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Under GOP pressure, tech giants empowered by election agency

When Twitter briefly decided last fall to block users from posting links to an article about Hunter, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr., it sparked a Conservative outcry that Big Tech was unduly aiding the presidential campaign of Mr. Biden.

“So terrible,” President Donald J. Trump said of the decision to limit the visibility of a New York Post article. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley said Twitter and Facebook censored “grassroots political speech.” The Republican National Committee has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Twitter of “using its corporate resources” to benefit the Biden campaign.

Now the commission, which oversees election laws, has dismissed the allegations, according to a document obtained by the New York Times, ruling in favor of Twitter in a move that is likely to set a precedent for future cases involving media sites. social and federal campaigns.

The Election Commission determined that Twitter’s actions regarding the Hunter Biden article were taken for a valid business reason, not for political purposes, and therefore were authorized.

And in a second case involving a social media platform, the commission used the same reasoning to side with Snapchat and dismiss a complaint from the Trump campaign. The campaign had argued that the company gave Mr. Biden an inappropriate giveaway by dismissing Mr. Trump from his Discover platform in the summer of 2020, according to another commission document.

The dual election commission rulings, which were released behind closed doors last month and are expected to go public soon, protect the flexibility of social media and tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Snapchat to control what is shared on their platforms regarding federal elections. .

Republicans are increasingly at odds with the nation’s biggest tech and social media companies, accusing them of giving Democrats an unfair advantage on their platforms. Mr. Trump, who was ousted from Twitter and Facebook earlier this year, has been among the two companies’ most vocal critics and has even announced legal action against them and Google.

The removal of the article on Hunter Biden – at the height of the presidential race last year – has been a particular flashpoint for Republicans and Big Techs alike. But there have been other episodes, including Snapchat’s decision to no longer feature Mr. Trump on one of its platforms.

The Federal Election Commission said in both cases that the companies acted in their own business interests, according to “the factual and legal analysis” provided to the parties involved. The commission also said that Twitter followed existing policies regarding pirated documents.

The decisions appear to offer social media companies additional protections in making decisions about moderation of election-related content – as long as those choices serve a company’s business interests. Federal Election Law is decades old and largely outdated, so the decisions of the Election Commission serve as influential benchmarks.

The campaign finance law “ignores the post-broadcast world” and places few restrictions on the behavior of social media companies, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, law professor at Stetson University. “There is a real disconnect between our federal campaign finance laws and the way campaigns are run. “

Still, the Republican National Committee’s complaint pushed the boundaries of the campaign finance law, she added. “The choice to remove or remove certain content on the platform will ultimately be viewed through the lens of the First Amendment,” Ms. Torres-Spelliscy said. “I don’t think this type of content moderation by the big platforms is going to raise a campaign finance issue.”

Some Republicans are looking to give big internet companies a bigger sledgehammer, in a bid to repeal a provision in the communications law that shields them from liability for what users post.

In the case of Hunter Biden’s article, Twitter backtracked within a day of its decision to block distribution of the article, and its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, called the initial move a “mistake.” “.

The Federal Election Commission’s official vote on the case – the commission is split evenly between three Democrat-aligned commissioners and three Republicans – is not yet public, and no further statements are written by the commissioners. Such statements often accompany the closing of cases and can provide additional information about the reasoning of the committee.

In addition to dismissing the RNC’s complaint, the commission dismissed other allegations that Twitter violated election laws by “shadowing” Republican users (or appearing to limit the visibility of their posts without providing an explanation) ; removal of other anti-Biden content; and tagging Mr. Trump’s tweets with warnings about their accuracy. The commission rejected the accusations, writing that they were “vague, speculative and not supported by the information available”.

Twitter and Snapchat declined to comment.

Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for RNC, said the committee “is weighing its options to appeal this disappointing FEC decision.” A representative for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitter would continue to permanently exclude Mr. Trump from its platform in January, citing “the risk of further incitement to violence” after his supporters attacked the Capitol as Congress voted to certify the 2020 election.

In his absence, Mr. Trump sued Facebook, Twitter and Google, arguing that a provision of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, which limits the liability of Internet companies for what is posted on their networks, is unconstitutional.

Legal experts have given little credit to the prosecution of Mr. Trump, whose news the former president immediately used as a fundraising tactic.

Section 230 has been a regular target of lawmakers wanting to crack down on Silicon Valley companies. During his tenure, Mr. Trump signed an executive order to reduce the protections offered by Section 230, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed to repeal or change the provision.

But tech companies and free speech advocates have defended it out loud, saying Section 230 has been crucial to the growth of the internet. If the measure were repealed, it would stifle free speech and bury social media companies in bills, the companies said.

Twitter initially said it had blocked links to Hunter Biden’s article due to its existing policies against the distribution of pirated material and private information. The article, which focused on Ukrainian ties to the Bidens, involved correspondence which The Post said was found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.

But Mr Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, recognized in October, that blocking links “without any context as to why” was “unacceptable”.

Shortly after, Twitter said it was changing its policy on pirated documents and would allow the posting of similar content, including a tag to provide context on the source of the information.

Republicans said the damage was done – and set a poor precedent.

“This censorship will clearly influence the presidential election,” Senator Hawley wrote in a letter to the FEC last year after Twitter blocked the article and Facebook said it was “reducing its distribution” of the article. .

The commission’s documents reveal one reason Twitter was particularly suspicious of Hunter Biden’s article. The company’s site integrity official, according to the commission, said Twitter had “received official warnings throughout 2020 from federal law enforcement that” malicious state actors “could hack and publish documents associated with political campaigns and that Hunter Biden could be the target of such an operation.

The election commission said it had found “no information that Twitter was coordinating” its decisions with the Biden campaign. In an affidavit, Twitter’s U.S. public policy official said she was not aware of any contact with the Biden team until the company made its decisions, according to the commission document. .

Adav Noti, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, said he supported the decisions, but was concerned about the electoral commission’s use of what he called “business justification” because it was too large.

“It encompasses almost everything that for-profit companies do,” Mr. Noti said.

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