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Twitter is keeping itself in front of the political firing line by inconsistently applying policy to a series of unconfirmed reports by the New York Post about Joe Biden’s son Hunter — moves Republicans have slammed as censorship and election interference.
The social network initially banned the Post’s story Wednesday about Hunter Biden’s alleged attempts to influence his father, Joe Biden, to try to shut down a probe into Ukrainian energy company Burisma and another claiming Hunter tried to leverage his father’s status as VP in the Obama administration to boost his compensation from Burisma. Originally, Twitter said the Post’s stories — based on info furnished by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer — violated its “hacked materials” policy, as they included information purportedly harvested from a laptop of uncertain origin. Twitter did an about-face Friday to allow users to tweet them.
Yesterday, CEO Jack Dorsey admitted blocking URLs without context was “wrong,” and the company said it was revising its policies on sharing hacked materials. A Twitter spokesperson said it was allowing the NY Post’s Hunter Biden-Burisma story to be shared “because the information had spread across the internet and could no longer be considered private,” per the New York Times.
However, as of Saturday, Twitter was still blocking tweets to another Post piece about Hunter’s alleged attempts to secure deals with Shanghai-based CEFC China Energy Co. — including reportedly getting his dad a cut of the action — based on the same “massive trove” of material from the laptop that someone had abandoned in a Delaware computer-repair store. (The Post said it was unable to confirm the laptop actually belonged to Hunter Biden.)
Attempts to share the Post’s Hunter Biden/China article on Twitter currently return this message: “We can’t complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.”
Asked Saturday why Twitter was still blocking one of the Post’s stories while unblocking others, a Twitter rep declined to provide an explanation.
The New York Post’s Twitter account continues to be locked, after the social net froze it Wednesday over violations of the hacked-materials policy. “We do not retroactively change enforcement decisions, so the NY Post’s account will be unlocked as soon as they delete the earlier Tweets which we indicated were violations,” a Twitter spokeswoman told Variety. But Twitter did retroactively change its decision on at least two of the Post’s stories in unblocking them.
Under Twitter’s revised hacked-materials policy, it will no longer block or remove such links “unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them” and will instead “label tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter.” Currently, Twitter is not appending any such label to tweets linking to the Post’s Hunter Biden/Burisma stories. A company rep said additional details of the new policy “are coming soon.”
Meanwhile, an FBI-led federal investigation is looking into whether the emails published by the New York Post allegedly about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and China are “connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort targeting the former vice president’s campaign,” CNN reported Friday, citing unnamed sources.
For Twitter, the firestorm over its blocking the Post articles and its flip-flopping on the issue stands to keep the social network squarely in the GOP’s crosshairs with Election Day less than three weeks away.
On Friday, the Republican National Committee said it filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission claiming Twitter’s blocking of the New York Post stories represents an “illegal corporate in-kind political contribution” to Joe Biden’s campaign. The GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee said it will subpoena Dorsey to testify Oct. 23 before the committee to explain Twitter’s “election interference.”
The brouhaha also spurred Trump — who relies on Twitter to make public pronouncements and attack his critics and rivals — to step up his calls to strip protections afforded to internet companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act be modified or revoked. The provision lets companies like Twitter and Facebook make content-moderation decisions for their platforms while shielding them from legal liability for user-posted material. “When government granted these protections, they created a monster!” the president tweeted Thursday. Joe Biden also has called for repealing Section 230 protections for social media platforms.
In May, Trump issued an executive order aimed at removing Section 230 immunity for social networks if they “censor” speech. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday announced an official rulemaking proceeding to “clarify” how Section 230 applies to social media companies, claiming the commission has legal authority to do so (something that free-speech advocates say is false).
In the wake of the controversy over Twitter’s block on the Post stories, Trump on Friday tweeted a link to a satirical article from a right-wing website with the headline “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network to Slow Spread of Negative Biden News.” It is unclear whether Trump understood that the article was satire, given his comment: “Wow, this has never been done in history. This includes [Biden’s] really bad interview last night. Why is Twitter doing this.” Twitter said its widespread outage Thursday stemmed from “an inadvertent change we made to our internal systems” and not a security breach or hack.
According to the Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the data that forms the basis of its Hunter Biden exposés came by way of the computer shop owner who copied the contents of the laptop before turning it over to the FBI. That eventually wound up in the hands of Giuliani, who provided the newspaper with a copy of the data. Regarding Twitter’s citation of its hacked materials policy in blocking tweets of the story, the Post wrote in an editorial, “Our story explains where the info came from, and a Senate committee now confirms it also received the files from the same source.”
Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Trump administration that Giuliani was the target of a Russian operation to funnel misinformation to President Trump, the Washington Post reported this week. A lawyer for Joe Biden stated about Giuliani, “He has been pushing widely discredited conspiracy theories about the Biden family, openly relying on actors tied to Russian intelligence. His record of dishonesty in these matters speaks for itself.”