Facebook and Twitter said they will be limiting the distribution of or blocking a New York Post story making unverified claims about former vice president Joe Biden.
On Wednesday morning, the Post published a series of stories it claimed were sourced from a hard drive given to the publication by a computer repair technician in Delaware that contained details of Hunter Biden's alleged business relationships in Ukraine. According to the Post, “Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, told The Post about the existence of the hard drive in late September and Giuliani provided The Post with a copy of it on Sunday.”
"While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want [to] be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in a tweet on Wednesday. “In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform."
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, Stone cited a blog post from the company from October 2019 in which it discussed how it would handle the 2020 US presidential election:
"In addition to clearer labels, we're also working to take faster action to prevent misinformation from going viral, especially given that quality reporting and fact-checking takes time," he reiterated. "In many countries, including in the US, if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker."
While Facebook is limiting the spread of the stories, Twitter moved to block them outright, blocking links to or images to the stories in line with its policy on hacked material, according to a company spokesperson. Later in the day, the company clarified that the article also violated its rules about disclosing personal and private information.
On Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump criticized the decisions, tweeting: “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!!!”
Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 is the part of federal law that protects online intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter from liability for content posted by people using their services.
The Trump campaign and his supporters have for months latched onto Hunter Biden’s relationships in Ukraine as a way to tenuously raise the idea that his father, Joe Biden, engaged in corruption, for which two former prosecutors general of Ukraine said there was no evidence.
These flimsy claims have been promoted — with the help of controversial Ukrainian operatives, including one whom the US Treasury imposed sanctions upon after deeming him to be an "active Russian agent" — as a way to distract from Trump’s overt and repeated corruption as well as draw a false equivalence between the president's corruption and conspiracy theories alleging corruption on Biden's part.
Trump, for example, has seen millions of dollars flow into his family companies from people looking for specific action from his administration, as reported by the New York Times.
Facebook's action on Wednesday drew wide criticism.
“Twitter banning the NY Post story on Joe/Hunter Biden is a mistake.
Gives the piece more attention than it would otherwise get. And hard to make a credible argument that would see this specific article singled out for such treatment,” wrote Ian Bremmer, a political scientist at Columbia.
Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at the Federalist, tweeted, "The most Pravda-like thing is that the immediate pushback by Biden's many allies in Big Media and Big Tech serve as confirmation of the story and how damaging it is to the Biden campaign. If it weren't true, they'd just say that, rather than censor its distribution."
Journalist Zaid Jilani tweeted, "A former DCCC staffer who works for Facebook is talking about how the website is purposely suppressing a story that is unflattering towards a Democrat? Having these companies act like a private government choosing what speech is allowed working swimmingly."
Last month, Facebook said in a blog post that it would be paying more attention to “hack-and-leak operations” where “a bad actor steals sensitive information, sometimes manipulates it, and then strategically releases it to influence public debate.” The company said it was one of the threats it was uniquely focused on ahead of the 2020 US elections.
It’s unclear, however, if this is the reason why the social network acted on the Post’s Biden story.
For years, Facebook has told the public that it is not a media company and has shifted the responsibility of fact-checking content on its platform to a network of third-party fact-checkers and news outlets. Among Facebook’s fact-check partners are Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Daily Caller, a right-wing news site.
Wednesday's move is not the first time that Facebook has reduced the spread of information on the platform prior to fact-checking decisions. Last month, it did so over conspiracy theories that Biden wore an earpiece during the presidential debate.
The move also comes as Facebook has taken steps to reduce the spread of harmful misinformation and mass delusions. This week, the company announced it is banning ads that "discourage" vaccines and content related to Holocaust denial. Last week, it banned all references to the QAnon mass delusion and said it would not accept political ads relating to the election after Election Day.
Christopher Miller contributed reporting to this story.