SAN FRANCISCO – It is the 11th hour before the presidential elections. But Facebook and Twitter are still changing their minds.
With just a few weeks left until the November 3rd vote, social media companies are continuing to change their policies, in some cases completely reversing what they allow and what not on their websites. On Friday, Twitter underscored how fluid its policies were when users were able to post links to an unfounded New York Post article about Hunter Biden that they had previously banned from their service.
The change came 180 degrees from Wednesday when Twitter blocked the links to the article because the emails it was based on may have been hacked and contained private information, both of which were against its guidelines. (Many questions remain unanswered about how the New York Post received the emails.)
Under pressure from Republicans who said Twitter was censor them, the company began revising one of its guidelines late Thursday. The U-turn was completed Friday by lifting the ban on the New York Post story altogether as the article spread widely on the internet.
Twitter’s flip-flop followed a series of changes by Facebook over the past few weeks announcing it banning Holocaust denial content, banning more QAnon conspiracy sites and groups, banning ads against vaccination, and political advertising for you no fixed period to suspend after the election. All of these things had been allowed before – until they weren’t.
The rapid changes have made Twitter and Facebook pranksters and fueled efforts to regulate them. On Friday, Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri said he would summon Mark Zuckerberg, executive director of Facebook, to testify about the “censorship” of the New York Post article because the social network had also reduced the visibility of the piece. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Twitter was “against us”. And President Trump shared a satirical article on Twitter mocking the company’s policies.
“Guidelines are a guide to action, but the platforms don’t endorse their guidelines,” said Joan Donovan, research director for the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Order at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “They only respond to public pressure and will therefore be prone to political influence for some time.”
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A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the company would now allow the link to the New York Post article to be shared because the information had spread over the Internet and could no longer be considered private. He declined to comment further.
A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said, “Major events in the world have made us change some of our policies, but not our principles.”
For nearly four years, social media companies have had time to develop content guidelines to get ready for the 2020 elections, especially after it was discovered that Russian activists used the sites to sow discord in the 2016 election. But despite all the preparations, the volume of last-minute changes from Twitter and Facebook suggests that they still have no control over the contents of their networks.
According to electoral experts, this raises questions about how Twitter and Facebook would deal with disruptions on election day and in the days that follow. The race between Mr. Trump and his Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been unusually bitter, and the social media sites will play a prominent role in distributing information on November 3rd. Some people already use the websites to incite electoral violence.
The chaotic environment could call corporate policies into question, said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a center for the study of social media, disinformation and national security. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said.
Other misinformation experts said Twitter and Facebook had no choice but to make changes on the fly, as Mr Trump, who uses social media as a megaphone, often breaks norms.
Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook executive, noted that some companies – like Facebook – have put in place new guidelines banning this after Mr Trump recently commented to his supporters to “take the polls and watch very closely ”a political candidate who uses his platforms to demand this action. The companies also banned candidates from earning an early election victory, he said.
“These potential abuses have always been covered by very broad guidelines, but I think there are certain measures that I think are wise to take into account,” said Stamos.
Oct. 16, 2020, 9:19 am ET
The New York Post article was problematic from the start. It contained alleged emails from Hunter Biden, a son of Joseph Biden, discussing business in Ukraine. The origin of the emails was unclear, however, and the timing of their discovery so close to the election seemed suspicious.
But after the article was blocked, Twitter was blown up by Republicans for censorship. Many Conservatives – including Ohio representative Jim Jordan and Ms. McEnany – republished the piece to get the company to remove their tweets or put their accounts on hold.
Twitter soon said it could have done more to explain its decision. Jack Dorsey, the executive director of Twitter, said late Wednesday that the company failed to provide users with enough context when they were prevented from posting the links.
His reaction caused a mess on Twitter. By late Thursday, Twitter’s chief legal and policy officer, Vijaya Gadde, said the policy against sharing hacked material would change and that the content would no longer be blocked unless it was clearly made by the hackers or people shared who work with them. Instead, information obtained from hacks would be marked with a warning label about its origin, said Ms. Gadde.
The internal discussions continued. On Friday, Twitter users were free to post links to the New York Post article. The company hadn’t tagged tweets with the item as it had announced.
At Facebook, recent policy changes have caught some of the attention, as the company said on September 3 that it would not plan changes to its website until after the election. “To ensure that there are clear and consistent rules, we are not planning any further changes to our electoral policy until the results are officially declared,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post at the time.
But just a few weeks later, the changes came quickly. On October 6, Facebook expanded the abolition of the QAnon conspiracy group. A day later, it was announced that political advertisements would be banned after the elections closed on election day, the ban for an indefinite period of time.
Days later, Zuckerberg also said Facebook would no longer allow Holocaust deniers to post their views on the website. And less than 24 hours later, the company said it would ban advertising related to anti-vaccination theories.
Facebook’s Mr. Stone positioned the changes as a natural response to what is known as the “historic election” and protests against the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter.
“We remain committed to freedom of expression while recognizing that the current environment requires clearer guard rails to minimize the damage,” he said.
But there is one change that Facebook didn’t make. After the New York Post article’s visibility was lowered on their website on Wednesday and it was said it needed review, the social network continued to stick to that decision.