How has Twitter messed things up this badly?
It’s been over four years since emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta were leaked online, before being amplified on social media by both a naive American public and hundreds of fake Russian accounts.
In that time, Twitter has repeatedly said it put policies in place to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2016. But over the last three days, Twitter has shown just how incompetent it is—still—at dealing with this stuff.
First, it blocked all links to a New York Post story based on leaked emails from Hunter Biden, the eldest son of Joe Biden. Twitter cited its hacked materials policy, saying that it prohibited “the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization” — a weird phrasing that would seem to encompass investigative journalism, too, as Alex Kantrowitz pointed out.
Twitter’s decision meant no one was allowed to post the link, a move that some applauded but which led to a huge backlash from conservatives, who claimed Twitter was trying to sway the election in Biden’s favor.
In response to the backlash, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey threw his team under the bus and apologized for its failure to communicate the reasoning behind the move more clearly.
Then, on Thursday, when the New York Post published another story based on emails supposedly leaked from a laptop belonging to Biden’s son, Twitter blocked links to that story, too.
This was all too much for Republicans in Congress, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley told reporters that the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Tuesday on whether to subpoena Dorsey to testify before the committee.
The threat seemed to work: Hours later, Twitter’s policy chief, Vijaya Gadde, said the company had decided to make changes to its hacked-materials policy.
“We will no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Gadde said in a tweet.
It is unclear if Twitter’s latest U-turn will sate the GOP’s bloodlust against a company that this week suspended both the official Trump campaign Twitter account and the personal account of the White House press secretary.
But what’s clear is that less than three weeks out from an election where disinformation threatens to play a huge role, Twitter just doesn’t have its shit together.
And things could soon get worse for Twitter. Late Thursday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, said he had the legal authority to interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives social media platforms like Twitter immunity from liability for what their users post.
Both conservatives and Democrats are seeking to change the law to remove the protections given to internet companies—but for different reasons. Democrats like Biden believe Section 230 should be revoked because platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow misinformation to flourish, while Republicans want the protection removed because of unfounded claims that these companies are biased against conservatives.
For Twitter, there’s no easy answer. No matter what action it took on the New York Post story this week, it would have faced a backlash. But the fact Twitter didn’t appear to have a well-thought-through plan to deal with another hack-and-leak situation—which the intelligence community has been warning about for years—is unforgivable.
Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.
Trump once again refuses to disavow QAnon
Having begrudgingly denounced white supremacy at NBC’s town hall on Thursday night, Trump was asked if he would now denounce QAnon. Not a chance.
“What I do hear about it is that they are very strongly against pedophilia,” the president said, after claiming he had no knowledge of the group. Trump has amplified Twitter accounts that promote QAnon conspiracies by retweeting at least 258 posts from at least 150 individual accounts, according to a tally from conspiracy theory researcher Alex Kaplan.
Naturally, QAnon supporters were delighted at what they saw as “full and complete confirmation.”
Disinformation on social media is an “existential threat” to democracy
That’s the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community’s top expert on election integrity.
“Social media and the ability to promulgate information expediently on the web is going to be a big vulnerability for democracies going forward,” Bill Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told a conference Thursday.
In recent weeks, Evanina has been very forthcoming with his opinions about how Russia will seek to disrupt next month’s elections by amplifying Trump’s tweets and comments, as it suits their needs.
“We have to do a better job of educating our voters and our populaces in our democratic countries why the threat to democracies through elections is an existential threat,” Evanina said.
The Senate held a misinformation hearing, and as usual, questions were wild
Even though Republicans refused to take part in Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on misinformation and conspiracy theories, and a panel of four world-class experts was assembled, there was still room for people to put their feet directly into their mouths. Take, for example, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, who asked: “Are there ways that we can infect the QAnon conspiracy web with other stories or ideas that could sow confusion and discord and cause it to collapse in on itself? In other words, kind of embed other crazy things.”
Which prompted journalist Will Sommer to muse: “What could go wrong?”
Trump tweets a link to a satire website as if it’s real news
What better way to start a Friday than getting up at 6 a.m. to tweet out a story claiming that a 90-minute Twitter outage on Thursday evening was designed to slope the spread of negative news about Joe Biden.
“This has never been done in history. This includes his really bad interview last night. Why is Twitter doing this?” Trump asked. The only problem is that the Babylon Bee website, where the story was published, is a satire site. Maybe the president should get off Twitter and get some sleep.