On Wednesday, The New York Post published what in ordinary times might have been considered a major journalistic scoop: a report on a trove of emails purporting to be from a laptop owned by Hunter Biden and raising questions about his Ukrainian business dealings -- and his father’s role in them. Among the emails was alleged evidence calling into question whether Joe Biden had been more involved in those dealings than he has previously acknowledged.
But unlike their rapt coverage of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative, the mainstream media largely ignored the story, at least initially. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook moved swiftly to halt its distribution, with Twitter banning it entirely in one of the first known cases of a mainstream newspaper’s reporting being banned prior to any form of fact-checking. With preliminary data suggesting the combined mainstream and social media blackout had a significant effect, what does this willingness to quash a major story right before an election portend for our future?
There are many aspects of the Post’s scoop that prompt skepticism: There’s the backstory of Hunter Biden, or someone claiming to be him, walking into a small computer repair shop to drop off a laptop filled with incriminating evidence and never retrieving it; there’s the store owner sifting through the hard drive, contacting members of Congress, handing it over to the FBI but first making a copy he provided to a contact for Rudy Giuliani, who provided it to the Post.
An alternative explanation is that the files resulted from a compromise of one or more of Biden’s cloud storage accounts, possibly by a foreign power. Legitimate concerns exist about the authenticity of the material and whether it has been altered in any way, especially given the absence of corroborating metadata like email message headers. There are also very real concerns over whether the release of the material, real or not, may have been orchestrated, at least in part, by a foreign nation to sow electoral chaos. At the same time, similar concerns did little to stem the media’s voracious appetite for leaked materials about the Trump administration, nor have social platforms taken any action to reduce the visibility of such content as the Steele dossier.
Media outlets routinely publish stories based on unauthorized releases of information. Most of what we know about the internal workings of social media companies, for example, comes from employee leaks. When the New York Times last month published an extensive look at Donald Trump’s tax returns, which it obtained without his consent, the story was covered widely by the media, and social platforms made no effort to restrict sharing of it.
In contrast, the mainstream media have given the Post story little attention, a fact praised by Columbia School of Journalism’s dean as a lesson learned from the alleged impact reporting on John Podesta’s hacked emails had on the 2016 election.
A decade ago, such a media blackout would have been the end of the story, but the Post article quickly went viral on social media. But Facebook moved swiftly to curtail its distribution, stating that until fact-checkers could verify the story, it was “reducing its distribution on our platform.” This represents a notable departure from the company’s traditional policy of waiting until after a story has been debunked by fact-checkers before taking action.
Facebook pointed to its election integrity policy, which states it may preemptively reduce visibility of an article prior fact-checking “if we have signals that a piece of content is false.” The company declined to comment on what “signals” it relied upon in this case, but told the Washington Post that it has quietly penalized other stories in the past as well.
Twitter went even further, banning outright any sharing of the Post story on its platform, yet its rationale for doing so evolved in the hours after its decision. The company initially banned the link without any explanation, displaying only a generic error message when users tried to share the story, saying, “We can't complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.” The company then clarified that the Post story violated its 2018 elections integrity policy that “prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization.” When commentators pointed out that its policy explicitly exempts news coverage, the company pivoted again, this time arguing that the emails reproduced in the Post story “include personal and private information — like email addresses and phone numbers — which violate our rules.” Asked how often they had applied this policy, a spokesperson told the Washington Post only that the platform had done so in the past, but declined to provide further details.
Twitter forced the New York Post to delete its own tweet promoting its story and temporarily suspended the official Trump campaign Twitter account and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany’s personal Twitter account for sharing the story.
The companies’ censorship appear to have had a substantial effect, with data showing clicks, likes and shares of the report were far below what would have been expected for a major breaking story.
Social media companies today routinely censor content they disagree with and penalize news coverage deemed false, so why is their censorship of the New York Post story newsworthy? The difference is that this appears to be one of the first times they’ve preemptively banned an article from a mainstream news outlet. It is one thing to delete an unsourced tweet by an anonymous citizen. It is something else entirely to outright ban all sharing of an article from a major news outlet and to do so before it has been fact-checked in any way.
There are also critical unintended consequences of the platforms’ new standards. For example, Facebook’s preemptive action based on unspecified “signals” that the story might be false raises prompts this question: What would the company do if another woman came forward to accuse Joe Biden of sexual assault, as Tara Reade has done? Under the policy it applied here, Facebook’s employees would review the accusations and decide whether they were credible and, if not, the story would be effectively banned without any external review. But in an era where the #MeToo movement insists that accusers must always be believed, Facebook would be in the impossible position of having to render judgement on each news report of assault or a similar offense involving an elected official or public figure -- and block all discussion of those accusations it questions.
Similarly, Twitter’s evolving rationale for banning all sharing of the Post story eventually settled on the dual explanations of it containing unredacted contact information and sharing private information without consent. This would suggest that if the Post merely redacted the emails and phone numbers in its screen-captures, Twitter would in theory immediately remove its ban. Yet Twitter also cited its policy against the unauthorized distribution of compromised material. This would then appear to ban sharing of stories like the Times’ unauthorized release of Donald Trump’s tax returns, future Panama Papers reporting or even future reporting on internal social media guidelines.
While there are numerous questions about the authenticity of the materials reported on by the Post and the motivations behind their release, the rush with which social platforms moved to block information on them is remarkable -- and the fact that those censorship actions to some extent stifled the story’s spread shows their very real power in shaping the news agenda.
Facebook and Twitter’s actions have been likened to China’s practice of banning critical coverage. The difference is that China can only ban its own citizens from seeing what it doesn’t like. Facebook and Twitter have the power to censor the entire world.