Twit­ter changes pol­icy that blocked vi­ral story

New York Post re­port sparked con­ver­sa­tion about the site, cen­sor­ship

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH DWOSKIN el­iz­a­beth.dwoskin@wash­post.com

Twit­ter is­sued a stun­ning pol­icy re­ver­sal Thurs­day, chang­ing a rule about hacked ma­te­ri­als that re­sulted in block­ing a con­tro­ver­sial New York Post story about the al­leged emails of Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Joe Bi­den’s son.

At first, the link to the New York Post story was still blocked un­der a pol­icy that pro­hibits shar­ing peo­ple’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, the com­pany said. But on Fri­day, the New York Times re­ported that Twit­ter started al­low­ing peo­ple to share the link be­cause the in­for­ma­tion had spread so widely it no longer ap­plied to the pri­vate in­for­ma­tion pol­icy. Twit­ter de­clined to com­ment about the most re­cent change on the record.

Late Thurs­day night, Twit­ter ex­ec­u­tive Vi­jaya Gadde tweeted that the com­pany made the de­ci­sion af­ter re­ceiv­ing “feed­back” over the past 24 hours that the pol­icy on hacked ma­te­ri­als as writ­ten could re­sult in un­due cen­sor­ship of jour­nal­ists and whistle­blow­ers. Go­ing for­ward, the com­pany will re­move con­tent only if it’s di­rectly posted by hack­ers or those act­ing in con­cert with them. It will la­bel more ques­tion­able tweets.

The late-night move re­flected the chal­lenges of real-time de­ci­sion-mak­ing be­ing made by Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies in the name of pro­tect­ing pub­lic dis­cus­sion dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that has been marred by dis­in­for­ma­tion and mis­lead­ing news. Tech com­pa­nies are in­tent on avoid­ing a re­peat of the 2016 elec­tion, when their plat­forms were ex­ploited by Rus­sian oper­a­tives. As a re­sult, they have is­sued a host of new rules and have taken some highly un­usual ac­tions, in­clud­ing cen­sor­ing a ma­jor U.S. me­dia com­pany.

“Con­tent mod­er­a­tion is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially in the crit­i­cal con­text of an elec­tion. We are try­ing to act re­spon­si­bly & quickly to pre­vent harms, but we’re still learn­ing along the way,” Gadde, who leads the com­pany’s le­gal, pol­icy, and trust and safety di­vi­sions, wrote.

On Wed­nes­day, Twit­ter blocked the link to the ar­ti­cle in which Pres­i­dent Trump’s per­sonal lawyer Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani and for­mer top ad­viser Stephen K. Ban­non claimed to have ob­tained and leaked a trove of pri­vate ma­te­ri­als from Hunter Bi­den. The leaked doc­u­ments sug­gested that at one point he gave a Ukrainian ex­ec­u­tive the “op­por­tu­nity” to meet the for­mer vice pres­i­dent. The Bi­den cam­paign said his sched­ule in­di­cated no such meet­ing took place.

The story surged to the top of Twit­ter’s trend­ing top­ics list be­fore it was cen­sored.

The com­pany said it took the ac­tion out of an abun­dance of cau­tion over the po­ten­tial that the emails may have been hacked. Twit­ter has pro­hib­ited the post­ing of hacked ma­te­ri­als since 2018. The pol­icy was adopted in re­sponse to an in­ci­dent dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, when Rus­sia-tied Wik­ileaks dumped hacked emails of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign chair­man, John Podesta.

Face­book also de­moted the story pend­ing fact-checker re­view. The com­pany re­fused to pro­vide a ra­tio­nale for de­mot­ing the reach of the story, which, by late Thurs­day, was able to garner 1.9 mil­lion likes and shares.

The com­pa­nies’ un­usual ac­tions drew im­me­di­ate back­lash from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and GOP law­mak­ers, but also drew crit­i­cism from jour­nal­ists and pro­po­nents of press free­dom as it be­came clear that the New York Post’s be­hav­ior, as de­scribed in the ar­ti­cle, did not ap­pear to run afoul of ac­cepted jour­nal­is­tic prac­tice for ob­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Oth­ers praised the com­pa­nies for be­ing cau­tious dur­ing a crit­i­cal time.

In ad­di­tion to cen­sor­ing the story, Twit­ter tem­po­rar­ily froze the ac­counts of White House press sec­re­tary Kayleigh Mce­nany’s ac­count, as well as the New York Post’s, adding no­tices to their tweets say­ing they vi­o­lated Twit­ter’s rules on pro­hibit­ing pub­lish­ing hacked ma­te­ri­als. Trump’s cam­paign ac­count was tem­po­rar­ily locked.

Claire War­dle, U.S. direc­tor of First Draft, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that works with jour­nal­ists and oth­ers to pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties from harm­ful mis­in­for­ma­tion, said she felt the com­pa­nies moved with “ap­pro­pri­ate cau­tion” this week.

“This close to an elec­tion, I’d rather they take ac­tion, wait for in­ves­ti­ga­tions to hap­pen, and then po­ten­tially roll back — rather than let an ac­tive dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign un­fold,” she said.

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