Face­book and Twit­ter dodge a 2016 re­peat

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Kevin Roose

Since 2016, when Rus­sian hack­ers and­Wik­iLeaks in­jected stolen emails from the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign into the clos­ing weeks of the pres­i­den­tial race, politi­cians and pun­dits have called on tech com­pa­nies to do more to fight the threat of for­eign in­ter­fer­ence.

This week, less than a month from an­other elec­tion, we saw what “do­ing more” looks like.

Ear­ly­Wednes­day, the New York Post pub­lished a splashy front­page ar­ti­cle about sup­pos­edly in­crim­i­nat­ing pho­tos and emails found on a lap­top be­long­ing to Hunter Bi­den, son of Joe Bi­den. To many Democrats, the un­sub­stan­ti­ated ar­ti­cle — which in­cluded a bizarre set of de­tails in­volv­ing a Delaware com­puter re­pair shop, the FBI and Rudy Gi­u­liani, the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal lawyer —

smelled sus­pi­ciously like the re­sult of a hack and leak op­er­a­tion.

To be clear, there is no ev­i­dence ty­ing the Post’s re­port to a for­eign dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign. Many ques­tions re­main about how the pa­per ob­tained the emails and whether they were au­then­tic. Even so, the so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies were tak­ing no chances.

Within hours, Twit­ter banned all links to the Post’s ar­ti­cle and locked the ac­counts of peo­ple, in­clud­ing some jour­nal­ists and the White House press sec­re­tary, Kayleigh McE­nany, who tweeted it. The com­pany said it made the move be­cause the ar­ti­cle con­tained images show­ing pri­vate per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and be­cause it viewed the ar­ti­cle as a vi­o­la­tion of its rules against dis­tribut­ing hacked ma­te­rial.

Face­book took a less nu­clear ap­proach. It said that it would re­duce the vis­i­bil­ity of the ar­ti­cle on its ser­vice un­til it could be factchecke­d by a third party, a pol­icy it has ap­plied to other sen­si­tive posts. ( The move did not seem to dam­age the ar­ti­cle’s prospects; by Wed­nes­day night, sto­ries about Hunter Bi­den’s emails were among the most en­gaged posts on Face­book.)

Both de­ci­sions an­gered a cho­rus of Repub­li­cans, who called for Face­book and Twit­ter to be sued, stripped of their le­gal pro­tec­tions, or forced to ac­count for their choices. Sen. Josh Haw­ley, RMo., called in a tweet for

Twit­ter and Face­book to be sub­poe­naed by Congress to tes­tify about cen­sor­ship, ac­cus­ing them of try­ing to “hi­jack Amer­i­can democ­racy by cen­sor­ing the news & con­trol­ling the ex­pres­sion of Amer­i­cans.”

A few caveats: There is still a lot we still don’t know about the Post ar­ti­cle. We don’t know if the emails it de­scribes are au­then­tic, fake or some com­bi­na­tion of both, or if the events they pur­port to de­scribe ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Bi­den’s cam­paign de­nied the cen­tral claims in the ar­ti­cle, and a Bi­den cam­paign sur­ro­gate lashed out against the Post onWed­nes­day, call­ing the ar­ti­cle “Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion.”

Even if the emails are au­then­tic, we don’t know how they were ob­tained or how they ended up in the pos­ses­sion of Gi­u­liani, who has been spear­head­ing ef­forts to paint Bi­den and his fam­ily as cor­rupt. The owner of the Delaware com­puter shop who re­port­edly turned over the lap­top to in­ves­ti­ga­tors gave sev­eral con­flict­ing ac­counts to re­porters about the lap­top’s chain of cus­todyWed­nes­day.

Crit­ics on all sides can quib­ble with the de­ci­sions these com­pa­nies made or how they com­mu­ni­cated them. Even Jack Dorsey, Twit­ter’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, said the com­pany had mis­han­dled the orig­i­nal ex­pla­na­tion for the ban.

But the truth is less sala­cious than a Sil­i­con Val­ley elec­tion­rig­ging at­tempt. Since 2016, law­mak­ers, re­searchers and jour­nal­ists have pres­sured these com­pa­nies to take more and faster ac­tion to pre­vent false or mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion from spread­ing on their ser­vices. The com­pa­nies have also cre­ated new poli­cies gov­ern­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of hacked ma­te­rial, in or­der to pre­vent a re­peat of 2016’ s de­ba­cle.

It’s true that ban­ning links to a story pub­lished by a 200yearold Amer­i­can news­pa­per — al­beit one that is now a Ru­pert Mur­do­chowned tabloid — is a more dra­matic step than cut­ting of­fWik­iLeaks or some lesser­known mis­in­for­ma­tion pur­veyor. Still, it’s clear that what Face­book and Twit­ter were ac­tu­ally try­ing to pre­vent was not free ex­pres­sion, but a bad ac­tor us­ing their ser­vices as a con­duit for a dam­ag­ing cy­ber­at­tack or mis­in­for­ma­tion.

These de­ci­sions get made quickly, in the heat of the mo­ment, and it’s pos­si­ble that more con­tem­pla­tion and de­bate would pro­duce more sat­is­fy­ing choices. But time is a lux­ury these plat­forms don’t al­ways have. In the past, they have been slow to la­bel or re­move dan­ger­ous mis­in­for­ma­tion about COVID19, mailin vot­ing and more, and have only taken ac­tion af­ter the bad posts have gone vi­ral, de­feat­ing the pur­pose.

That left the com­pa­nies with three op­tions, none of them great. Op­tion A: They could treat the Post’s ar­ti­cle as part of a hackan­dleak op­er­a­tion and risk a back­lash if it turned out to be more in­no­cent. Op­tion B: They could limit the ar­ti­cle’s reach, al­low­ing it to stay up but choos­ing not to am­plify it un­til more facts emerged. Or, Op­tion C: They could do noth­ing and risk get­ting played again by a for­eign ac­tor seek­ing to dis­rupt an Amer­i­can elec­tion.

Twit­ter chose Op­tion A. Face­book chose Op­tion B. Given the pres­sures they have been un­der for the past four years, it’s no sur­prise that nei­ther com­pany chose Op­tion C. ( Al­though YouTube, which made no pub­lic state­ment about the Post’s story, seems to be keep­ing its head down and hop­ing the con­tro­versy passes.)

Since the com­pa­nies made those de­ci­sions, Repub­li­can of­fi­cials be­gan us­ing the ac­tions as an ex­am­ple of Sil­i­con Val­ley cen­sor­ship run amok. OnWed­nes­day, sev­eral prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Trump, re­peated their calls for Congress to re­peal Sec­tion 230 of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act, a law that shields tech plat­forms from many law­suits over user­gen­er­ated con­tent.

That leaves the com­pa­nies in a pre­car­i­ous spot. They are crit­i­cized when they al­low mis­in­for­ma­tion to spread. They are also crit­i­cized when they try to pre­vent it.

Per­haps the strangest idea to emerge in the past cou­ple of days, though, is that these ser­vices are only now be­gin­ning to ex­ert con­trol over what we see. Rep. Doug Collins, RGa., made this point in a let­ter to Mark Zucker­berg, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Face­book, in which he de­rided the so­cial net­work for us­ing “its monopoly to con­trol what news Amer­i­cans have ac­cess to.”

The truth, of course, is that tech ser­vices have been con­trol­ling our in­for­ma­tion di­ets for years, whether we re­al­ized it or not. Their de­ci­sions were of­ten buried in ob­scure “com­mu­nity stan­dards” up­dates or hid­den in tweaks to the black­box al­go­rithms that govern which posts users see. But make no mis­take: These apps have never been neu­tral, hand­soff con­duits for news and in­for­ma­tion. Their lead­ers have al­ways been ed­i­tors mas­querad­ing as engi­neers.

What’s hap­pen­ing now is sim­ply that, as these com­pa­nies move to rid their ser­vices of bad be­hav­ior, their in­flu­ence is be­ing made more vis­i­ble. Rather than let­ting their al­go­rithms run amok ( which is an ed­i­to­rial choice in it­self), they’re mak­ing high­stakes de­ci­sions about flammable po­lit­i­cal mis­in­for­ma­tion in full pub­lic view, with hu­man de­ci­sion­mak­ers who can be de­bated and held ac­count­able for their choices. That’s a pos­i­tive step for trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, even if it feels like cen­sor­ship to those who are used to get­ting their way.

Af­ter years of in­ac­tion, Face­book and Twit­ter are fi­nally start­ing to clean up their messes. And in the process, they’re en­rag­ing the pow­er­ful peo­ple who have thrived un­der the old sys­tem.

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