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Twitter's disinformation fight begins. It's far from over

By Tae Kim, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Science & Technology News

Twitter and Facebook, criticized for years over their hands-off approach to content, are coming under fire in 2020 for taking too heavy a hand in policing what's shared on their platforms. Call it growing pains.

The latest flashpoint comes to us courtesy of the New York Post. On Wednesday, the paper published a story that included unverified allegations about presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter and his ties to Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Facebook Inc., citing policies designed to clamp down on content that could be false or misleading, decided to limit the spread of the story on its platform until it had been verified by third-party fact-checkers. Twitter Inc. took an even more aggressive step by banning links to the Post's story. After some backlash for not initially explaining the rationale behind the move, Twitter later said the Post reports violated the company's policies on revealing private personal information and distribution of "hacked materials" without authorization.

I'll leave it to others to report on the veracity of the Post's article. But focusing on the social media platform response, I call it an improvement over four years ago, when foreign governments were able to meddle in the U.S. electoral process through misleading posts that were then shared rampantly on the two social media sites. Wednesday's actions show that the platforms are now willing to do what is required to curb potentially harmful information, even in the face of potential blowback. They are finally showing some real leadership - and while they haven't handled it perfectly thus far, the companies should be commended for moving promptly and taking forceful action, regardless of whether the target is a fringe website or an established publication like the Post.

This week's actions follow other recent changes in the platforms' content policies. Over the past week alone, Facebook has announced it will remove any accounts that identify with the far-right conspiracy movement QAnon and also ban posts that deny the existence of the Holocaust. In addition, Twitter said last Friday it would add an extra step for re-tweets later this month, potentially slowing the spread of any suspect information, along with implementing new warning labels and amplification restrictions of any posts by U.S. politicians it has deemed misleading. In May, Twitter obscured a post by President Donald Trump about protests in Minneapolis, saying it violated the platform's rules on "glorifying violence."

These are all steps forward in my book and a necessary part of the platforms' evolution. Yet when it comes to the latest incident, some are saying Facebook's and Twitter's clampdown on the Post article backfired because the resulting uproar has only brought more attention to a dubious report. Others cite what they see as the latest incidence of censorship against conservative voices and points of view. I don't buy it. For years, we have talked about the echo chambers inside Facebook and Twitter, where many Americans consume information that is shared among their closed tribes. Any action that can curtail the spread of possible false information inside these chambers is a big net positive. The execution wasn't flawless. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was compelled to apologize for the misstep of not quickly providing the context on why the company banned the article from its platform. But it doesn't take away from the fact that it was the right decision.

 

The politics surrounding the issue are just getting started. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to issue a subpoena next week to compel Dorsey to testify about Twitter's actions. This, in turn, is happening against the backdrop of calls for an overhaul of Section 230, the law that protects internet companies from legal liability over hosting user-generated content. Both President Trump and Republican senators have referenced repealing Section 230 amid the furor surrounding the Post article. Frankly, I find this befuddling because removing the law's protections would likely lead to companies moving faster to take down controversial content.

It's not going to get easier for Facebook or Twitter. They should expect more incidents as we approach the November election. But the two companies are showing they are willing to make tough, real-time decisions to protect our democracy and the electoral process. This is progress.

Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron's, following an earlier career as an equity analyst.

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