Given the simmering tensions within US politics, and the ongoing accusations around perceived media bias, it seemed inevitable that there was going to be a significant conflict, of some kind, during the Presidential Election campaign.
This week, the New York Post published two articles which detailed accusations against Presidential candidate Joe Biden in regards to international business deals conducted by his son, Hunter Biden, and alleged interference in the process by Biden Snr. The implication of the investigation is that Joe Biden acted improperly, and abused his power as Vice President, in order to secure advantages for his son. Joe Biden has denied these claims.
Because of the nature of the unproven accusations, and the specific details included within the NY Post articles, both Twitter and Facebook to proactive measures to reduce sharing the articles, pending fact-checking. This is the first time the platforms have taken this measure, and each has essentially slowed or halted the re-distribution of the claims as they investigate.
Facebook flagged the content for fact-checking, but did not stop users from re-sharing the articles. Twitter blocked users from posting any links to the content.
Which has set some US Senators on a warpath.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal:
"The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to issue a subpoena on Tuesday to Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey after the social-media company blocked a pair of New York Post articles that made new allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied."
According to WSJ, Dorsey is being targeted because Twitter prevented users from posting links to the articles outright, as opposed to Facebook's approach in limiting their re-distribution. That could see Dorsey forced to front the Senate to answer questions about his company's approach, while several Senators have also re-stated their calls for a repeal of Section 230 laws, which grant digital platforms a level of protection from liability over content posted on their sites.
Which, of course, US President Donald Trump has been seeking for some time:
So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of “Smoking Gun” emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost. It is only 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
Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham have also called for action, calling it 'election interference' and 'active censorship'. But, of course, social platforms are privately owned businesses, not public utilities. They can set the rules of their platforms, essentially, however they like.
Will that need to change - and will this lead to increased action against the major social platforms?
The incident underlines the importance of social media platforms in our broader communications landscape, while also reflecting the potential dangers of misinformation, and how false claims can gain traction on social sites. Twitter and Facebook, wary of playing a role in spreading damaging rumors, are looking to be more cautious, but that then opens them up to further accusations of political bias, and suppressing certain stories based on their subjective judgement.
To be fair, Twitter has actually blocked the articles based on its Hacked Materials Policy, not based on misinformation.
Commentary on or discussion about hacked materials, such as articles that cover them but do not include or link to the materials themselves, aren’t a violation of this policy. Our policy only covers links to or images of hacked material themselves.— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) October 14, 2020
So Twitter is essentially saying that it's the specific detail included within these reports that's the problem, not the claims themselves. Twitter has conceded that its communication around its actions in this respect were not adequately communicated, which it will need to improve. Facebook has only limited the report's reach, in line with its third-party fact-checking approach.
In many ways, the platforms have acted cautiously and quickly in responding to questionable information, which is an improvement in their respective processes, but you can also see how the incident further reinforces the claims of political bias by social platforms, and the role they play in the broader debate.
The validity of the claims then becomes secondary - whether you believe the reports are true or not is an aside to the broader narrative that Twitter and Facebook are working to restrict information. As such, this could become a much bigger point of debate, and could indeed lead to further changes to how social platforms action such in future.
Will this be the big story of the US Election? In 2016, the story was around how social platforms got President Trump elected. Maybe the opposite will be the headline this time - and then, what does that mean for the platforms moving forward, regardless of who wins?
There's definitely more to come on this front.
UPDATE: Twitter has now updated its Hacked Materials Policy, which will mean that it will no longer block similar reports on the same grounds.