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New York Post Shifts Tone on Trump as a Top Editor Plans His Own Exit

Last month The New York Post called President Trump “an invincible hero, who not only survived every dirty trick the Democrats threw at him, but the Chinese virus as well.” Then it published front-page articles trying to link the contents of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden to his father, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

On Thursday, in a sudden about-face, Rupert Murdoch’s scrappy tabloid published two articles with a wildly different tone. One accused the president of making an “unfounded claim that political foes were trying to steal the election.” The headline on the other described Donald Trump Jr. as the “panic-stricken” author of a “clueless tweet.”

What happened?

In short, the president appears to be going down — and The Post is not about to go with him.

With Mr. Trump headed toward a likely defeat, top editors at the tabloid told some staff members this week to be tougher in their coverage of him, said two Post employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

In addition to the shift in tone, there will be a change in personnel: Col Allan, the Australian tabloid wizard who was once seen in the Post newsroom wearing a Make America Great Again cap, will call an end to his career of more than 40 years at Murdoch papers in New York and Sydney.

Mr. Allan, who was The Post’s editor in chief from 2001-16, rejoined the paper as an adviser in January 2019, just as the presidential campaign was underway. Since his return, he has had a strong hand in shaping coverage, several staff members said. He confirmed his planned retirement in an email interview.

“The Post is not perfect,” Mr. Allan said. “But it articulates a view that is not obedient to liberal orthodoxy. Therefore it is dangerous. I know where I would rather be.”

On Thursday, The Post published two articles in quick succession on its website. One was a skeptical dispatch from Washington on the president’s Thursday evening White House briefing: “Downcast Trump makes baseless election fraud claims in White House address,” went the headline.

The article did not shy away from critical reporting: “President Trump repeated his unfounded claim that political foes were trying to steal the election from him during a briefing on Thursday evening as he trailed his opponent and remaining swing states were leaning toward a Joe Biden presidency.” The full article was not included in The Post’s print edition on Friday, but the parts that called the president’s claims unsubstantiated were intact.

It went online shortly after The Post published an article on its website that took aim at Mr. Trump’s eldest son, who had called on the president “to go to total war over this election” in a tweet. “Panic-stricken Donald Trump Jr. calls for ‘total war’ in clueless tweet,” read the original headline. The story noted that the younger Mr. Trump “has a long history of using Twitter to fuel conspiracy theories.” (A later version of the headline removed “panic-stricken,” and the article did not make the Friday print edition.)

A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment for this article.

The tenor of The Post’s recent Trump coverage matched the irreverent voice the paper typically applies to Hollywood celebrities and Democratic politicians. The two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity described instances in the last two days when top editors encouraged staff members to use a rough-and-ready tabloid voice when writing about the president.

Two main sources were President Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and his former adviser Stephen K. Bannon. The article suggested that Joseph Biden had directed American policy in Ukraine while he was vice president to enrich his son, a former board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Other news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times, examined the laptop material and determined that Joseph Biden had not manipulated American foreign policy to benefit his son.

“The Post has largely supported Trump because the paper shares his vision for free markets and the opportunity they provide to raise up all people,” Mr. Allan said. “We have also been critical of the president, particularly his tweeting. My personal view is that history will be very kind to Donald Trump.”

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Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.

By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one.

The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Mr. Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as “a senior adviser to the president,” and remains close to Jared Kushner.

The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.

The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Mr. Biden’s candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.

As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and Mr. Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.

Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for President Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew’s carefully laid plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.

While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal’s Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Mr. Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Mr. Biden trading on his family’s name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.

Mr. Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19, according to Mr. Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week’s news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An “important piece” in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day.

His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.

“The editors didn’t like Trump’s insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job,” a Journal reporter who wasn’t directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House’s frantic timeline.

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Finally, Mr. Bobulinski got tired of waiting.

“He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not,” Mr. Bannon said.

At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Mr. Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville to attend the debate as Mr. Trump’s surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son’s business dealings.

When Mr. Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he told Mr. Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.

As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,” The Journal reported.

Asked about The Journal’s handling of the story, the editor in chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. “Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself,” Mr. Murray said in an emailed statement.

And if you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.

The McLean group’s failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated “disinformation” machinery feared by liberals.

But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.

Image
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Perhaps the most influential media document of the last four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news “revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set.”

Mr. Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as “anchor left, pivot right,” and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book “Clinton Cash,” an investigation of the Clinton family’s blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by the writer Peter Schweizer.

Mr. Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won’t find his work in mainstream outlets. He’s over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.

And the fact that Mr. Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Mr. Bannon’s nightmare, and Mr. Benkler’s fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden’s doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Mr. Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.

“SO USA TODAY DIDN’T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK,” the conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained Oct. 20, posting the article instead to his blog. President Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.

“This is ‘60 Minutes,’ and we can’t put on things we can’t verify,” Lesley Stahl told him. Mr. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Mr. Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Mr. Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.

“For years, we’ve respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press,” wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. “Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences.”

There’s something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you’ve seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.

But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumor, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it,” my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified “Steele dossier,” in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.

This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election’s outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Mr. Herschmann, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Schwartz weren’t exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.

I’d prefer to put my faith in Mr. Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms’ product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralized it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.

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New York Post Published Hunter Biden Report Amid Newsroom Doubts

The New York Post’s front-page article about Hunter Biden on Wednesday was written mostly by a staff reporter who refused to put his name on it, two Post employees said.

Bruce Golding, a reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid since 2007, did not allow his byline to be used because he had concerns over the article’s credibility, the two Post employees said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

Coming late in a heated presidential campaign, the article suggested that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had used his position to enrich his son Hunter when he was vice president. The Post based the story on photos and documents the paper said it had taken from the hard drive of a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden.

Many Post staff members questioned whether the paper had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents, said five people with knowledge of the tabloid’s inner workings. Staff members also had concerns about the reliability of its sources and its timing, the people said.

The article named two sources: Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump now facing federal fraud charges, who was said to have made the paper aware of the hard drive last month; and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who was said to have given the paper “a copy” of the hard drive on Oct. 11.

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Mr. Giuliani said he chose The Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”

Top editors met on Oct. 11 to discuss how to use the material provided by Mr. Giuliani. The group included the tabloid veteran Colin Allan, known as Col; Stephen Lynch, The Post’s editor in chief; and Michelle Gotthelf, the digital editor in chief, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Mr. Allan, who was The Post’s editor in chief from 2001 to 2016 and returned last year as an adviser, urged his colleagues to move quickly, the person said.

As deadline approached, editors pressed staff members to add their bylines to the story — and at least one aside from Mr. Golding refused, two Post journalists said. A Post spokeswoman had no comment on how the article was written or edited.

Headlined “BIDEN SECRET E-MAILS,” the article appeared Wednesday with two bylines: Emma-Jo Morris, a deputy politics editor who joined the paper after four years at the Murdoch-owned Fox News, and Gabrielle Fonrouge, a Post reporter since 2014.

Ms. Morris did not have a bylined article in The Post before Wednesday, a search of its website showed. She arrived at the tabloid in April after working as an associate producer on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her Instagram account, which was set to private on Wednesday, included photos of her posing with the former Trump administration members Mr. Bannon and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as Roger J. Stone Jr., a friend and former campaign adviser to Mr. Trump. (In July, the president commuted the sentence of Mr. Stone on seven felonies.)

Ms. Fonrouge had little to do with the reporting or writing of the article, said three people with knowledge of how it was prepared. She learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published, the people said.

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In Reversal, Twitter Is No Longer Blocking New York Post Article

SAN FRANCISCO — It is the 11th hour before the presidential election. But Facebook and Twitter are still changing their minds.

With just a few weeks to go before the Nov. 3 vote, the social media companies are continuing to shift their policies and, in some cases, are entirely reversing what they will and won’t allow on their sites. On Friday, Twitter underlined just how fluid its policies were when it began letting users share links to an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden that it had previously blocked from its service.

The change was a 180-degree turn from Wednesday, when Twitter had banned the links to the article because the emails on which it was based may have been hacked and contained private information, both of which violated its policies. (Many questions remain about how the New York Post obtained the emails.)

Late Thursday, under pressure from Republicans who said Twitter was censoring them, the company began backtracking by revising one of its policies. It completed its about-face on Friday by lifting the ban on the New York Post story altogether, as the article has spread widely across the internet.

Twitter’s flip-flop followed a spate of changes from Facebook, which over the past few weeks has said it would ban Holocaust denial content, ban more QAnon conspiracy pages and groups, ban anti-vaccination ads and suspend political advertising for an unspecified length of time after the election. All of those things had previously been allowed — until they weren’t.

The rapid-fire changes have made Twitter and Facebook the butt of jokes and invigorated efforts to regulate them. On Friday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said he wanted to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to testify over the “censorship” of the New York Post article since the social network had also reduced the visibility of the piece. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that Twitter was “against us.” And President Trump shared a satirical article on Twitter that mocked the company’s policies.

“Policies are a guide for action, but the platforms are not standing behind their policies,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “They are merely reacting to public pressure and therefore will be susceptible to politician influence for some time to come.”

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A Twitter spokesman confirmed that the company would now allow the link to the New York Post article to be shared because the information had spread across the internet and could no longer be considered private. He declined further comment.

A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said: “Meaningful events in the world have led us to change some of our policies, but not our principles.”

For nearly four years, the social media companies have had time to develop content policies to be ready for the 2020 election, especially after Russian operatives were found to have used the sites to sow discord in the 2016 election. But even with all the preparations, the volume of last-minute changes by Twitter and Facebook suggests that they still do not have a handle on the content flowing on their networks.

That raises questions, election experts said, about how Twitter and Facebook would deal with any interference on Election Day and in the days after. The race between Mr. Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has been unusually bitter, and the social media sites are set to play a significant role on Nov. 3 as distributors of information. Some people are already using the sites to call for election violence.

The chaotic environment could challenge the companies’ policies, said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a center for the study of social media, disinformation and national security. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said.

Other misinformation experts said Twitter and Facebook have had little choice but to make changes on the fly because of the often norm-breaking behavior of Mr. Trump, who uses social media as a megaphone.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former Facebook executive, noted that after Mr. Trump recently made comments to his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” some companies — like Facebook — created new policies that forbid a political candidate to use their platforms to call for that action. The companies also prohibited candidates from claiming an election victory early, he said.

“These potential abuses were always covered by very broad policies, but I think it’s smart to commit themselves to specific actions,” Mr. Stamos said.

So on Wednesday, Twitter blocked links to the article hours after it had been published. The company said sharing the article violated its policy that prohibits users from spreading hacked information. It also said the emails in the story contained private information, so sharing the piece would violate its privacy policies.

But after blocking the article, Twitter was blasted by Republicans for censorship. Many conservatives — including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Ms. McEnany — reposted the piece to bait the company into taking down their tweets or locking their accounts.

Twitter soon said it could have done more to explain its decision. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said late Wednesday that the company had not provided enough context to users when they were prevented from posting the links.

His reaction set off a scramble at Twitter. By late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top legal and policy official, said that the policy against sharing hacked materials would change and that the content would no longer be blocked unless it was clearly shared by the hackers or individuals working in concert with them. Instead, information gleaned from hacks would be marked with a warning label about its provenance, Ms. Gadde said.

The internal discussions continued. On Friday, Twitter users could freely post links to the New York Post article. The company had not added labels to tweets with the article as it said it would.

At Facebook, the recent policy changes have grabbed attention partly because the company said on Sept. 3 that it did not plan to make changes to its site until after the election. “To ensure there are clear and consistent rules, we are not planning to make further changes to our election-related policies between now and the official declaration of the result,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post at the time.

Yet just a few weeks later, the changes started coming rapidly. On Oct. 6, Facebook expanded its takedown of the QAnon conspiracy group. A day later, it said it would ban political advertising after the polls closed on Election Day, with the ban lasting an undetermined length of time.

Days later, Mr. Zuckerberg also said Facebook would no longer allow Holocaust deniers to post their views to the site. And less than 24 hours after that, the company said it would disallow advertising related to anti-vaccination theories.

Facebook’s Mr. Stone positioned the changes as a natural response to what it called “a historic election,” as well as the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

“We remain committed to free expression while also recognizing the current environment requires clearer guardrails to minimize harm,” he said.

But there is one change Facebook hasn’t made. After reducing visibility of the New York Post article on its site on Wednesday and saying the article needed to be fact checked, the social network has continued to stick by that decision.

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Twitter Changes Course After Republicans Claim ‘Election Interference’

SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump called Facebook and Twitter “terrible” and “a monster” and said he would go after them. Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn said they would subpoena the chief executives of the companies for their actions. And on Fox News, prominent conservative hosts blasted the social media platforms as “monopolies” and accused them of “censorship” and election interference.

On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

For a while, Twitter doubled down. It locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then prohibited the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

But late Thursday, under pressure, Twitter said it was changing the policy that it had used to block the New York Post article and would now allow similar content to be shared, along with a label to provide context about the source of the information. Twitter said it was concerned that the earlier policy was leading to unintended consequences.

Even so, the actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day. And Twitter’s bob-and-weave in particular underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

Facebook declined to comment on Thursday and pointed to its comments on Wednesday when it said the New York Post article, which made unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s business in Ukraine, was eligible for third-party fact-checking. Among the concerns was that the article cited purported emails from Hunter Biden that may have been obtained in a hack, though it is unclear how the paper obtained the messages and whether they were authentic.

Twitter had said it was blocking the New York Post article partly because it had a policy of not sharing what might be hacked material. But late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, said the policy was too sweeping and could end up blocking content from journalists and whistle-blowers. As a result, she said, Twitter was changing course.

Ms. Gadde added that Twitter would continue blocking links to or images from the article if they contained email addresses and other private information, which violated the company’s privacy policy.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that “it is only the beginning” for the social media companies. He followed up on Thursday by saying he wanted to “strip them” of some of their liability protections.

For years, Mr. Trump and other Republicans have accused Facebook and Twitter, which have headquarters in liberal Silicon Valley, of anti-conservative bias. In 2018, Mr. Trump said the companies, along with Google, “have to be careful” and claimed, without evidence, that they were intentionally suppressing conservative news outlets supportive of his administration.

That issue has since come up repeatedly at Capitol Hill hearings, including in July when the chief executives of Facebook and Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, testified on antitrust issues.

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Tensions have also been running high for Twitter and Facebook as they aim to avoid a replay of the 2016 election, when Russians used their sites to spread inflammatory messages to divide Americans. In recent weeks, the companies have said they will clamp down on misinformation before and after Election Day, such as by banning content related to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon and slowing down the way information flows on their networks.

But with Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden in the polls, the companies’ handling of the New York Post article has ruptured any truce they had managed to strike with conservatives.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, asked the Federal Election Commission in a letter on Wednesday to investigate whether the companies’ actions could be considered an in-kind contribution to Mr. Biden’s campaign.

“I think it really is a new frontier,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “It will also lead to a new openness on the Republican side to think about what we are going to do about their monopoly power.”

Mr. Cruz, of Texas, and Ms. Blackburn, of Tennessee, said on Thursday that they would subpoena Mr. Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, for a hearing on what they deemed “election interference.”

“I’m looking forward to asking Jack and Mark about silencing media that go against their political beliefs,” Ms. Blackburn said in a tweet.

Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent Mr. Dorsey a letter excoriating Twitter for blocking the article and asking for a detailed summary of the process behind the decision.

Mr. Pichai, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey have already agreed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28 about the federal law that shields their platforms from lawsuits. Conservatives have called for changes to the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it impossible to sue web platforms over much of the content posted by their users or how they choose to moderate it.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Mr. Trump was even more pointed, saying in a tweet on Thursday that the companies needed to be deprived of their Section 230 protections “immediately.”

Others applauded the aggressiveness of the social media companies.

“The actions taken by Facebook, Twitter and Google show that these platform companies are indeed willing to enforce their existing policies, in particular around ‘hack and leak’ material,” said Shannon McGregor, senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike previous criticism of Facebook and Twitter for acting too slowly in taking down content, the uproar this time has centered on how they may have acted too hastily. (The exception was Google’s YouTube, which said after about 36 hours that it would allow a New York Post video about the article to remain up without restrictions.)

The speed with which Facebook moved was uncharacteristic, fueled by how quickly the article took off online and the sensitivity of the material, according to two Facebook employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Within three hours after The New York Post published its article on Wednesday, Facebook said it would reduce the distribution of the piece across the network so that it would appear less frequently in users’ individual News Feeds, one of the most highly viewed sections of the app.

The company billed it as part of its “standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. That process included spotting some “signals” that a piece of content might be false, according to Facebook’s guidelines for content moderation. The company has not clarified what those signals were.

Twitter then went further by blocking people from linking to the article altogether. That meant the article could not circulate at all on Twitter, even in private messages between users.

The backlash was instant. Republicans immediately tested the limits of Twitter’s rules, with some tweeting screenshots of the article. Francis Brennan, the director of strategic response for the Trump campaign, posted the entire article in a string of 44 tweets. The article was also copied and published on the webpage of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican minority.

Twitter scrambled to keep up. If tweets with the screenshots showed the emails, the company removed them. Mr. Brennan’s tweets were allowed to remain because they did not include the emails.

Late Wednesday, as the furor grew, Twitter tried to address it. “We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner,” a spokesman tweeted.

Twitter also said people whose accounts were locked could easily change that by simply deleting the offending tweet.

Also late Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey criticized his company’s communication about the decision, saying it was “unacceptable” to give “zero context” about the action.

Internally, Mr. Dorsey griped to employees that users weren’t given a sufficient explanation when prevented from sharing the New York Post article, a person with knowledge of the comments said.

Twitter’s hacked-material policy was written in 2018, with blocking links the main course of action. The company has since increasingly opted to label tweets, adding context or saying if they glorified violence.

But Twitter had not updated the hacked-material policy. So when the New York Post article appeared, and questions about the emails’ origin were raised, the only system it had was to block the content.

“We are no longer limited to tweet removal as an enforcement action,” Ms. Gadde said late Thursday.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Kate Conger from Oakland, Calif. Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting from Oakland, David McCabe from Washington, and Tiffany Hsu from Hoboken, N.J.

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Facebook and Twitter Dodge a 2016 Repeat, and Ignite a 2020 Firestorm

Since 2016, when Russian hackers and WikiLeaks injected stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign into the closing weeks of the presidential race, politicians and pundits have called on tech companies to do more to fight the threat of foreign interference.

On Wednesday, less than a month from another election, we saw what “doing more” looks like.

Early Wednesday morning, the New York Post published a splashy front-page article about supposedly incriminating photos and emails found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr. To many Democrats, the unsubstantiated article — which included a bizarre set of details involving a Delaware computer repair shop, the F.B.I. and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer — smelled suspiciously like the result of a hack-and-leak operation.

To be clear, there is no evidence tying the Post’s report to a foreign disinformation campaign. Many questions remain about how the paper obtained the emails and whether they were authentic. Even so, the social media companies were taking no chances.

Within hours, Twitter banned all links to the Post’s article, and locked the accounts of people, including some journalists and the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who tweeted it. The company said it made the move because the article contained images showing private personal information, and because it viewed the article as a violation of its rules against distributing hacked material.

On Thursday, the company partly backtracked, saying it would no longer remove hacked content unless it was shared directly by hackers or their accomplices.

Facebook took a less nuclear approach. It said that it would reduce the visibility of the article on its service until it could be fact-checked by a third party, a policy it has applied to other sensitive posts. (The move did not seem to damage the article’s prospects; by Wednesday night, stories about Hunter Biden’s emails were among the most-engaged posts on Facebook.)

Both decisions angered a chorus of Republicans, who called for Facebook and Twitter to be sued, stripped of their legal protections, or forced to account for their choices. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, called in a tweet for Twitter and Facebook to be subpoenaed by Congress to testify about censorship, accusing them of trying to “hijack American democracy by censoring the news & controlling the expression of Americans.”

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A few caveats: There is still a lot we still don’t know about the Post article. We don’t know if the emails it describes are authentic, fake or some combination of both, or if the events they purport to describe actually happened. Mr. Biden’s campaign denied the central claims in the article, and a Biden campaign surrogate lashed out against the Post on Wednesday, calling the article “Russian disinformation.”

Even if the emails are authentic, we don’t know how they were obtained, or how they ended up in the possession of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who has been spearheading efforts to paint Mr. Biden and his family as corrupt. The owner of the Delaware computer shop who reportedly turned over the laptop to investigators gave several conflicting accounts to reporters about the laptop’s chain of custody on Wednesday.

Critics on all sides can quibble with the decisions these companies made, or how they communicated them. Even Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said the company had mishandled the original explanation for the ban.

But the truth is less salacious than a Silicon Valley election-rigging attempt. Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services. The companies have also created new policies governing the distribution of hacked material, in order to prevent a repeat of 2016’s debacle.

It’s true that banning links to a story published by a 200-year-old American newspaper — albeit one that is now a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid — is a more dramatic step than cutting off WikiLeaks or some lesser-known misinformation purveyor. Still, it’s clear that what Facebook and Twitter were actually trying to prevent was not free expression, but a bad actor using their services as a conduit for a damaging cyberattack or misinformation.

These decisions get made quickly, in the heat of the moment, and it’s possible that more contemplation and debate would produce more satisfying choices. But time is a luxury these platforms don’t always have. In the past, they have been slow to label or remove dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, mail-in voting and more, and have only taken action after the bad posts have gone viral, defeating the purpose.

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Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Since the companies made those decisions, Republican officials began using the actions as an example of Silicon Valley censorship run amok. On Wednesday, several prominent Republicans, including Mr. Trump, repeated their calls for Congress to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields tech platforms from many lawsuits over user-generated content.

That leaves the companies in a precarious spot. They are criticized when they allow misinformation to spread. They are also criticized when they try to prevent it.

Perhaps the strangest idea to emerge in the past couple of days, though, is that these services are only now beginning to exert control over what we see. Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, made this point in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, in which he derided the social network for using “its monopoly to control what news Americans have access to.”

The truth, of course, is that tech platforms have been controlling our information diets for years, whether we realized it or not. Their decisions were often buried in obscure “community standards” updates, or hidden in tweaks to the black-box algorithms that govern which posts users see. But make no mistake: These apps have never been neutral, hands-off conduits for news and information. Their leaders have always been editors masquerading as engineers.

What’s happening now is simply that, as these companies move to rid their platforms of bad behavior, their influence is being made more visible. Rather than letting their algorithms run amok (which is an editorial choice in itself), they’re making high-stakes decisions about flammable political misinformation in full public view, with human decision makers who can be debated and held accountable for their choices. That’s a positive step for transparency and accountability, even if it feels like censorship to those who are used to getting their way.

After years of inaction, Facebook and Twitter are finally starting to clean up their messes. And in the process, they’re enraging the powerful people who have thrived under the old system.

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