Facebook and Twitter have taken the drastic step of limiting the spread of a New York Post article claiming Hunter Biden was paid to set up a meeting between then-Vice President Joe Biden and a Ukrainian oil executive. In a wholly unprecedented move, Twitter suddenly blocked users from sharing the URL to the story. Users who tried to share the link saw the message: "We can't complete this request because the link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful." Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later apologized for the sudden action taken by the company, tweeting: "Our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great. And blocking URL sharing via tweet or DM with zero context as to why we're blocking: unacceptable."
- The Post has published unverified emails and media that it claims are from a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden left at a computer repair shop.
- The key revelation is an email from May 2015 apparently sent to Hunter Biden by Vadym Pozharskyi, a senior advisor to the board of Burisma, an oil and gas company in Ukraine that has been accused of numerous crimes.
- The email thanks Hunter for inviting Vadym to DC to meet with then-VP Biden.
- The Biden campaign denies that such a meeting ever took place.
- The content's source and validity cannot be verified, as the Post claims the laptop and the hard drive is now with the FBI. The FBI did not confirm or deny that such an investigation was underway.
- This story furthers a narrative pushed by numerous conservative pundits that Hunter Biden created a business out of selling access to his dad while Joe Biden was vice president.
- A number of publications brought up issues with the story and questioned its veracity.
- Twitter has completely stopped the article's spread by refusing to allow any links to it on its platform.
- This is the first time Twitter has taken this specific action, but previously stated that it would implement stricter rules to prevent the spread of fake news that could affect the outcome of the 2020 election.
- Twitter said it is blocking shares of the article as it violates Twitter's policies against sharing private information and hacked materials.
- Twitter also temporarily suspended White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany because she previously shared the article.
- Facebook has placed limited restrictions on the spread of the article. This is, however, part of their standard policy that has been invoked in the past.
- The New York Post attacked both companies in an editorial, arguing that "Facebook and Twitter are not media platforms. They're propaganda machines."
- The New York Post also had its account suspended by Twitter. (The company can't tweet until it removes the offending article.)
In response to Facebook and Twitter's actions, Trump tweeted that he wanted to repeal Section 230.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was created in 1996 so that website owners could moderate user content without incurring legal liability.
Before the advent of the internet, it was easy to distinguish between content publishers and content distributors. Publishers would read and edit content before releasing it and would be aware of and liable for illegal content such as defamation. Distributors like book stores would not be aware of all the content in the books they sold, so they would not be liable. This distinction is explained in the 1959 Supreme Court ruling Smith v. California.
The internet allowed for user-generated content for the first time, blurring the line between publisher and distributor. This issue became apparent when two early internet forums, CompuServe and Prodigy, were sued for their site content. CompuServe, which did not moderate content and allowed users to post freely without any checks, was found to be a distributor of content and could not be held liable for their users' defamatory claims online. Prodigy, which had employed a moderator team, was seen as a publisher as they read the content before publishing. They were then liable for all the content on their site, including false claims or defamatory statements by users. Section 230 was passed to allow websites to moderate content without needing to take legal responsibility for all content on their sites. Today, it provides Facebook and Twitter legal protection from lawsuits while also allowing them to sensor and moderate.
In August 2019, Trump drafted an executive order requiring the FCC to build a system of regulations that companies would need to follow to have protection under Section 230. The order was vague, and numerous legal analysts were unsure of the legal effect. Still, after numerous fights with Twitter, he decided to sign the order in May 2020. Its goal is to allow users to file complaints of bias against websites to the FTC and FCC; those bodies can then investigate these claims and remove protection under Section 230 for sites if they don't believe the site is operating in "good faith."
Joe Biden has also said he wants to revoke Section 230. The subject came up during the Democratic primary debates – Sen. Bernie Sanders stopped short of saying he wanted to revoke the law, but argued that corporations should be held responsible "when dangerous activity occurs on their watch."
Facebook has actively supported additional regulation and has continued to develop its policies separate from other tech companies, believing that it has many characteristics of a newspaper.