Facebook has reduced the reach of a New York Post story that makes disputed claims about Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, pending a fact-check review. “While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform,” tweeted Facebook policy communications manager Andy Stone.
Twitter banned linking to the Post’s report, but it cited a different policy: the site’s rules against posting hacked material. “In line with our hacked materials Policy, as well as our approach to blocking URLs, we are taking action to block any links to or images of the material in question on Twitter,” a spokesperson told The Verge. Clicking existing links will direct users to a landing page that warns them it may violate Twitter guidelines. Twitter used the same strategy in June to ban content from Blueleaks, a collection of leaked documents from police departments.
The Post article, published today, claims to have obtained emails and video from a laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden. But some journalists have questioned the veracity of the information, which the Post says was provided with help from President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani and former adviser Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, the article has been distributed widely on social media. According to CrowdTangle data, it’s garnered over 40,000 interactions on Facebook and a far smaller number on Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter. A number of other outlets have aggregated the story, and it’s unclear whether Facebook could restrict those articles’ reach as well.
Facebook partners with a variety of fact-checking institutions and downranks content that is rated partially or completely false, adding a warning label and making users less likely to see it. (It removes some content that it deems likely to cause harm, including false claims about COVID-19.) But the Post — a major tabloid owned by the Rupert Murdoch-founded News Corp — has significantly more clout than stereotypical Facebook “fake news” pages. Stone’s statement suggests this latest action is more provisional and potentially temporary.
Facebook has restricted at least one previous Post story, an opinion piece promoting the largely unsupported theory that COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese laboratory. According to a follow-up article in the Post, the label was later removed. That story was an opinion piece based on public information rather than a news scoop, however. It’s more difficult to fact-check a story that’s based on documents allegedly obtained by a single news outlet — which obviously isn’t unusual for an investigative report.
As political journalist Judd Legum pointed out on Twitter, the Post’s story mostly raises questions about whether the emails it posted were framed in an accurate way, whether they actually came from a computer owned by Hunter Biden, and whether they were provided via a reputable source. (Among other dubious activities, Giuliani has pushed unsupported claims about COVID-19, and Bannon has been charged with defrauding the backers of a multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaign.) Facebook has vowed to crack down on posts that could spread chaos and misinformation around the 2020 presidential election, though — and hitting pause on an inflammatory story about a presidential candidate’s son seems to be part of that effort.
After taking some flak for banning the content, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that his company’s actions were “unacceptable” without providing additional context, and linked to a thread from the Twitter Safety account where the company explains that the NY Post story wasn’t just banned for “hacked information,” but also because its images contained private emails and phone numbers.
Update 3:00PM ET: Added statement from Twitter alongside news that the platform had started blocking the Post link.
Update 8:25PM ET: Added tweets from Jack and Twitter Safety.