Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The New York Post is back on Twitter, after Twitter updated its policy on policy changes. This story is going to be confusing, but not as confusing as Twitter’s attempts at moderation.
To recap: On October 14th, The New York Post published a (contested and possibly part of a disinformation campaign, though this is absolutely not the point I am here to tell you about) story about Hunter Biden, the son of presidential candidate Joe Biden. Very little of the contents of the Post story are pertinent to the discussion we are about to have, except this: some of the materials in it, Twitter alleges, seem to be the result of hacking.
Twitter suspended The New York Post’s account for six tweets that linked to the story and blocked links to the story in question, citing its hacked materials policy, as well as a policy about private information. This caused, perhaps predictably, a massive uproar. On October 15th, Twitter’s trust and safety lead, Vijaya Gadde, tweeted
On October 16th, Jack Dorsey tweeted that blocking the URL “was wrong,” and a Twitter spokesperson told The New York Times that the information that was previously “private information” had spread so widely that it no longer counted as “private.” Therefore, the Post article no longer violated the private information policy.
Got all that so far? Great, there’s more. Despite inspiring the policy change on hacked materials and no longer violating the policy on private information, The New York Post remained suspended, because of a different policy. See, Twitter has a policy on policy changes. If you were, say, a tabloid that had been suspended because of an old policy, a new policy wouldn’t supercede your suspension. Not even if you’d inspired the new policy.
So today, Twitter has updated its policy on policy changes, and The New York Post is taking a victory lap.
It didn’t have to go like this. Facebook, for instance, chose to limit the article’s reach while fact-checkers combed through it — but the company didn’t remove it. Basically, Facebook triggered its “virality circuit breaker,” which, as Casey Newton points out, allowed The Post to post without giving it unwarranted lift, in case the article was disinformation. That decision was also controversial, but it was less severe.
Pilfered documents are unquestionably part of the journalistic tradition. This tradition was particularly part of the 2016 presidential election, when reporters published stories with emails from the Democratic National Committee that had been obtained through hacking. As a result, platforms began planning for what they would do in case of a similar 2020 hack-and-leak operation. Twitter evidently felt that The New York Post’s article rose to that level.
Anyway, the Republican party called foul on the whole thing and made everyone sit through a tiresome Senate hearing on October 28th.
So, here we are, one Senate hearing and two policy changes later. Insofar as it is possible to draw a moral from this bizarre saga, it seems to be this: Twitter’s moderation still doesn’t make any damn sense. But congratulations to them on updating their policy on policy changes.