread of an important message before it is reviewed. It happened last month when Facebook similarly slowed the spread of false stories about Joe Biden with an earbud ahead of the recent presidential debate. These stories came from a tweet by a New York Post reporter that contained an anonymized claim that turned out to be a hoax.
Facebook's move has already drawn the ire of some Republican leaders on social media. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, sent a letter to Facebook asking for the company's response as to why the New York Post article's circulation was reduced. Hawley called the action "censorship" and, without providing evidence, noted that this is another example of what many conservatives, including President Trump, have called "anti-conservative bias" on social media platforms.
President Trump also tweeted in response to the social media companies' decision to moderate the article on Monday night, calling for Section 230, a landmark Internet law that largely protects social media companies from doing so, because of what their users said, to be repealed to be sued on their platforms.
So horrible that Facebook and Twitter wrote the story of "Smoking Gun" emails about Sleepy Joe Biden and his son Hunter on @NYPost. It's just the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230 !!! https://t.co/g1RJFpIVUZ
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2020
Some have questioned whether Facebook has been taking more determined action recently against political misinformation and hate speech as the company seeks to gain favor with a potential Democratic leadership in the White House and Congress. While curbing misinformation and hate speech isn't necessarily a partisan issue, Democrats have long urged Facebook to take a firmer stance.
But long before the Democrats were ahead of the polls and likely to take control of Congress and the White House, Facebook executives had warned of a “hack and leak” situation in which leaked information of questionable authenticity was in front of one Election to be published. for political purposes, similar to Hillary Clinton's 2016 emails. Facebook has announced that it will be particularly careful with such information, and the company has even warned news outlets and other social media outlets to do the same.
The New York Post's Hunter Biden story is a clear example of something that may fit the description of hack-and-leak. While it will take time for the fact checkers to thoroughly scrutinize the allegations in the story, the basic allegations and circumstances behind the story are rather suspect.
The main claim in the story is that Hunter Biden introduced then-Vice President Biden to a senior executive of a Ukrainian energy company. The article claims that this contradicts Biden's earlier statement that he never spoke to his son about his overseas business. However, there is no evidence that Biden actually spoke to this executive director. The Biden campaign has since issued a statement denying that Biden spoke to the executive branch.
Sourcing the story has also been questioned: it is alleged that evidence was obtained from a laptop repair shop owner who had access to a computer that was brought in for repair and may have belonged to Hunter Biden. The New York Post claims the repair shop owner brought material to attorney for Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, now often referred to as Donald Trump's "personal attorney," and Giuliani recently shared a copy with the Newspaper shared.
The circumstances behind this leak have been carefully examined by political journalists, including Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine. The conservative editorial orientation of the New York Post is also called into question. The newspaper is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is in a major dispute with Facebook in Australia over how much the company pays its media properties for its content.
Facebook's response to the New York Post's track record of promoting false news seems to be to cover the latest report with more suspicion than a comparable large news agency. However, the company's refusal to explain its process leaves only important questions unanswered and room for unfounded allegations of political bias.
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