In an even more byzantine restriction this morning, Twitter appeared to block a link to a government website run by the Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee, where the story had been reposted. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the ban constituted “clear election interference.” The ban, if it was ever instituted, was quickly lifted. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning, and we will update this story if the company clarifies its actions.
The very strange, very online events of the past 30 hours or so might not merit an FEC investigation, but Twitter’s URL ban in particular raised alarm bells for those who care about consistency and coherency in content moderation, and led to legitimate questions about how Twitter determined that this link was uniquely bad. Leaping—as some people did—to accusations of collusion between Twitter and the Biden campaign is unreasonable and dangerous. But Twitter’s decision opened the company up to both valid criticism and cheap shots at its previous moderation efforts, including the significant steps it’s taken to limit the spread of misinformation.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Twitter’s move is that it lent a degree of legitimacy to an otherwise nonsensical—but pervasive—paranoia about anti-conservative bias on social platforms. Whenever the company limits the spread of content that right-wing users support, Republican lawmakers start playing referee. Hawley, for example, has proposed legislation that would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of making sure that social platforms aren’t expressing political bias with their algorithms or moderation decisions. President Donald Trump signed a toothless executive order “on preventing online censorship” this spring after Twitter labeled some of his tweets with fact-checking warnings. Studies have found no evidence that such bias exists, but the belief that Big Tech has a censorial attitude is common not just among politicians, but among Americans more generally: Recent Pew research found that 90 percent of Republicans think it’s at least “likely” that social-media sites censor political viewpoints, as do 73 percent of American adults overall.
To be clear, Twitter is a company, not a government, and as such it has every right to “censor” whatever it wants. There is no debate that the platform is legally allowed to block any URL it likes, and it often does: It has an incentive and some obligation to protect its users from malware, spam, illegal content, and so on. All major social platforms do some amount of link-blocking. This summer, Twitter expanded its definition of “unsafe” links to include links to content that would violate its on-platform rules against hate speech and the promotion of violence. (This was about a week after it took action to block URLs associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.) But the New York Post story is the first high-profile instance of the site blocking just one URL without a coherent explanation.
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