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.
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. Had the new rules been in place, it’s unclear whether those actions would have been taken.
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.
The companies are in an “impossible situation,” she added, pointing out that if it had been an obvious hack “everyone would have been applauding them.”
Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.