After two days of outrage from conservatives and others confused by its inconsistent and poorly explained policy around hacked materials, Twitter backed down from restrictive policies it put in place around a questionably sourced New York Post Hunter Biden exposé.
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the platform made it impossible to share the article in question, leading to howls from the conservative-media sphere and lawmakers — including Senators Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn, and Josh Hawley — that it was engaged in partisan censorship. In a revision of a policy first enacted in 2018, the company said that, in the future, stories that may be based on hacked material (though there is no evidence yet that the Biden story falls into this category) will be available to disseminate as normal — unless they are directly shared by the hackers themselves. Such stories will also come appended with a note about their provenance. As for the Post story that sparked the outrage, it is now once sharable on Twitter.
Still, the consequences of the company’s initial decision may not only be rhetorical. The Senate Judiciary Committee — which includes Silicon Valley antagonists like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who labeled Twitter’s intervention “election interference” — plans to subpoena Dorsey over the incident. And, following the lead of President Trump, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his agency would “clarify the meaning” of Section 230, a rule protecting tech companies that come under attack from conservatives.
On Thursday, Twitter had once again blocked the Post story, which contained unflattering material about Hunter Biden, from being widely shared, guaranteeing a second day of recrimination directed at the company from Silicon Valley–hating conservatives — and others puzzled by the company’s poorly explained and inconsistent policy around hacked materials.
Early on Wednesday, the President Trump–friendly New York Post published a cache of emails and photos purporting to contain newly damning information about Joe and Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. (The actual revelations contained therein are considerably less scandalous than the Post’s headline would suggest.) The provenance of the emails was, to put it mildly, murky. The paper reported that the owner of a computer store in Delaware had spotted a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on a laptop that was brought in for repair, then — naturally — made a copy of the machine’s hard drive, which he gave to Rudy Giuliani, who has spent much of the past two years trying to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine.
As Twitter lit up with outrage from the left that some journalists and outlets were disseminating the Post’s supposed scoop at all — many were reminded of the inordinate amount of coverage that Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails received four years ago — the Biden campaign denied a key element of the Post’s account was true. Right-wing personalities continued to amplify the story, but given its many journalistic shortcomings, it looked destined for a short shelf life outside those circles.
Then Twitter did something curious: It blocked the Post story from being shared at all, posting a message that it contained “harmful” content. According to the Post, Twitter also locked its main Twitter account on Wednesday afternoon.
Facebook also put restrictions on sharing the article, according to a company spokesperson, the scope of which were unclear:
Twitter’s official explanation was that it had taken such drastic action because the Post story was based on hacked material, but it did not provide an explanation for its claim that the emails were illegally procured. Observers quickly noted that, by Wednesday’s standard, other tweets containing hacked emails should have been off limits too but weren’t.
Later, Twitter attempted to clarify its reasoning, with the company’s CEO , Jack Dorsey, admitting that “our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great.” The company stated that, as well as including possibly hacked material, “the images contained in the articles include personal and private information,” which violate the company’s rules. But by then, the episode had, predictably, proven to be catnip for conservative voices, including prominent lawmakers, who often accuse big tech of censoring their side for purely political reasons. And it guaranteed that the story, along with a meta-debate around its appropriateness, would continue to percolate on the internet for hours and perhaps days to come.
As many pointed out, it was a prime example of the “Streisand effect,” whereby censoring a piece of information lends it far more prominence than it otherwise would have received. In the end, thanks to their crackdowns meant to limit information, Facebook and Twitter ended up doing some of the messaging work for the Trump campaign themselves.
This post has been updated.