Under pressure from the GOP, tech giants are 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 inspired a conservative outcry that Big Tech was taking on Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign. unjustifiably supporting.
“Very awful,” President Donald J. Trump said of the move to limit the visibility of the New York Post article. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said Twitter and Facebook were censoring “keynote political speech.” The Republican National Committee 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 those allegations, according to a document obtained by The New York Times, ruling in favor of Twitter in a decision that shunned social media sites and federal campaigns. The connected future cases are likely to set an example.
The Election Commission determined that Twitter’s action in relation to the Hunter Biden article was done for a legitimate commercial reason, not a political one, and was thus acceptable.
And in a second case involving the social media platform, the commission used the same reasoning in favor of Snapchat and dismissed the Trump campaign complaint. The campaign had argued that the company provided an unfair gift to Biden by rejecting Trump from its Discover platform in the summer of 2020, according to another commission document.
The Election Commission’s twin decisions, which were made behind closed doors last month and are set to go public soon, protect the resilience of social media and tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and Snapchat, in the run-up to federal elections. are shared on their platforms. .
Republicans have increasingly been at odds with the nation’s biggest technology and social media companies, accusing them of giving Democrats an unfair advantage over their platforms. Mr Trump, who was fired from Twitter and Facebook earlier this year, has been one of the biggest critics of both companies and even announced a lawsuit against him and Google.
The suppression of the article about Hunter Biden — at the height of the presidential race last year — was a particular flashpoint for Republicans and Big Tech. But there were other episodes, including Snapchat’s decision to stop featuring Mr Trump on one of its platforms.
The Federal Election Commission said in both cases that the companies had acted in their own business interests, according to “factual and legal analysis” provided to the parties involved. The commission also said that Twitter has complied with existing policies regarding hacked content.
The decisions appear to provide social media companies with additional protections when deciding whether to moderate election-related content – as long as such choices are in the service of the company’s commercial interests. Federal election law is decades old and largely out of date, so EC decisions serve as influential guideposts.
The campaign finance law “does not account for the post-broadcast world” and places some restrictions on the behavior of social media firms, said Ciara Torres-Spelisi, a professor of law at Stetson University. “There’s a real mismatch between our federal campaign finance laws and how campaigns are run.”
Still, the Republican National Committee’s complaint overstepped the limits of the campaign finance law, she said. “The choice to remove or suppress certain content on the platform is ultimately being viewed through the lens of the First Amendment,” said Ms. Torres-Spelisi. “I don’t think this kind of content moderation by the big platforms is going to raise a campaign finance issue.”
Some Republicans are seeking a broader endorsement for large Internet companies, aiming to repeal a provision of the communications law that protects them from liability for what users post.
In the case of the Hunter Biden article, Twitter reversed course within a day of its decision to block distribution of the piece, and its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, called the initial move a “mistake.”
The Federal Election Commission’s official vote on the matter — the commission is split equally between three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republicans — is not yet public, and neither has any additional statements written by the commissioners. Such statements often accompany the closure of cases and may provide further insight into the Commission’s reasoning.
In addition to dismissing the RNC complaint, the commission rejected other allegations that Twitter violated electoral laws by “shadow banning” (or limiting the visibility of their posts) Republican users without providing an explanation; suppressing other anti-Biden material; And labeling Mr Trump’s tweets with warnings about their accuracy. The commission rejected those allegations, writing that they were “vague, speculative and unsupported by available information.”
Twitter and Snapchat declined to comment.
RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughan said the committee was “weighing its options to appeal this disappointing decision to the FEC.” A representative for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter will permanently block Trump from its platform altogether in January, citing “the risk of further instigating violence” following an attack on the Capitol by his supporters, as Congress votes to ratify the 2020 election. did.
Out of office, Mr. Trump has sued Facebook, Twitter and Google, arguing that a provision of the Communications Decency Act, known as Section 230, stipulates Internet companies for things posted on their networks. limiting the liability of . is unconstitutional.
Legal experts have given little importance to Mr Trump’s lawsuit, news of which the former president immediately used as a fundraising tactic.
Section 230 has been a regular target of lawmakers who want to crack down on Silicon Valley companies. While in office, Trump signed an executive order aimed at eliminating the protections provided by Section 230, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers proposed repeal or amend the provision.
But technology companies and free speech advocates have vociferously defended it, arguing that Section 230 is vital to the growth of the Internet. If the measure were repealed, it would affect freedom of expression and bury social media companies in legal bills, the companies have said.
Twitter initially said it had blocked links to the Hunter Biden article because of its current policies against distributing hacked content and personal information. The article, which focused on Biden’s Ukrainian ties, included correspondence that The Post suggested was found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
But Mr. Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, accepted In October that blocking link “why with null reference” was “unacceptable”.
Shortly thereafter, Twitter said it was changing its policy on hacked content and would allow similar content to be posted, including a label to provide context about the source of the information.
Republicans said the damage had been done — and set a bad precedent.
“This censorship will clearly affect 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 piece. Was”.
Commission documents reveal one reason Twitter was particularly suspicious of the Hunter Biden article. According to the commission, the company’s head of site integrity, Twitter “received official warnings from federal law enforcement throughout 2020 that ‘malicious state actors’ may hack and release material linked to political campaigns and that Hunter Biden may be the target of a Can do such an operation. ”
The Election Commission said it “received no information that Twitter coordinated its decisions with the Biden campaign”. In a sworn announcement, Twitter’s head of US public policy said she was unaware of any contact with the Biden team before the company made the decision, according to the commission document.
Adav Noti, a senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, said he supported the decisions, but he was concerned about the election commission’s use of “commercial justification” because it was pervasive.
“It includes almost everything for for-profit corporations,” Mr. Noty said.
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