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Facebook and Twitter took action on Wednesday to limit the spread of a New York Post story of unconfirmed allegations about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who led President Trump and his allies’ campaign to break the corporations of censorship to accuse.
Both social media companies said the measures are aimed at slowing the spread of potentially false information. However, they gave few details about how they came to their decisions and sparked criticism of the lack of clarity and coherence with which they apply their rules.
The New York Post story published on Wednesday quoted emails allegedly sent by Biden’s son Hunter, which, according to the news agency, were from Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s private attorney, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Facebook restricted the spread of the story while its outside fact-checkers verified their claims, spokesman Andy Stone said. This means that the platform’s algorithms don’t place posts associated with the story as heavily in users’ newsfeeds, reducing the number of users who see them. However, according to data from CrowdTangle, a research tool from Facebook, the story has been liked, shared, or commented on more than 290,000 times on Facebook.
According to Stone, Facebook sometimes takes this step when it sees “signals” that something that is gaining traction is wrong, to give fact-checkers time to evaluate the story before it spreads widely. He did not specify what signals Facebook uses or how often this approach is used.
Twitter went on. It prevents users from posting pictures of the emails or links to the post stories referencing them, spokesman Trenton Kennedy said, citing his rules against “distributing directly”[ing] Content obtained through hacking that contains private information. “
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Users who attempt to share the link on Twitter will see the message: “We cannot complete this request because this link has been identified as potentially harmful by Twitter or our partners.” If a user clicks a link that has already been posted on Twitter, they will be taken to a warning screen that says “This link may be unsafe” that they must click to read the story. Twitter also urged the Post to delete its tweet about the story, Kennedy said.
Twitter said it decided to block the story because it couldn’t be sure where the emails came from.
However, the company declined to comment on how it reached this decision or what evidence it had weighed.
A spokeswoman for the New York Post, asked to comment on the actions of the social networks, referred to an article by the newspaper’s editorial team.
“Our story explains where the information came from, and a Senate committee has now confirmed that it also received the files from the same source,” the article said. “However, Facebook and Twitter deliberately try to prevent their users from reading and deciding for themselves what it means.”
Twitter and Facebook have acted more aggressively in recent weeks to curb the spread of false allegations and tampering related to the election in order to avoid a repeat of 2016 when Russian-affiliated actors used social media to target American voters.
Facebook warned of the possibility of “hack and leak” operations in which stolen documents or other sensitive material were strategically leaked – as in 2016 with hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
However, the companies’ moves on Wednesday were criticized by some experts, who said Facebook and Twitter need to clarify their policies and how often they apply them.
“This story is a microcosm of something I think we can expect a lot from in the next few weeks, and I think it shows why platforms with clear guidelines to adhere to are really important,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School specializing in online language regulation.
“It is really unclear whether they intervened exceptionally in this case and, if so, why they did so,” she said. “That inevitably leads to the outcry we saw, that they are doing it for political reasons and because they are biased.”
Republicans used the episode as evidence of their longstanding claims that social networks are censoring conservative voices. There is no statistical evidence to support these claims.
President Trump tweeted that it was “so horrible that Facebook and Twitter wrote the story,” even though Facebook had not removed it from its platform. “REPEAL SECTION 230 !!!” He wrote and referred to longstanding legal protection protecting online platforms from being sued over the posts posted on them, saying that they cannot be punished for moderating those posts appropriately. Trump has repeatedly called for Section 230 to be revoked.
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley on Wednesday sent letters to Facebook and Twitter CEOs urging them to decide to reduce the spread and block the story.
Hawley also sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission saying the companies’ actions may constitute “gross violations of campaign funding in favor of the Biden campaign.”
The Senate Republican Conference, chaired by Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., Tweeted “See you soon @jack” with a picture of the Post’s history. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, along with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, are due to testify to the Senate Trade Committee on October 28 – just six days before the election. The subject: Section 230.
Publisher’s Note: Facebook is one of NPR’s financial backers.
NPR’s David Folkenflik contributed to this report.