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A dubious New York Post article forces Big Platforms’ hand

Technology
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October 14, 2020 3:51 PM
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A dubious New York Post article forces Big Platforms’ hand

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You can’t post these articles by the New York Post on Twitter. If you try to post them on Facebook, there’s a decent chance your friends won’t see them.

Granted, you probably shouldn’t post these articles anywhere. The series, written by former Hannity producer Emma-Jo Morris, attempts to weave a veneer of legitimacy to the long-gestating right-wing conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden and Ukrainian oil interests. The story charts a tangled web that includes a computer abandoned at an electronics store in Delaware, FBI evidence supposedly leaked to Rudy Giuliani and Stephen Bannon, and recovered emails that tangentially reference a meeting between Joe Biden and a Ukrainian oil official. Numerous reporters have done the legwork of deconstructing how little evidence the story provides to support its explosive insinuations, as well as the problematic connections the entire Ukraine saga has with Russian disinformation campaigns. This, of course, hasn’t stopped conservatives from desperately attempting to turn the story into a bombshell, nor has it stopped some silly corners of horserace journalism from repeating obvious mistakes.

On the mind of every single actor in this story is one date: October 28th, 2016. That’s the day James Comey announced his eleventh-hour reopening of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, birthing a media circus that is widely associated with her shocking loss to Trump a week later. The libs mindlessly bashing on Maggie Haberman for commenting on the Post’s article, the Bannonites tossing this half-formed narrative out as an election-eve Hail Mary, and the journalists publicly agonizing over how to cover these developments; everyone is either trying to recreate or avoid a repeat of October 28th.

In moments of ambiguity and chaos—at times when clear, transparent action is required—you can always count on one group to make the worst possible decision: the social media companies. Their response to the Post’s story was as decisive as it was inept. Facebook jumped first, saying in a statement that they “are reducing [the story’s] distribution on our platform.” Twitter took things a step further a few hours later and began blocking Tweets and DMs containing the story, in line with action they took earlier in the year against leaks of internal police documents.

There is an understandable incentive for the platforms to take a stand here. Facebook and Twitter have both received wide-criticism for their platforms’ role in spreading disinformation. Facebook was central in spreading the conspiracy theories against Clinton that ultimately helped sink her campaign. But neither platform is being transparent in the way this kind of monumental action demands. Facebook said they were working with third-party fact-checkers to properly label the story, but as of this evening, no clarifications are added when the story is posted on the platform. Attempting to post the story on Twitter only brings up a generic warning about “potentially harmful” content.

In this vacuum, the right has managed to claim the role of the victim. Conservative politicians like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz cried censorship, a dubious assertion yet one lacking any counter-argument from Facebook or Twitter. The Post editorial board dubbed Facebook “a propaganda machine” in a vindictive op-ed. The blowup has echoed across the alt-right media landscape, amplifying the original story through the lens of this new “censorship” narrative. Breitbart, Fox News, and The Daily Mail are all running stories aggregating the Post’s reporting on their front pages.

And, of course, none of those articles are included in Facebook or Twitter’s “ban”.

By blocking these stories without any clear rationale, Facebook and Twitter have given the right-wing the pseudo-censorship they need to turn this meritless story into a Big Deal. It’s yet another embarrassing display from two companies that seemingly refuse to understand the influence, power, and responsibility that their platforms wield.