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Explained: Why did Twitter, Facebook restrict access to a controversial article concerning Joe Biden?

Twitter prevented people from sharing the link to the article and warned people that it could be “potentially unsafe”.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 19, 2020 12:53:43 pm
US elections, US presidential elections, US elections 2020, New York Times article on Joe Biden, Joe Biden New York Times article, New York Times article Joe Biden, Twitter Joe Biden article, Facebook Joe Biden article, Joe Biden, Explained Sci-Tech, Express Explained, Indian ExpressTwitter announced some additional steps the website will be taking ahead of the US elections

With over two weeks to go for the presidential elections in the US that are scheduled for November 3, social media website Twitter on Wednesday restricted access to an article published by the New York Post concerning Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Twitter prevented people from sharing the link to the article and warned people that it could be “potentially unsafe”. Users were also not allowed to share the article through private messages on the website. Facebook also followed and took steps to restrict access to the article, sparking a backlash among the conservatives and reigniting the debate around social media censorship.

[Update: Twitter backtracks, allows users to post previously blocked NY Post article]

What is the article about?

The article, which is critical of Biden, says that by accessing information, including emails and some photographs in a laptop apparently left by Biden’s son Hunter Biden at a computer repair shop in 2019 in Delaware, they found information linking Biden to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, of which his son was a board member.

Also Read | Twitter briefly restricts Trump campaign account, Republicans decry company’s actions

The report mentions that other materials extracted from the laptop include a 12-minute “raunchy” video that appears to show Biden’s son smoking crack while engaged in a sexual act with an unidentified woman, “as well as numerous other sexually explicit images”, the article states and maintains that the person who dropped off the laptop could not be positively identified as Hunter Biden.

One of the emails from 2015, accessed from the laptop, mentions an adviser of the Ukrainian company thanking Biden’s son for inviting him to meet with the former vice-president. However, the article does not substantiate its claims that Biden actually met with the adviser. Accoridng to a BBC report, Biden’s election campaign has denied that such a meeting took place.

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What has Twitter said?

In a blog post published on October 9, Twitter announced some additional steps the website will be taking ahead of the US elections. One of these measures is to take more strict measures against “misleading information about civic integrity, COVID-19, and synthetic and manipulated media.” It added, “Starting next week, when people attempt to Retweet one of these Tweets with a misleading information label, they will see a prompt pointing them to credible information about the topic before they are able to amplify it.”

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has said that the website’s communication around the New York Post article “was not great” and said that blocking URL tweet sharing without giving any context was “unacceptable”.

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The platform maintains that the article contained personal and private images, including details such as email addresses and phone numbers, which violates their rules. Further, the website says that it views the materials included in the article as violating their “Hacked Materials Policy”.

However, in response to the backlash faced by Twitter and criticism from some Republican congressmen to subject Dorsey to a subpoena, the website has made some changes to its hacked materials policy. On Thursday, Twitter’s policy chief Vijaya Gadde said, “Over the last 24 hours, we’ve received significant feedback (from critical to supportive) about how we enforced our Hacked Materials Policy yesterday. After reflecting on this feedback, we have decided to make changes to the policy and how we enforce it.”

As per these changes, Twitter will not remove hacked content unless it is shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them and tweets will be labelled to provide context instead of the platform restricting certain links from being shared.

How have people reacted?

The op-ed editor of the New York Post, Sohrab Ahmari has referred to Twitter’s action as “digital civil war”. In a tweet Ahmari posted on Thursday, he said, “This is a Big Tech information coup. This is digital civil war. I, an editor at The New York Post, one of the nation’s largest papers by circulation, can’t post one of our own stories that details corruption by a major-party presidential candidate, Biden.”

Also Read | Dueling town halls for Trump, Biden after debate plan nixed

US President Donald Trump tweeted, “So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of “Smoking Gun” emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost. It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230!!!”.

Trump has been keen on repealing the protections offered under Section 230, which is an internet regulation that protects social media companies from having immediate liabilities for the content that is posted and shared on their websites in the US. He has also mentioned in the past that if platforms want to control the content posted on their websites, they should be treated akin to publishers.

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