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Thursday, October 22, 2020

You Haven’t Heard More About Hunter Biden’s Emails Because Twitter And Facebook Didn’t Want You To

Read all about Hunter Biden’s emails yet? About the election-rocking scandal that definitively pins Joe Biden to corruption in Ukraine? Seen the photo of an unshaven Hunter Biden, half-ashed cigarette daggling from his lips, just one piece of damning evidence taken from a laptop once belonging to the vice president’s son that two top Trump advisors turned over to a pair of crusading New York Post journalists?

Some of you are following along. For others, it kinda rings a bell, but for still many, many more, the story doesn’t sound familiar at all, and probably seems more like a plot found at the bottom of Tom Clancy’s wastepaper basket.

These circumstances are created in no small part by a set of extraordinary actions taken yesterday by Facebook
FB
and Twitter
TWTR
to prevent the Post’s investigation from being widely shared. Twitter blocked users from sharing the URL to the Post’s story and locked some users out of accounts for doing that, including high-profile ones belonging to the Post itself and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. On Facebook’s end, company spokesman Andy Stone said the social network was “reducing its distribution on our platform” without further clarifying precisely what Facebook did.

“The decisions by Facebook and Twitter to limit the distribution of the New York Post story…are unprecedented for these companies,” says Marcus Messner, director at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. “The companies took the responsibility to hit the breaks.”

It absolutely worked, quite a wonder in this age of viral information and all that was said, written and reported on about another set of emails during the 2016 presidential election.

Rampant online conversations drive newsroom decisions. And in the absence of one about the Hunter Biden emails, the Post story has not gotten prominent widespread pick-up by other media outlets. It has received little play on the websites of The New York Times
NYT
, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC, CBS
VIAC
, NBC—all the big-time publishers who’d normally race to confirm or follow a competitor’s scoopy investigation. (The Washington Post and the Times did spill some ink on the subject but did some with a tone of straightforward skepticism, using words like “alleged,” “claim” and “dubious” to describe the New York Post’s reporting.) Four years ago, by contrast, those outlets were stricken by bothsidesism, a chronic condition among journalists whose symptoms include bending over backward to appear unbiased and equally critical of everyone, and they rapaciously covered every last drop of news around Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Here’s a way to think about this in visual terms:

The Times from October 2016 devotes some of the paper’s most important real estate to piece about the FBI beginning an inquiry into Clinton’s emails. The Times from October 2020? No mention at all of any emails.

Patrick Warren, the lead researcher at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, hasn’t had time to crunch the numbers and develop a statistical model showing the impact of Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions on the story’s spread across those platforms. But he feels pretty confident in concluding that the networks were successful in “slowing it down a bit,” he says. Without any action by Facebook and Twitter, the story would probably have spread far more widely—going viral before any other outlets could provide context and fact checking around the story’s implications, many of which remain in doubt. Instead, the story only managed a slow burn, and other outlets had plenty of time to dump cold water on it. “If anyone bumps into that story now, it’s not the only thing out there” about Hunter Biden, says Warren.

Twitter says it made its decision because the Post story’s contained screenshots of personal information and hacked material, two things that violate its rules. Facebook hasn’t said what rules it felt the story violated.

The actions that these companies took will have consequences beyond the laudable ones—limiting potential misinformation, forcing users to more closely study the news. Conservative politicians are furious over the decisions made yesterday and have spent the last day sharpening their pitchforks.

President Trump brandished his quite publicly this morning, telling Fox News: “it’s going to all end up in a big lawsuit.” In another part of Capital Hill, the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee said it intended to subpoena Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey and question him over Twitter’s decision yesterday.

“There are things that can happen that are very severe that I’d rather not see happen,” Trump said. “But it’s probably going to have to.”

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