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Photo illustration by Michelle Budge and Alex Cochran

Blocking content on social media may actually draw more attention to it

Facebook and Twitter face backlash for limiting the spread of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden

SHARE Blocking content on social media may actually draw more attention to it
SHARE Blocking content on social media may actually draw more attention to it

When the New York Post published an article last week that contained incriminating documents and photos allegedly taken from Hunter Biden’s laptop, social media companies stepped in to control the story’s spread.

Facebook reduced distribution of the story, which was based on files reportedly obtained from an anonymous computer shop owner in Delaware, so it would show up less in people’s feeds until fact-checkers weighed in.

Twitter initially blocked the link to the article from being posted, shared or even sent via direct message on the platform. The company said it violated its hacked materials policy, which prohibits the use of Twitter to share private information obtained through hacking. Two days later, they updated the policy and decided to allow the article.

But neither of these approaches stopped the article from capturing the attention of Republican lawmakers and concerned citizens across the country. According to data from NewsWhip, which tracks social media likes, comments and shares, the Post’s story, and articles about the story, generated 4.7 million interactions on Facebook and Twitter last week.

In fact, the move to block the story may have made people more curious about its still unproven claims that Joe Biden used his position as vice president to enrich his son, said Andrew Selepak, social media professor at the University of Florida. In addition, limiting the article’s reach on social media fuels a belief that Twitter and Facebook are conspiring to help Joe Biden win the election, Selepak said.

“If you’re sitting in a hyperpartisan camp, and you believe these things to be true, if you then see this content is not being allowed, then it kind of goes back into your idea of well, they don’t want the truth to be known,” Selepak said.

The New York Post article joins the ranks of other viral content that has been blocked from social media this year, including the “Plandemic” documentary, which promoted conspiratorial claims that COVID-19 was man-made in order to support vaccines as a money-making industry, as well as the America’s Frontline Doctors video, which showed physicians sharing unsubstantiated information about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus.

Attempts to suppress content like this come at a time when social media sites are being hypervigilant about controlling fake news ahead of the presidential election, after coming under fire for allowing Russian operatives to misuse their platforms in 2016.

The question is whether blocking videos and articles really prevents them from being seen. While fewer people may have seen the story on Facebook, more were driven to look up the article on the New York Post website, said Mark Grabowski, an associate professor specializing in cyber law and digital ethics at Adelphi University in New York.

“When you try to cover up information, it usually backfires. That’s what happened here,” said Grabowski, who speculates that without social media censorship, the New York Post article would have been a relative nonissue with legacy media sources downplaying or ignoring it. “They ended up making it a bigger story.”

Free speech

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that providers of interactive computer services, like social media sites, are not considered publishers, and therefore are not liable for what is posted. The fact that they are private companies, however, gives them the right to moderate content as they will.

Therefore, sites like Facebook and Twitter that censor posts are not violating the First Amendment. But Grabowski says the spirit of free speech goes beyond the limits of the First Amendment.

His concern is that social media censorship appears to be one-sided. Numerous stories about President Donald Trump, based on anonymous sources, have been published in legacy media outlets and shared on social media without incident. But social media sites shielded the recent article about Hunter Biden from views, despite the fact that it was published by one of the oldest newspapers in the country and featured photo evidence, Grabowski said. The New York Times later reported that the Post article was published despite doubts from fellow staff members.

“Do we really want Facebook and Twitter serving as an editor for American media and journalism, deciding what information is suitable for the public?” asked Grabowski, who does not know whether the claims in the New York Post article are true. “I certainly don’t.”

Twitter has also been accused of bias for repeatedly flagging or blocking tweets from Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr.

In a Twitter blog post from February, the company announced a new rule against sharing “synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm,” or in other words, fake news. In addition, they would be labeling Tweets found to violate this rule to help people be better informed.

“In serving the public conversation, our goal is to make it easy to find credible information on Twitter and to limit the spread of potentially harmful and misleading content,” says another blog post from May.

Facebook, which has 2.7 billion users compared to Twitter’s 330 million, recognizes that “false news” can often be confused with satire and opinion, and stopping its spread is not easy. In order to keep people informed without stifling healthy discourse, the company says it doesn’t remove false news from the site, but instead tries to limit its distribution in people’s news feeds, according to the company’s community standards.

A Senate panel is expected to vote this week on whether or not it will again subpoena Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, and Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to answer accusations that they routinely suppress conservative voices, Newsweek reported.

“I don’t know if these New York Post stories are true or not,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement. “Those are questions Vice President Biden should answer. But Twitter and Facebook and Big Tech billionaires don’t get to censor political speech and actively interfere in the election.”

No-win situation

Travis View, one of the hosts of a podcast called “QAnon Anonymous,” said that for people who believe in conspiracies, censorship on social media only serves to bolster claims that the powers that be are working to hide the truth. At the same time, Facebook has been criticized for hosting QAnon related Facebook pages.

Grabowski says the attention fake news gets is an example of the Streisand effect, named for actress Barbara Streisand, who tried to limit paparazzi photos of her home in Malibu, California, and ended up drawing more attention to it.

If you’re on the left, you think the Post’s claims about Hunter Biden are a conspiracy to get Trump reelected, and if you’re on the right, you believe Facebook and Twitter are conspiring to suppress the truth so Joe Biden will win the presidency, said Selepak.

“Generally, the truth is somewhere between the extremes.”

“With a lack of trust in national media, people are looking for information that fits the narrative they believe and that confirms their own political bias,” Selepak added. “It feeds into these conspiracies.”

But for social media companies, there’s no way to win, said Selepak. Either they let their platforms become “the Wild West of free speech,” allowing fake news to spread while simply focussing on stopping pornography and violence, or they continue trying to moderate posts, while facing accusations of bias, he said.

“If you are an open platform, you can have groups like ISIS spreading their propaganda,” said Selepak. “But if you block or ban content, then you’re seen as censoring people, and you’re seen as hiding the truth, because people already don’t trust the news and information that they’re getting.”