But there is precedent for the Silicon Valley companies that suggests it is not political censorship, as some are claiming. In June, Twitter banned links to “Blueleaks,” a trove of records leaked from 200 American police departments (the social network also banned the group that published the records.) And Facebook has established a network of fact-checking that can add warning labels to stories and push down content with poor ratings to make it less visible. They’ve used that tactic plenty, including to limit coronavirus misinformation as the pandemic has gone on.
Twitter and Facebook have been preparing for this moment for a long time–the obvious comparison is the propaganda campaign around hacked Democratic emails in the 2016 election, which were published to distract from Donald Trump’s comments on sexually assaulting women.
But that doesn’t mean they could deal with it easily.
“Not a lot of options”
“I don’t think they made the right call and I don’t think they made the wrong call,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation researcher at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “There were just not a lot of good options here for them. If they let it run wild and let their platforms serve as accelerants like 2016 and the media breathlessly covered it without analysis, they would have been hammered. If they did what they did, we’ve seen the response and it’s turned into an issue of censorship and political bias.”
Now conservative politicians are focused much more on the social media company’s actions. Senator Josh Hawley just subpoenaed Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to appear before Congress, setting up the possibility for contentious hearings on the eve of the election.
“It was probably a bigger win for them to have Facebook and Twitter try to throttle the spread of the story,” Schafer told me. “Because it’s changed the conversation broadly to one of ‘censorship’ and ‘political bias’ as a platform as opposed to, well, really there wasn’t much in these leaks that was revelatory.”