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Why did tech titans limit the spread of the New York Post story on Biden?

When Facebook and Twitter moved quickly this week to limit the spread of an unverified political story published by the conservative New York Post, the right cried censorship. It also demonstrated the shaky grip that even the largest tech companies have on the flow of information, especially in the midst of a heated presidential election campaign.

While Facebook and Twitter have frequently been slow to respond to apparent misinformation and other violations of their rules, their reaction in this case demonstrates how quickly they can move when they want to. According to academic studies, misinformation frequently outpaces the truth on social networks. However, if social media titans aren’t careful, their efforts to suppress a story can amplify it. Even when they are cautious, they risk creating their own headlines with each move.

For the first time in recent memory, the two social media platforms enforced anti-misinformation policies on a mainstream media publication’s story. The story in question, which has not been confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails allegedly discovered by President Donald Trump’s allies from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son.

Trump’s campaign seized on the report, which raised more questions than answers, such as whether the emails at the heart of the story were hacked or fabricated. When asked if they had previously taken similar action against a mainstream news article, neither company responded, though Facebook stated that demoting material while it awaits a fact check is common practise.

Facebook used the possibility of false information to limit the article’s reach, which means its algorithm shows it to fewer people, similar to how you might not see as many posts from friends with whom you don’t interact frequently. Meanwhile, Twitter has barred users from tweeting or sending the link to the story in private messages.

Despite acting quickly, both companies made mistakes in communicating their decision to the public. Because of this, and in part because of the mere act of attempting to limit the story, the tech platforms quickly became the story, particularly in conservative circles where purported bias from Big Tech is already a hot topic. The fact that a major, big-city newspaper was receiving treatment usually reserved for more fringe outlets fueled the fire even more.

“I find this behaviour stunning but not surprising from a platform that has censored the President of the United States,” wrote Missouri Senator Josh Hawley in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Republican lawmakers announced plans to summon Dorsey to testify about his platform’s actions on Thursday.

In an unusual move, a Facebook spokesman took to Twitter Wednesday morning to announce that the company was “reducing” the story’s distribution on the platform while third-party fact-checkers verified it. Facebook does this frequently with content that isn’t explicitly prohibited from its service but poses a risk of spreading lies or causing harm in other ways.

Later that day, Twitter began prohibiting users from sharing links to the article in tweets and direct messages, citing a violation of the company’s policy prohibiting hacked content. However, it did not notify its users as to why they were unable to share the link until hours later.

In a Twitter thread, the company’s safety group stated that the images in the article contained personal and private information that violated its rules, and that the material in the article violated its hacked materials policy.

Soon after, Dorsey tweeted that it was “unacceptable” that the company had not provided more context for its action.

The Washington Post followed up on Wednesday with an article about the purported “censorship” of tech platforms. The tabloid’s print cover on Thursday features a photo of Biden and his son with the headline “Facebook and Twitter block Post expose on Hunter Biden files.”

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