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Twitter And Facebook Limit Access To A 'New York Post' Story On Biden's Son

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To hear conservatives tell it, this election is about more than President Trump versus former Vice President Joe Biden. They also see it as a battle between the president and social media. This week, Twitter blocked and Facebook limited the reach of an article with unconfirmed claims about Biden, and the president and his allies are calling foul. Meanwhile, experts warn that these platforms are rife with misinformation and threats to the election. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us with more.

Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This has blown up into a really big deal. Explain why.

BOND: Well, I think, you know, this is really - it's maybe the biggest decision that Facebook and Twitter have made so far about what content they limit on their platforms. This is all about a New York Post story that's based on supposed emails from Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son. And there's lots of questions about the story, including whether these emails are real and how they were obtained by the Trump associates who gave them to the Post.

SHAPIRO: And explain exactly what Facebook and Twitter did in response to this controversial and unfounded story.

BOND: That's right. So Facebook said it would show the links to this story less frequently in users' news feeds so fewer people would see it. They said that was to give its independent fact-checkers more time to check it out. And we should note here that Facebook is an NPR sponsor.

Twitter took a much more aggressive approach. It blocked people from posting the link at all or posting any images of these emails. And the reason, Twitter said, is that the posts break its rules about sharing personal information and about spreading hacked materials. But it didn't give any more details about how it reached that conclusion.

SHAPIRO: I should say - I characterized it as an unfounded story. I should say it is a questionable story, and there are a lot of unclear things about it. Republicans are up in arms about this today. And is this useful political ammunition for them?

BOND: Well, I think you just need to listen to what Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said today. This is going to be a big talking point for them in the weeks before Election Day.

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TED CRUZ: 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.

BOND: Now, this is something conservatives complain about a lot, that the social media companies are biased and censor them. There's not a lot of data on this, but what we do know shows it doesn't really support those claims. And remember, Ari, in general, social media companies make decisions all the time about what we see in our feeds, but they don't always do a good job of explaining how and when they apply their rules. And this week, even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the way Twitter communicated blocking these links without more explanation was unacceptable.

SHAPIRO: We're lately hearing so much more from the tech companies about what they let people post and why. Is this just the lessons of 2016 manifesting, being close to an election? What's going on?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, just today, YouTube said it was going to ban content about the QAnon conspiracy theory. That's something Facebook and Twitter have already done. And there's just a lot of rules now about trying to stamp out misinformation and these conspiracy theories. And make no mistake; there are real threats on social media right now. The Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee had a hearing about this today. Here's what Nina Jankowicz, who studies Russian disinformation, told them.

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NINA JANKOWICZ: Nineteen days before voting closes in the 2020 election, I believe we are more vulnerable to online disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources than ever before.

BOND: And so she emphasized, you know, there's a real-world impact to these things that happen online. Like that plot that we heard about to kidnap Michigan's governor - that was in part organized on Facebook.

SHAPIRO: And so what's going to happen next? This is obviously an ongoing story.

BOND: Well, whenever the tech companies act to limit misinformation, that, of course, makes them part of the story. So I think we can expect to keep hearing these criticisms from conservatives about this, you know, in the coming weeks. And Senate Republicans are going to get a chance to question the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google about how they handle speech. That's a hearing that's scheduled just six days before the election.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.