Facebook Inc. FB -2.10% and Twitter Inc. TWTR -2.39% took the unusual step of limiting the sharing of New York Post articles that made new allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that the Biden campaign denied.
The Post said its reports were based on email exchanges with Hunter Biden—Joe Biden’s son—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.
Twitter on Wednesday blocked users from posting links to the articles, initially citing a potential violation of its rules regarding hacked materials. The company later said the articles also violated its policies on displaying private information like email addresses and phone numbers without a person’s permission. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said the company’s failure to give context around its actions was “unacceptable.”
Twitter’s move came after Facebook also limited the distribution of the articles on its platform, saying it was awaiting guidance from its third-party fact-checking partners—independent organizations that routinely review the accuracy of viral content. Facebook has slowed the spread of the Post articles pending a decision by those partners, company spokesman Andy Stone said in a Twitter message on Wednesday morning.
Mr. Stone said the action is in keeping with rules Facebook announced last year to prevent election interference. Facebook said in a blog post last October it would temporarily reduce distribution of certain content until the facts were better established to stem misinformation. “Quality reporting and fact-checking takes time,” company executives wrote at the time.
The Post articles, published Wednesday morning, cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden. One article included a copy of an email said to be sent to Hunter Biden apparently describing a meeting between his father and an executive at the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma Holdings, on whose board Hunter Biden served. The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the Post articles.
The Biden campaign said that no such meeting took place and said the Post didn’t ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead of publication.
In response to questions from the Journal, a Post spokeswoman provided a link to a Post editorial condemning the Twitter and Facebook actions and saying that “no one has disputed the veracity” of its reporting. “Facebook and Twitter are not media platforms. They’re propaganda machines,” the editorial said.
News Corp —the corporate parent of Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.—also owns the New York Post. A News Corp spokesman declined to comment. Including digital editions, the Post has a daily circulation of just under 400,000, according to News Corp filings.
Alan Duke, a founder of Facebook fact-checking partner Lead Stories, said that Facebook hadn’t asked its partners to handle the Post articles differently from other content.
“This was really just the normal process,” Mr. Duke said, adding that verifying the authenticity of the documents and events cited in the Post could be difficult. “I can tell you it’s a heavy lift,” he said.
While all news articles on Facebook are eligible for fact-checking, Facebook pages and less prominent outlets generally receive the bulk of the platform’s scrutiny, according to interviews with fact-checkers who work with the company. If an article is judged substantially false, Facebook says it ceases recommending the content, appends the material with a notice about the fact-checker’s evaluation and assigns a strike to the publication. If a publication is found to repeatedly publish what it deems to be false information, Facebook implements more systematic restrictions.
The actions from Facebook and Twitter drew condemnation from Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who has previously criticized how tech companies police content. “The seemingly selective nature of this public intervention suggests partiality on the part of Facebook,” Mr. Hawley wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the senator’s office made public.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Twitter temporarily blocked her from using her personal account after tweeting a link to one of the Post articles. Twitter said that it required Ms. McEnany to delete the tweet before she was able to continue posting from the account.
Facebook representatives didn’t immediately respond to questions about how frequently its fact-checking partners review articles from major news outlets and the specific process through which the Post stories were selected for review. A New York Post column speculating that the virus that causes Covid-19 might have escaped from a Chinese laboratory was rated false by a fact-checker earlier this year. Facebook later lifted the restriction.
Search engines appeared to take a different approach regarding Wednesday’s Post articles. Google was automatically suggesting terms such as “Hunter Biden laptop”—a search query that would lead to the Post articles—when people typed Hunter Biden’s name into the company’s search engine, and the Post’s recent articles were ranked high in searches. A Google spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment on the matter.
According to the Post, the emails at the center of its articles were found on a computer that was abandoned at a Delaware computer-repair shop. A copy of the computer’s hard drive was then provided to Robert Costello, a lawyer for Rudy Giuliani, the Post reported. Mr. Giuliani is Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.
In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Giuliani declined to discuss the circumstances of how he obtained the hard drive and said he didn’t know if it was obtained through a hacking operation.
“Could it be hacked? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Mr. Giuliani said. “If it was hacked, it’s for real. If it was hacked. I didn’t hack it. I have every right to use it.”
Investigations from the press and Congress “have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, in a statement.
Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma in 2014 until 2019, the first few years of which his father was vice president and overseeing a U.S. anticorruption push in the country. In a July 2019 phone call, Mr. Trump urged the newly elected Ukrainian president to announce an investigation into the Bidens in a conversation that was later flagged by a whistleblower, a call that ultimately led to his impeachment in the Democratic-led House.
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 demonstrate that his father sought the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from investigation. Vice President Biden’s actions at the time had the support of the Obama administration, Republicans in Congress and U.S. allies and were aimed at a prosecutor broadly viewed as corrupt.
Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University who studies cybersecurity and election interference, said social-media companies are “doing the right thing by being cautious here.”
Mr. Rid said there have been instances of last-minute email dumps ahead of elections in disinformation campaigns and that, while the source of the emails in question may be legitimate, the timing and the lack of independently verifiable information also raises a number of red flags.
Regardless of the social-media companies’ approach to the Post’s story, the controversy illustrates questions about the process of selecting content for fact-checking, said Mike Ananny, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication who has studied Facebook’s fact-checking program. “When Facebook and Twitter are in the business of deciding what journalistic content should appear on its networks, they’re not a neutral channel,” Mr. Ananny said.
—Ken Thomas, Dustin Volz and Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.
Write to Robert McMillan at [email protected] and Jeff Horwitz at [email protected]
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