Twitter and Facebook Contend With Concerns Over Election Interference, Censorship

Social-media companies spent four years prepping their response to campaign-document leaks ahead of U.S. elections. When one came, things got messy.

When the New York Post this week published articles based on email exchanges with Hunter Biden—Joe Biden’s son— Facebook Inc. FB +0.29% and Twitter Inc. TWTR -1.24% saw the situation as one they spent years preparing to face.

Both social-media companies had been heavily criticized for doing too little to address manipulation and other problematic posts on their platforms in the run-up to the 2016 election. On Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook—within hours after the articles were published—determined the content triggered measures they developed in response and acted to limit the articles’ spread.

Their actions quickly drew a mixture of support, confusion and criticism, illustrating challenges the platforms face when they handle controversial content around elections. The moves fueled questions from everyone from users to lawmakers that the companies didn’t immediately answer about how they decide which articles from which news organizations to target for such scrutiny. Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey criticized his own company for not adequately explaining its actions, and in an about-face Thursday, Twitter said it was changing how it enforces potential violations of its hacked-content policy.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to subpoena Mr. Dorsey to testify about his company’s handling of the matter. Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that the Twitter and Facebook actions reflect bias against them and an effort to influence the election. The companies have strongly disputed those characterizations.

Inside Facebook, executives had performed role-playing exercises in recent months about how to respond to an email dump and described such scenarios in planning documents, according to people familiar with the matter. None of that preparation shielded the company from criticism.

After a Facebook spokesman in Washington said Wednesday morning that the New York Post articles were flagged for fact-checking—a potentially lengthy process—the company hasn’t made additional public statements on the matter. Facebook has said flagged items are less likely to show up in users’ news feeds.

Twitter went further, blocking people from sharing links to the articles or tweeting of images from them. It also suspended accounts of users who attempted to do that, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter said the material violated its rules aiming to prevent sharing information obtained through hacking and private information like phone numbers and email addresses without consent. It had blocked this type of material in the past, but never from a large news publisher like the New York Post.

News Corp—the corporate parent of The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.—also owns the New York Post.

Thursday evening, Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde said the rule change on how it enforces its hacked content rules came after receiving “significant feedback” over its handling of the Post articles. From now on, Twitter will provide context about the potential violation instead of blocking links unless the material was “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Ms. Gadde said. “We are trying to act responsibly & [sic] quickly to prevent harms, but we’re still learning along the way,” she tweeted.

Matt Perault, a former Facebook public-policy director who now runs Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday called the platforms’ explanations of their actions lacking.

“Generally, companies interested in protecting free speech would leave up content from major news organizations,” said Mr. Perault, before Twitter’s announcement.

Twitter and Facebook’s restrictions reduced the spread of the articles, but didn’t stop links to them from reaching an audience on their platforms outright.

The New York Post’s articles were shared on websites and social-media platforms 1.1 million times on Wednesday, according to an analysis from media analytics firm Zignal Labs Inc.

On Wednesday and Thursday, social-media research firm Storyful counted more than 94,000 tweets mentioning alleged censorship of the articles on Twitter and more than 6,300 mentions on public pages on Facebook, where it gained millions of interactions on pages, including those of President Trump, Fox News and Breitbart News. News Corp owns Storyful.

“The response that Twitter and Facebook have taken have clearly had the opposite of the intended effect because this is now the top story,” said David Perlman, a former Twitter data scientist who now works for computer-security company Leviathan Security Group Inc., adding that the companies need to think more strategically when addressing these issues.

The responses Wednesday were shaped by the reckoning over social media’s role in the spread of manipulation and disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to officials from social-media companies and independent cybersecurity analysts. In the summer of that year, for example, Russian intelligence operatives used a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 to leak Democratic Party groups’ emails that had been obtained through a cyberattack.

Since then, the companies have announced a bevy of new policies intended to crack down on election-related manipulation and disinformation, including restrictions on circulating so-called “hack-and-leak” material that appears to be private information stolen during a cyberattack.

“Russian actors relied on this technique in 2016, and we should all be ready in case they or others try again,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, earlier this month.

Leaders at social-media companies have said their priority has been addressing foreign influence operations targeting U.S. elections. Often, quick action is required during these operations, where stories can gain traction and go viral within hours, disinformation researchers say.

The New York Post’s articles cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden that were provided by allies of President Trump, who in turn said they received them from a computer-repair person who found them on a laptop. One article included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

The Biden campaign said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing and that no such meeting took place. It also said the New York Post didn’t ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead of publication.

The flagged articles cited email exchanges the New York Post said were written and received by Hunter Biden.

PHOTO: PAUL MORIGI/GETTY IMAGES

The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the New York Post articles.

A New York Post spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment. Post editors have said the social-media companies’ actions amount to censorship and that it stands by its articles.

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing and said he exercised poor judgment in joining Burisma’s board while his father’s vice-presidential duties included Ukraine. A recent investigation by Republican senators didn’t support an accusation by Mr. Trump and other Republicans that Joe Biden sought the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from investigation.

The timing of the email release by the New York Post and the circumstances behind how the information was obtained raised concerns among cybersecurity experts and some government officials that the material could be linked to a foreign disinformation operation—in an echo of 2016. Russian hackers have previously targeted Burisma Holdings, they say. And Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who the New York Post said gave it a copy of the hard drive, has visited Kyiv in search of damaging material on the Bidens, the Journal has reported. He has worked with multiple Ukrainians in that effort, including a lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned last month for acting as a Russian agent interfering in the 2020 presidential elections.

Mr. Giuliani told the Journal on Wednesday he didn’t know if the material published by the New York Post had come from a hack. On Thursday, he said on a satellite-radio program that “categorically, this has not been hacked.”

About a month ago, U.S. intelligence officials reached out to independent analysts familiar with Russian hacking attempts on Burisma, saying they had seen an uptick in signals that leaks of emails could be forthcoming as an “October surprise” event akin to the WikiLeaks releases of hacked Democratic emails in 2016, according to a person familiar with those conversations.

Earlier this year U.S. cybersecurity analysts said hackers believed to be affiliated with the same Russian military intelligence that hacked emails from Democratic Party groups in 2016 had breached Burisma and had been targeting the company since the previous November, as Congress was holding hearings on whether Mr. Trump abused his office by pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to work with Mr. Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. The Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump last year, and the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment in February.

Both social-media companies had been heavily criticized for doing too little to address manipulation and other problematic posts on their platforms in the run-up to the 2016 election. On Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook—within hours after the articles were published—determined the content triggered measures they developed in response and acted to limit the articles’ spread.

Their actions quickly drew a mixture of support, confusion and criticism, illustrating challenges the platforms face when they handle controversial content around elections. The moves fueled questions from everyone from users to lawmakers that the companies didn’t immediately answer about how they decide which articles from which news organizations to target for such scrutiny. Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey criticized his own company for not adequately explaining its actions, and in an about-face Thursday, Twitter said it was changing how it enforces potential violations of its hacked-content policy.

TECH NEWS BRIEFING
Twitter, Facebook Questioned Over Restricting New York Post Articles

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On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to subpoena Mr. Dorsey to testify about his company’s handling of the matter. Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that the Twitter and Facebook actions reflect bias against them and an effort to influence the election. The companies have strongly disputed those characterizations.

Inside Facebook, executives had performed role-playing exercises in recent months about how to respond to an email dump and described such scenarios in planning documents, according to people familiar with the matter. None of that preparation shielded the company from criticism.

After a Facebook spokesman in Washington said Wednesday morning that the New York Post articles were flagged for fact-checking—a potentially lengthy process—the company hasn’t made additional public statements on the matter. Facebook has said flagged items are less likely to show up in users’ news feeds.

Twitter went further, blocking people from sharing links to the articles or tweeting of images from them. It also suspended accounts of users who attempted to do that, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter said the material violated its rules aiming to prevent sharing information obtained through hacking and private information like phone numbers and email addresses without consent. It had blocked this type of material in the past, but never from a large news publisher like the New York Post.

News Corp—the corporate parent of The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.—also owns the New York Post.

Thursday evening, Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde said the rule change on how it enforces its hacked content rules came after receiving “significant feedback” over its handling of the Post articles. From now on, Twitter will provide context about the potential violation instead of blocking links unless the material was “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Ms. Gadde said. “We are trying to act responsibly & [sic] quickly to prevent harms, but we’re still learning along the way,” she tweeted.

Matt Perault, a former Facebook public-policy director who now runs Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday called the platforms’ explanations of their actions lacking.

“Generally, companies interested in protecting free speech would leave up content from major news organizations,” said Mr. Perault, before Twitter’s announcement.

TECH AND SELF-REGULATION
What technology companies are doing to combat the spread of disinformation.

Twitter Slows Down Retweets Ahead of U.S. Election
Facebook to Suspend U.S. Political Ads on Election Day
Google and Twitter Sharpen Tools to Stop False Claims About Election (Sept. 10)
Facebook Joins With Researchers to Study Its Influence on Elections (Aug. 31)
Twitter and Facebook’s restrictions reduced the spread of the articles, but didn’t stop links to them from reaching an audience on their platforms outright.

The New York Post’s articles were shared on websites and social-media platforms 1.1 million times on Wednesday, according to an analysis from media analytics firm Zignal Labs Inc.

On Wednesday and Thursday, social-media research firm Storyful counted more than 94,000 tweets mentioning alleged censorship of the articles on Twitter and more than 6,300 mentions on public pages on Facebook, where it gained millions of interactions on pages, including those of President Trump, Fox News and Breitbart News. News Corp owns Storyful.

“The response that Twitter and Facebook have taken have clearly had the opposite of the intended effect because this is now the top story,” said David Perlman, a former Twitter data scientist who now works for computer-security company Leviathan Security Group Inc., adding that the companies need to think more strategically when addressing these issues.

The responses Wednesday were shaped by the reckoning over social media’s role in the spread of manipulation and disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to officials from social-media companies and independent cybersecurity analysts. In the summer of that year, for example, Russian intelligence operatives used a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 to leak Democratic Party groups’ emails that had been obtained through a cyberattack.

Since then, the companies have announced a bevy of new policies intended to crack down on election-related manipulation and disinformation, including restrictions on circulating so-called “hack-and-leak” material that appears to be private information stolen during a cyberattack.

“Russian actors relied on this technique in 2016, and we should all be ready in case they or others try again,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, earlier this month.

Leaders at social-media companies have said their priority has been addressing foreign influence operations targeting U.S. elections. Often, quick action is required during these operations, where stories can gain traction and go viral within hours, disinformation researchers say.

The New York Post’s articles cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden that were provided by allies of President Trump, who in turn said they received them from a computer-repair person who found them on a laptop. One article included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

The Biden campaign said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing and that no such meeting took place. It also said the New York Post didn’t ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead of publication.

The flagged articles cited email exchanges the New York Post said were written and received by Hunter Biden.
PHOTO: PAUL MORIGI/GETTY IMAGES
The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the New York Post articles.

A New York Post spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment. Post editors have said the social-media companies’ actions amount to censorship and that it stands by its articles.

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing and said he exercised poor judgment in joining Burisma’s board while his father’s vice-presidential duties included Ukraine. A recent investigation by Republican senators didn’t support an accusation by Mr. Trump and other Republicans that Joe Biden sought the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from investigation.

The timing of the email release by the New York Post and the circumstances behind how the information was obtained raised concerns among cybersecurity experts and some government officials that the material could be linked to a foreign disinformation operation—in an echo of 2016. Russian hackers have previously targeted Burisma Holdings, they say. And Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who the New York Post said gave it a copy of the hard drive, has visited Kyiv in search of damaging material on the Bidens, the Journal has reported. He has worked with multiple Ukrainians in that effort, including a lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned last month for acting as a Russian agent interfering in the 2020 presidential elections.

Mr. Giuliani told the Journal on Wednesday he didn’t know if the material published by the New York Post had come from a hack. On Thursday, he said on a satellite-radio program that “categorically, this has not been hacked.”

About a month ago, U.S. intelligence officials reached out to independent analysts familiar with Russian hacking attempts on Burisma, saying they had seen an uptick in signals that leaks of emails could be forthcoming as an “October surprise” event akin to the WikiLeaks releases of hacked Democratic emails in 2016, according to a person familiar with those conversations.

Earlier this year U.S. cybersecurity analysts said hackers believed to be affiliated with the same Russian military intelligence that hacked emails from Democratic Party groups in 2016 had breached Burisma and had been targeting the company since the previous November, as Congress was holding hearings on whether Mr. Trump abused his office by pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to work with Mr. Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. The Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump last year, and the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment in February.

The tech CEOs’ year of reckoning

The head of a technology company won’t save the world.

It wasn’t so long ago that tech CEOs and their wares were changing the world. In fact, we heard that quite often: This or that “innovation” will make the planet a better place. Silicon Valley was clearly getting high on its own supply as it ramped up the hype that the earth was a wasteland until the titans of tech had graced us with an easier way to post a filtered photo or share our thoughts on the finale of Lost.

We were blind, and our eyes were opened by zeros and ones. The tech utopia was at hand, and we should just sit back and not ask too many hard questions.

Then things went sideways. Social networks that were the catalyst of the Arab Spring were suddenly being used by nation-states, shit posters and bot armies to destroy democracy and fuel racial violence. Using public roads to beta test software resulted in deaths and of course billions of dollars were essentially wasted. The messiahs thought-leaders innovators disrupters run-of-the-mill ultra-capitalists who promised a better tomorrow crumbled under the slightest scrutiny.

People started asking questions, and the answers weren’t what tech promised.

As the year came to a close, The Verge revealed that Away (which makes suitcases with batteries in them. I guess that means they’re a tech company) CEO Steph Korey was abusing employees via Slack. After the usual mealy-mouthed apology, Korey was fired.

There have been the usual back-and-forth articles and think pieces about whether Korey was targeted and/or if the dismissal was warranted. The reason some people might feel like treating employees badly shouldn’t be a fireable offense is that a long time ago most of us excused the behavior of Steve Jobs. There are far too many stories of Jobs’ cruelty to employees. We allowed it because “OMG, look at that shiny new iPhone” and “Wow, the MacBooks are so great.” Oh also, he saved Apple from complete collapse.

A generation of tech CEOs believed that this is how you manage a company. It’s not, and now their bad behavior is being called out by employees that work long hours in high-stress situations all hoping they’ll make it big via an eventual IPO. Dear CEOs, You’re not Steve Jobs. Stop trying to be Steve Jobs.

By the end of 2019, on the other side of the spectrum was the tech CEO who thought everything was a party. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann burned through billions of Softbank’s (and other investors’) money. The “visionary” offered up shared office space for thousands of startups and a few publications. Subletting space to those in need seems like a good idea. Hotboxing private jets and buying the real estate that your company is leasing, not so much. Ahead of its IPO, investors took a good look at Neumann’s company and realized that it was incinerating cash: $1.9 billion last year to be precise. In the first half of 2019, it lost $904 million. The real estate wunderkind was let go and for all his failures he got a sweet golden parachute of $1.7 billion in shares and loans. Meanwhile WeWork employees have been let go in the wake of his management decisions.

Tossing other people’s money into a pit of snake oil-fueled flames was the basis for the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about the rise and fall of Theranos and, more importantly, its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We all knew the story thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou’s investigation of the company way back in 2015. But seeing this unfold on our TVs in 2019 was a reminder that even though things didn’t seem right at the company, Silicon Valley’s sway as the answer to all the world’s ills blinded established companies, reporters and members of the US government.

The blinders that allowed companies like Theranos continuing to bilk people and companies out of money are not just turned outward. Sometimes, the person in charge seems to have no sense of what’s going on. Jack Dorsey wants to be the cuddly “woke” CEO of tech. At the end of 2018 Dorsey tweeted about his silent retreat in Myanmar. The country that has committed genocide and spread hateful propaganda via social media. He issued the usual non-apology apology. Then his account was hacked via an SMS SIM hijack.

This type of hack has been around for a while but it wasn’t until the CEO was compromised that the company put the brakes on the ability of Tweet via SMS. It felt like things were only worth fixing or updating if it affected the boss.

Twitter’s been a headache for another CEO. After some rather weird, unlawful and downright dangerous tweets about his company, reporters and individuals, Musk seems to have tamed his tweets as of late. His company is making a profit, and Tesla is building test vehicles at the new China factory. But, his past Twitter behavior came back to haunt him in the form of a lawsuit brought by the diver he called a “pedo guy.”

The jury found that Musk was not guilty of libel. But being hauled into court for calling someone a child molester via a tweet is never a good look. It’s ridiculous. Also, because of the trial, we found out that Musk hired a private investigator that was a convicted felon to dig up dirt on the diver. Musk’s fans truly believe he will save the world. If that’s his plan, awesome. But maybe concentrate more on climate change and less on hurt feelings and Twitter fights.

Lost money, angry tweets, unsafe medical practices and being blind to the woes of the world should not be something that shows up on the resume of a CEO. But the actual coup d’etat is the destruction of democracy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress again in 2019 (the litany of misleading statements he gave in his 2018 appearance concerning election tampering and Cambridge Analytica kept fact-checkers busy) to answer for his company’s Cryptocurrency scheme Libra and paid political ads on his platform. It didn’t go well. But he still insisted that his company would continue to allow politicians to lie in ads on his platform.

Zuckerberg always mumbles something about Facebook not policing free speech, which is a hilarious shield for a company that’s kicked abuse survivors off its platform for using pseudonyms or, worse, changed their names without their consent making them targets. The company has also policed and banned accounts and ads which it deemed has violated its nudity guidelines for ridiculous reasons. Like an ad for a breast cancer nonprofit.

Oh also this year he rewrote the history of Facebook during a college commencement speech laughably citing the first Iraq war as a reason he built his social network. In reality, he built a “Hot or Not” clone for Harvard classmates then decided to expand it for dating.

After years of essentially lying to the press, investors and the government, Mark Zuckerberg and his company continue to make a staggering amount of money on the backs of those lies.

Most of these CEOs are still rich. Golden parachutes, expensive lawyers and great quarterly numbers mean we’ll see these folks again. Some will fail upward. Some might get better. Others won’t.

What’s important is that, maybe once and for all, we’ll see that tech CEOs are not going to save the world. Like CEOs in other industries, they care more about making themselves and their investors rich. 2019 showed us that we’re not better off because of these folks. If anything, things have gotten worse. Technology and billionaires won’t make the world better. It’s up to us.

The Internet’s Mid-Life Crisis: The Agenda with Steve Paikin

In the 1990s the internet was thought of as democratic and anarchic. Then came social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; political movements such as the Arab Spring; and Amazon and Google galvanized the attention spans of millions of users. The Agenda looks at the internet’s original promise, its milestones, and the future of the hyper-connected world.