By Robert McMillan, Dustin Volz and Jeff Horwitz
When the New York Post this week published articles based on
email exchanges with Hunter Biden -- Joe Biden's son -- Facebook
Inc. and Twitter Inc. saw the situation as one they spent years
preparing to face.
Both social-media companies had been heavily criticized for
doing too little to address manipulation and other problematic
posts on their platforms in the run-up to the 2016 election. On
Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook -- within hours after the articles
were published -- determined the content triggered measures they
developed in response and acted to limit the articles' spread.
Their actions quickly drew a mixture of support, confusion and
criticism, illustrating challenges the platforms face when they
handle controversial content around elections. The moves fueled
questions from everyone from users to lawmakers that the companies
didn't immediately answer about how they decide which articles from
which news organizations to target for such scrutiny. Twitter Chief
Executive Jack Dorsey criticized his own company for not adequately
explaining its actions, and in an about-face Thursday, Twitter said
it was changing how it enforces potential violations of its
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to
subpoena Mr. Dorsey to testify about his company's handling of the
matter. Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that
the Twitter and Facebook actions reflect bias against them and an
effort to influence the election. The companies have strongly
disputed those characterizations.
Inside Facebook, executives had performed role-playing exercises
in recent months about how to respond to an email dump and
described such scenarios in planning documents, according to people
familiar with the matter. None of that preparation shielded the
company from criticism.
After a Facebook spokesman in Washington said Wednesday morning
that the New York Post articles were flagged for fact-checking -- a
potentially lengthy process -- the company hasn't made additional
public statements on the matter. Facebook has said flagged items
are less likely to show up in users' news feeds.
Twitter went further, blocking people from sharing links to the
articles or tweeting of images from them. It also suspended
accounts of users who attempted to do that, including White House
press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter said the material
violated its rules aiming to prevent sharing information obtained
through hacking and private information like phone numbers and
email addresses without consent. It had blocked this type of
material in the past, but never from a large news publisher like
the New York Post.
News Corp -- the corporate parent of The Wall Street Journal
publisher Dow Jones & Co. -- also owns the New York Post.
Thursday evening, Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde
said the rule change on how it enforces its hacked content rules
came after receiving "significant feedback" over its handling of
the Post articles. From now on, Twitter will provide context about
the potential violation instead of blocking links unless the
material was "directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert
with them," Ms. Gadde said. "We are trying to act responsibly &
[sic] quickly to prevent harms, but we're still learning along the
way," she tweeted.
Twitter on Friday began easing up on its restrictions and
enabling users to tweet links to the stories.
Matt Perault, a former Facebook public-policy director who now
runs Duke University's Center on Science and Technology Policy, on
Thursday called the platforms' explanations of their actions
"Generally, companies interested in protecting free speech would
leave up content from major news organizations," said Mr. Perault,
before Twitter's announcement.
Twitter and Facebook's restrictions reduced the spread of the
articles, but didn't stop links to them from reaching an audience
on their platforms outright.
The New York Post's articles were shared on websites and
social-media platforms 1.1 million times on Wednesday, according to
an analysis from media analytics firm Zignal Labs Inc.
On Wednesday and Thursday, social-media research firm Storyful
counted more than 94,000 tweets mentioning alleged censorship of
the articles on Twitter and more than 6,300 mentions on public
pages on Facebook, where it gained millions of interactions on
pages, including those of President Trump, Fox News and Breitbart
News. News Corp owns Storyful.
"The response that Twitter and Facebook have taken have clearly
had the opposite of the intended effect because this is now the top
story," said David Perlman, a former Twitter data scientist who now
works for computer-security company Leviathan Security Group Inc.,
adding that the companies need to think more strategically when
addressing these issues.
The responses Wednesday were shaped by the reckoning over social
media's role in the spread of manipulation and disinformation
campaigns ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according
to officials from social-media companies and independent
cybersecurity analysts. In the summer of that year, for example,
Russian intelligence operatives used a persona known as Guccifer
2.0 to leak Democratic Party groups' emails that had been obtained
through a cyberattack.
Since then, the companies have announced a bevy of new policies
intended to crack down on election-related manipulation and
disinformation, including restrictions on circulating so-called
"hack-and-leak" material that appears to be private information
stolen during a cyberattack.
"Russian actors relied on this technique in 2016, and we should
all be ready in case they or others try again," said Nathaniel
Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, earlier this
Leaders at social-media companies have said their priority has
been addressing foreign influence operations targeting U.S.
elections. Often, quick action is required during these operations,
where stories can gain traction and go viral within hours,
disinformation researchers say.
The New York Post's articles cited emails it said were written
and received by Hunter Biden that were provided by allies of
President Trump, who in turn said they received them from a
computer-repair person who found them on a laptop. One article
included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden
describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma
Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden
The Biden campaign said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing
and that no such meeting took place. It also said the New York Post
didn't ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead
The Wall Street Journal hasn't independently verified the New
York Post articles.
A New York Post spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment.
Post editors have said the social-media companies' actions amount
to censorship and that it stands by its articles.
Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing and said he exercised poor
judgment in joining Burisma's board while his father's
vice-presidential duties included Ukraine. A recent investigation
by Republican senators didn't support an accusation by Mr. Trump
and other Republicans that Joe Biden sought the removal of
Ukraine's top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from
The timing of the email release by the New York Post and the
circumstances behind how the information was obtained raised
concerns among cybersecurity experts and some government officials
that the material could be linked to a foreign disinformation
operation -- in an echo of 2016. Russian hackers have previously
targeted Burisma Holdings, they say. And Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump's
personal lawyer, who the New York Post said gave it a copy of the
hard drive, has visited Kyiv in search of damaging material on the
Bidens, the Journal has reported. He has worked with multiple
Ukrainians in that effort, including a lawmaker whom the U.S.
Treasury Department sanctioned last month for acting as a Russian
agent interfering in the 2020 presidential elections.
Mr. Giuliani told the Journal on Wednesday he didn't know if the
material published by the New York Post had come from a hack. On
Thursday, he said on a satellite-radio program that "categorically,
this has not been hacked."
About a month ago, U.S. intelligence officials reached out to
independent analysts familiar with Russian hacking attempts on
Burisma, saying they had seen an uptick in signals that leaks of
emails could be forthcoming as an "October surprise" event akin to
the WikiLeaks releases of hacked Democratic emails in 2016,
according to a person familiar with those conversations.
Earlier this year U.S. cybersecurity analysts said hackers
believed to be affiliated with the same Russian military
intelligence that hacked emails from Democratic Party groups in
2016 had breached Burisma and had been targeting the company since
the previous November, as Congress was holding hearings on whether
Mr. Trump abused his office by pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart
to work with Mr. Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. The
Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump last year, and the
Republican-led Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment
Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com, Dustin Volz
at email@example.com and Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 16, 2020 18:02 ET (22:02 GMT)
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