Twitter eases hacked materials policy after blocking Hunter Biden story

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Twitter announced Thursday that it would ease restrictions on posts containing potentially hacked information or images. The social media giant made the announcement after initially blocking a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, that publicized emails and photos alleged to be from a laptop belonging to the younger Biden. 

Twitter’s global lead for legal, policy, trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde, tweeted Thursday that the company had received “significant feedback (from critical to supportive)” after blocking the story, leading it to reevaluate its “Hacked Materials Policy,” that it says prompted the block. 

“After reflecting on this feedback, we have decided to make changes to the policy and how we enforce it,” she wrote.

She said Twitter “will no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” and will instead “label Tweets to provide context.” 

“All the other Twitter Rules will still apply to the posting of or linking to hacked materials, such as our rules against posting private information, synthetic and manipulated media, and non-consensual nudity,” Gadde wrote. 

The changes align Twitter’s hacked material’s policy closer to its existing practices on handling misleading information. In May, Twitter began adding warning labels to tweets with disputed or misleading information. It added its first of many fact-checking labels to a tweet by President Trump.

Before Twitter’s change in policy, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee announced Thursday it plans to subpoena CEO Jack Dorsey for blocking the Post story. “In the last two days we’ve seen a remarkable development. We have seen big tech, we’ve seen Twitter and Facebook actively interfering in this election, in a way that has no precedent in the history of our country,” GOP Senator Ted Cruz said Thursday. 

He said the committee would subpoena Dorsey to testify next Friday, to “explain why Twitter is abusing their corporate power to silence the press and to cover up allegations of corruption.” 

On Friday, the Republican National Committee announced that it has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Twitter’s initial actions amount to a “political contribution to the Biden campaign.” The RNC said in a statement that it believes “Twitter is using its corporate resources to provide active support for Joe Biden’s election,” and has requested the FEC investigate.

The Post’s report claims Hunter Biden introduced his father “to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm.” Another Post story sourced from the alleged emails says the younger Biden also “pursued lucrative deals involving China’s largest private energy company.” 

A spokesman for the Biden campaign said a review of Biden’s schedule showed no meeting with the Ukrainian executive, Vadym Pozharskyi. Several of Biden’s top advisers who worked closely with him on Ukraine policy have publicly said they’ve never heard of him. While they did not rule out the possibility that Biden and Pozharskyi interacted briefly on the sidelines of an event, they said a formal meeting did not happen.

“We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman.

Cruz said Thursday, “I don’t know if these New York Post stories are true or not — 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.”

Twitter’s initial rules against sharing the Post story resulted in the temporary suspension Thursday of an account belonging to a Trump campaign official who tried to share a video about the story, according to the campaign. After a couple of hours, the campaign tweeted that it was “back,” and “re-posting the video Twitter doesn’t want you to watch.”

Trump’s communications director Tim Murtaugh said the block was “election interference, plain and simple.” 

“For Twitter to lock the main account of the campaign of the President of the United States is a breathtaking level of political meddling and nothing short of an attempt to rig the election,” he said. “Joe Biden’s Silicon Valley pals are aggressively blocking negative news stories about their guy and preventing voters from accessing important information. This is like something from communist China or Cuba, not the United States of America.”

Major social media platforms moved to slow the spread of the Post story after it ricocheted across their networks Wednesday. Facebook said it was limiting distribution of the story pending the results of an independent fact check, while Twitter initially blocked users from sharing the story outright, changing course on Thursday.

But data provided to CBS News from NewsWhip, a social media analytics firm, shows the extent to which the story kept spreading, even after both companies took action.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before a Facebook executive said the company was limiting distribution of the story, Facebook posts linking to the Post’s article had garnered 154,293 interactions, defined as likes, comments and shares. Engagement slowed for about an hour and a half before regaining steam in the evening, when the number of interactions doubled in the span of three hours. In total, there were 1.2 million Facebook interactions related to the story as of Thursday morning, NewsWhip research analyst Danielle Tom said.

On Twitter, the last tweet that included the link to the story came at 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday, according to NewsWhip’s data on a group of 300,000 influential Twitter users. At that point, the number of interactions on these users’ tweets — likes and retweets on posts including the link — stood at 200,834. That number ballooned to 345,426 as of Thursday morning, likely due to interactions with tweets published before the link was blocked.

Gadde wrote on Thursday that Twitter put its hacked materials policy in place “back in 2018 to discourage and mitigate harms associated with hacks and unauthorized exposure of private information.” Adding, “We tried to find the right balance between people’s privacy and the right of free expression, but we can do better.”

Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey testifies during a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Twitter’s transparency and accountability, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. 

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Twitter declined to comment on the plans to subpoena Dorsey. 

The company announced in a blog post on October 9 that ahead of the U.S. presidential election, it had renewed its efforts to “handle misleading information.” It says it has “increased the size and capacity” of its teams focused on the election, enabling them to “respond rapidly to issues that may arise on Twitter on Election night and in the days that follow.”  

Twitter wrote that it “has a critical role to play in protecting the integrity of the election conversation,” and it called for recognition of “our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November.”