Since 2016, when Russian hackers and WikiLeaks injected stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign into the final weeks of the presidential race, politicians and experts have urged tech companies to do more to combat the threat of foreign interference.
On Wednesday, less than a month after another election, we saw what it looks like to be doing more.
Early Wednesday morning, the New York Post posted a zippy front page article about allegedly incriminating photos and emails found on a laptop of Hunter Biden, son of Joseph R. Biden Jr. For many Democrats, the baseless article – the one bizarre detail involving a Delaware computer repair shop, the FBI, and Rudy Giuliani, the President's personal attorney – smelled suspiciously like the result of a hack-and-leak operation.
There is no evidence that the Post's report is linked to a disinformation campaign abroad. Many questions remain unanswered as to how the paper received the emails and whether they are authentic. Even so, the social media companies didn't take any chances.
Within hours, Twitter banned all links to the Post's article and blocked the accounts of people including some journalists and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who tweeted it. The company said it took the move because the article contained images with private personal information and because it viewed the article as a violation of its rules on the distribution of hacked material.
On Thursday, the company partially pulled back, saying it would no longer remove hacked content unless it was shared directly by hackers or their accomplices.
Facebook took a less nuclear approach. It said it would reduce the item's visibility on its service until it could be verified by a third party, a policy it has applied to other sensitive posts. (The move didn't seem to detract from the article's prospects. By Wednesday night, stories about Hunter Biden's emails were among the most engaging posts on Facebook.)
Both decisions angered a chorus of Republicans demanding that Facebook and Twitter be sued, removed from legal protection, or forced to account for their decisions. Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri tweeted for Twitter and Facebook to be summoned by Congress to testify about censorship and accused them of trying "to hijack American democracy by censoring the news and the news." Expression of Americans Control ".
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A couple of caveats: there is still a lot that we don't know about the post article. We don't know whether the emails it describes are authentic, fake, a combination of both, or whether the events they are supposed to describe actually took place. Mr Biden's campaign denied the central allegations in the article, and a replacement for Biden's campaign hit the Post on Wednesday calling the article "Russian disinformation".
Even if the emails are authentic, we do not know how they were received or how they came into the possession of Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney who spearheaded efforts to label Mr. Biden and his family as corrupt. The Delaware computer store owner, who reportedly turned the laptop over to investigators, gave reporters several conflicting reports on Wednesday about the laptop's custody chain.
Critics on all sides can argue with the decisions of these companies or their communication. Even Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, said the company mishandled the original statement for the ban.
But the truth is less brutal than an election campaign attempt in Silicon Valley. Since 2016, legislators, researchers and journalists have been putting pressure on these companies to take faster and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services. The companies have also created new guidelines for the distribution of hacked material to prevent the 2016 debacle from happening again.
It is true that banning links to a story published by a 200-year-old American newspaper – despite being a Rupert Murdoch tabloid – is a more dramatic move than cutting off WikiLeaks or a lesser-known misinformation provider . However, it is clear that Facebook and Twitter did not try to prevent free expression, but that a bad actor is using their services as a channel for a harmful cyberattack or misinformation.
These decisions are made quickly in the heat of the moment, and it is possible that more contemplation and debate could result in more satisfactory decisions. But time is a luxury that these platforms don't always have. In the past, they have been slow to flag or remove dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, mail-in polls and more and only take action after the bad posts went viral and ruined the purpose.
Oct. 16, 2020, 12:04 p.m. ET
That gave the companies three options, none of which was great. Option A: You could treat the Post's article as part of a hack-and-leak operation and risk a backlash if it turns out to be more innocent. Option B: You could narrow the scope of the article and allow it to stay updated but not expand it until more facts emerge. Or option C: You could do nothing and risk being replayed by a foreign actor trying to disrupt an American election.
Twitter chose option A. Facebook chose option B. Given the pressures they have been under over the past four years, it's no surprise that neither company chose option C (although YouTube, which does not made public statement on the history of the Post, this appears to be keeping your head down and hoping the controversy is over.)
Since the companies made those decisions, Republican officials have begun using the actions as an example of a rampage in Silicon Valley. On Wednesday, several prominent Republicans, including Mr Trump, reiterated their call for Congress to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects tech platforms from many complaints about user-generated content.
That leaves companies in a precarious place. They are criticized for allowing misinformation to be spread. They are also criticized for trying to prevent this from happening.
Perhaps the strangest idea that has cropped up in the past few days, however, is that these services are only now beginning to take control of what we see. Republican Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, made this clear in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, in which he derided the social network for "using its monopoly to control what messages Americans have access to" .
The truth, of course, is that tech platforms have been controlling our information diets for years, whether we realized it or not. Their decisions have often been buried in obscure “community standards” updates or hidden in changes to the black box algorithms that determine which posts users see. But make no mistake: these apps have never been neutral, straightforward channels for news and information. Their leaders have always been editors disguised as engineers.
What is happening now is simply that their impact becomes more visible as these companies try to rid their platforms of bad behavior. Instead of letting their algorithms run amok (which in itself is an editorial decision), they make critical decisions about flammable political misinformation in the public eye, where human decision makers can be discussed and held accountable for their decisions. This is a positive move towards transparency and accountability, even if it feels like censorship to those who are used to getting their way.
After years of inactivity, Facebook and Twitter are finally starting to clean up their clutter. In doing so, they enrag the powerful people who thrived under the old system.