Facebook and Twitter CEOs will have to answer to Senate Republicans after Biden New York Post story controversy

Key Points
  • On Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter acted surprisingly quickly to limit distribution of an unverified New York Post report claiming to contain a "smoking gun" email related to Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
  • The decision is all but certain to come up at an upcoming Senate hearing where both CEOs previously agreed to testify. Republicans on the committee have expressed concerns about alleged bias on the platforms.
  • But what risks getting flattened in the discussion is Facebook's and Twitter's very different reasons and methods of reducing distribution of the Post story, which the Biden campaign has rebutted.

In this article

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Square co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.
Getty Images | CNBC

Facebook and Twitter typically take heat for acting too slowly to reduce the spread of harmful misinformation. But on Wednesday, both companies acted surprisingly quickly to limit distribution of an unverified New York Post report claiming to contain a "smoking gun" email related to Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The timing of the decision could hardly be more fraught for the companies. Both CEOs have agreed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee in just two weeks, on Oct. 28 -- less than a week before Election Day. That hearing was already expected to be full of questions about the platforms' alleged bias against conservatives. The chief executives only agreed to appear voluntarily after the committee unanimously decided to authorize subpoenas if they didn't.

But what risks getting flattened in the discussion is that Facebook and Twitter had very different reasons and used very different methods to reduce distribution of the Post story.

Twitter's stated reason was more technical in nature and its method more disruptive to individual users. Facebook's reason was more explicitly related to its election policies, but its method was more subtle for the casual user.

Twitter cited its hacked material and private information policies as reasons for preventing users from posting or sharing, even in private direct messages, links to the original Post article. The Post claimed the source of information for the unverified story was a laptop that an owner of a repair shop in Delaware believed belonged to Hunter Biden. When no one came to pick up the drive, the owner allegedly made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's lawyer before supposedly handing the original over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Post said it later obtained a copy from Giuliani.

Twitter claimed that the link violated its policies because the material in the report, which included photos from the allegedly copied hard drive, supposedly contained hacked materials. The article also included an unredacted copy of a message with supposed email addresses for Hunter Biden and two others. Sharing a nonpublic personal email address also violates Twitter's policies.

Users could still share articles commenting on the piece that did not contain the allegedly hacked or personal information. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, even posted a copy of part of the article on his own website, which the House Judiciary Committee GOP's Twitter account posted. That version of the article did not contain the images allegedly taken from the hard drive or the unredacted email addresses. Twitter has left that link intact as of Thursday morning.

But CEO Jack Dorsey said in a tweet late Wednesday that Twitter's communication about its actions was "unacceptable."

Twitter shared a thread explaining its reasoning for the decision Wednesday night, saying, in part, "We don't want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials."

Facebook did not prevent users from sharing the link to the article but said it reduced its distribution pending a fact-check review. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone first announced the fact-check review a few hours after the article was originally published Wednesday, but as of Thursday morning — more than 24 hours after it was first posted on Facebook — Facebook posts containing the link still did not have any labels showing that it was under review.

Stone wrote on Twitter that the review is "part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation," including a link to Facebook's election integrity policies. On that page, Facebook says it is committed to fighting foreign interference, increasing transparency and reducing misinformation. As part of its commitment to reducing misinformation, Facebook says in the blog post it will include "clearer fact-checking labels."

Damned if they do, damned if they don't

In many cases of content moderation, Facebook and Twitter are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Democrats have slammed the platforms in the past for decisions not to remove or label doctored or misleading information on their sites. For example, both platforms refused to take down an edited video posted by President Donald Trump showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up Trump's State of the Union Address. The edited video made it appear she ripped the pages after positive moments in the speech, such as when Trump saluted a Tuskegee airman, when she actually did so only at the end of the speech.

But at least as often, the platforms take criticism from Republicans, such as Jordan and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who suspect them of rigging their algorithms and policies against conservatives. Facebook and Twitter have repeatedly denied this and reporting shows conservative viewpoints often achieve wide reach on the platforms.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tx. told reporters Thursday alongside Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that the committee would vote Tuesday on whether to subpoena Dorsey for a hearing in front of their committee next Friday. Hawley added that he hoped the committee would consider a subpoena for Zuckerberg as well.

In an interview later Thursday on CNBC's "Power Lunch," Cruz, who is also a member of the Commerce Committee, said Twitter's actions over the past day "marked a dramatic escalation and it crossed a new line." He claimed that blocking the article was tantamount to "election interference" and questioned Twitter's liability protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

When the Commerce Committee voted to authorize subpoenas for the CEOs earlier this month, ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said that in agreeing to do so, she did not want to see "a chilling effect on individuals who are in a process of trying to crack down on hate speech or misinformation about Covid during a pandemic." It now seems all but inevitable that Republicans on the committee will hammer both CEOs for their moderation processes.

Andrew Bates, spokesman for the Biden campaign, responded to the New York Post's story in a statement:

"Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as 'not legitimate' and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing. Trump Administration officials have attested to these facts under oath," Bates said.

"The New York Post never asked the Biden campaign about the critical elements of this story," he added. "They certainly never raised that Rudy Giuliani — whose discredited conspiracy theories and alliance with figures connected to Russian intelligence have been widely reported — claimed to have such materials.

"Moreover, we have reviewed Joe Biden's official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place."

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