On Wednesday morning the New York Post published an article revealing a “smoking-gun” email showing that “Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company.” The NYP’s investigation also turned up “a raunchy, 12-minute video that appears to show Hunter, who’s admitted struggling with addiction problems, smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman, as well as numerous other sexually explicit images.” The emails and pictures reportedly came from a computer that was dropped off at a repair shop and never retrieved.
Five hours after the story dropped, a Facebook official announced that the social media company would reduce distribution to the article–even before the story was fact-checked.
Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director, made the stunning announcement on Twitter:
While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 14, 2020
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In a follow-up tweet, Stone linked to Facebook’s policy on “Helping to Protect the 2020 Election” and added, “This is part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation. We temporarily reduce distribution pending fact-checker review.”
Facebook has been cracking down on everything from election-related stories to COVID-19 content, limiting the reach of articles deemed “false” or “misleading,” based on the judgments of its allegedly “independent” (but in reality, highly partisan) fact-checkers. The Facebook official’s stunning admission that some articles are being throttled before they’ve even been evaluated by a fact-checker has led to charges that the company is putting its thumb on the scale to help drag Joe Biden across the finish line in November by suppressing information that might reflect negatively on the candidate.
In the wake of the startling revelation by the Facebook executive, Twitter has taken steps to suppress the story alleging Biden family corruption. New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari said he’s unable to post the article to his Twitter feed:
This is a Big Tech information coup. This is digital civil war.
I, an editor at The New York Post, one of the nation’s largest papers by circulation, can’t post one of our own stories that details corruption by a major-party presidential candidate, Biden. pic.twitter.com/BKNQmAG19H
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) October 14, 2020
It appears that Twitter is limiting the New York Post’s ability to post to their own Twitter feed as well. As of publishing time, the newspaper, which normally updates its Twitter feed several times an hour, hasn’t posted anything new in the last several hours.
Twitter isn’t just preventing its users from accessing material critical to making an informed decision in an election, they’ve locked out the @nypost from its account for deigning to report embarrassing details about Twitter’s preferred candidate https://t.co/8DQej7hfr6
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) October 14, 2020
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) demanded an explanation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and asked whether Facebook is censoring the New York Post article at the behest of the Biden campaign.
Hawley’s letter said that the NYP story offers evidence that “directly contradicts the claims of the Democratic nominee for president, who had previously stated that he has ‘never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings,'” and noted that the story is “clearly relevant to the public interest,” and yet it has been “censored” by Facebook. “Your efforts to suppress the distribution of content revealing potentially unethical activity by a candidate for president raises a number of additional questions, to which I expect responses immediately,” Hawley declared.
The Missouri senator demanded answers to the following questions:
1) Is it your normal policy to reduce the distribution of stories on your platform before they have been factchecked? If so, what is your specific policy and where is such policy stated?
2) If you have evidence that this news story contains “disinformation” or have otherwise determined that there are inaccuracies with the reporting, will you disclose them to the public so that they can assess your findings?
3) Why did you endeavor to publicly state that such a story was subject to a fact-check? Isn’t such a public intervention itself a reflection of Facebook’s assessment of a news report’s credibility?
4) Did any member of the Biden-Harris presidential campaign team or any person representing themselves as a representative of the campaign’s interests ask, encourage, or direct Facebook to suppress the New York Post story? 5) The New York Post previously reported that employees of the six largest Silicon Valley tech firms – including Facebook – have donated nearly $5 million to the Biden-Harris campaign, compared to just $239,000 to President Trump’s campaign. What steps has Facebook taken to ensure that your employees’ political preferences don’t influence decisions to suppress content?
Media Research Center President Brent Bozell is outraged by Facebook’s admission. “What garbage!” he tweeted. “Facebook is interfering in the election and the fact-checking process they claim is independent. This is precisely why Congress needs to act on Section 230. Oh, and this guy at Facebook worked for a bunch of Dems before he went there. Just read his bio.”
Indeed, Stone’s LinkedIn profile reveals that he’s held numerous senior positions supporting Democratic causes and campaigns, including work for the Democratic House Majority PAC, former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign.
The Biden campaign insists that the former vice president engaged in “no wrongdoing,” but fell short of denying the existence of the emails, videos, or pictures contained in the article
Hawley thinks the fix is in.
The senator sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that reads in part:
There are various reports circulating on Twitter of users unable to post a link to the New York Post story, with some users posting responses from Twitter that the content was deemed to be “potentially spammy or unsafe.” I find this behavior stunning but not surprising from a platform that has censored the President of the United States… A Twitter representative has since stated that “in line with our Hacked Materials Policy, as well as our approach to blocking URLs, we are taking action to block any links to or images of the material in question on Twitter.” This statement raises questions about the applicability of your policy, especially because such a pre-emptive removal of a news story on such grounds–and the additional scrutiny you have applied–appears to be an unusual intervention that is not universally applied to all content.
Hawley asked Dorsey to explain how Twitter determined that the NYP story was a violation of its policy governing “distribution of hacked materials” and want to know how Twitter found out that the NYP was “directly” distributing said hacked materials. He wants the company’s decision-making process to be made public.
“Why,” Hawley asked, “did Twitter take additional, unprecedented action to lock the primary Twitter account of the New York Post, one of the nation’s most widely distributed newspapers?”
Moreover, Hawley wants to know what, if any, role the Biden campaign played in the censorship of the story that would ostensibly hurt the candidate. “Had any member of the Biden-Harris presidential campaign team or any person representing themselves as a representative of the campaign’s interests ask, encourage, or direct Twitter to suppress the New York Post story?” he asked.
The senator also sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission, asking the agency to investigate whether the social media companies have violated federal campaign finance laws by making in-kind donations to Biden’s campaign.
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 14, 2020
“This censorship manifestly will influence the presidential election,” he insisted. “These possible campaign-finance violations by two of the most powerful corporations in America come only weeks before Election Day, and while millions of Americans are in the midst of voting, I ask that the FEC take immediate action to investigate these potential violations and, if appropriate, take remedial action to prevent further interference with the 2020 presidential election.”
While the FEC most certainly should look into the alleged censorship, the damage has already been done. We’ll most likely never know what, if anything Facebook and Twitter did to interfere in the 2020 election. Maybe this is all just one big coincidence, but Stone’s admission that Facebook is preemptively limiting distribution on an article before its official fact-checkers have weighed in looks very bad and does nothing to assure Americans that the company is not trying to aid the Biden campaign.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy perhaps said it best:
Censoring speech to silence political opponents is what you'd expect from countries like China, North Korea, or Iran.
Not American companies like Twitter and Facebook—against one of the nation’s largest newspapers. #StopTheBias!!!
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) October 14, 2020