When Twitter briefly decided last fall to block users from posting links to an article about Hunter, son of Joseph R. Biden Jr., it led to a wave of conservative protests that Big Tech improperly supported Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.
“It was terrible,” President Donald J. Trump said of the move to limit the visibility of an article in the New York Post. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said Twitter and Facebook were censoring “core political speech”. The Republican National Committee has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Twitter of “using corporate resources” to benefit the Biden campaign.
The election law oversight committee has now denied those allegations, according to a document obtained by The New York Times, ruling in favor of Twitter in a decision that is likely to set a precedent for future cases. related to social networking sites and federal campaigns.
The Election Commission determined that Twitter’s actions in connection with the Hunter Biden article were taken for valid commercial reasons, not political purposes, and are therefore permissible.
And in the second case involving the social media platform, the committee used the same rationale to sided with Snapchat and dismissed the complaint from the Trump campaign. The campaign argued that the company provided an inappropriate gift to Mr. Biden by disavowing Mr. Trump from the Discover platform in the summer of 2020, according to another committee document.
The election commission’s dual rulings, delivered last month behind closed doors and about to be made public, protect the flexibility of social media and tech giants like Twitter , Facebook, Google and Snapchat in controlling what is shared on their platforms in relation to federal elections.
Republicans are increasingly at odds with the nation’s largest tech and social media companies, alleging that they have given Democrats an undue advantage on their platforms. Mr. Trump, who was ousted from Twitter and Facebook earlier this year, has been among the two companies’ biggest critics and has even announced a lawsuit against them and Google.
The suppression of the Hunter Biden article – at the height of last year’s presidential race – was a particular highlight for the Republican Party and Big Tech. But there are other circumstances, 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 acted in their own commercial interests, according to “factual and legal analysis” provided to the parties involved. The commission also said that Twitter had followed existing policies regarding hacked materials.
The rulings appear to provide social media companies with additional protections for making election-related content moderation decisions — as long as those choices serve the company’s commercial interests. . Federal election law is decades old and outdated, so the election commission’s decisions serve as influential guides.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University, said the campaign finance law “does not take into account the post-broadcast world” and places some restrictions on the behavior of social media companies. . “There is a real mismatch between our federal campaign finance laws and the way campaigns are run.”
However, the Republican National Committee’s complaint stretched the boundaries of campaign finance law, she added. “The choice to remove or block certain content on the platform will ultimately be seen through the lens of the First Amendment,” Ms. Torres-Spelliscy said. “I don’t think the type of content censorship of the major platforms will cause campaign finance problems.”
Some Republicans are seeking to take on a broader trend toward the big internet companies, aiming to repeal a provision of the media law that protects them from liability for what people do. use post.
In the case of the Hunter Biden article, Twitter reversed course within a day of deciding to block distribution of the tweet and its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, called the initial move a “mistake” “.
The Federal Election Commission’s official vote on the case – the committee is split evenly between three Democrats and three Republicans – has not yet been made public, nor has any statement been made. Any additions are written by the trustee. Such statements often accompany the closing of cases and may provide further insight into the committee’s reasoning.
In addition to dismissing the RNC’s complaint, the committee dismissed other allegations that Twitter violated election law by “shadow banning” Republican users (or apparently restricting the visibility of the posts). theirs without giving an explanation); block other anti-Biden content; and labeled Mr. Trump’s tweets with warnings about their accuracy. The commission denied those allegations, writing that they were “vague, speculative and not supported by available information.”
Twitter and Snapchat declined to comment.
Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the RNC, said the committee is “considering options to appeal this disappointing decision from the FEC.” A representative for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter will continue to permanently ban Mr. Trump from its platform altogether in January, citing “the risk of inciting further violence” following the attack on the Capitol by his supporters when Congress withdrew. ballots for the 2020 election.
Upon leaving office, Mr. Trump sued Facebook, Twitter and Google, alleging a provision of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, which limited internet companies’ liability to what was posted on their network, is unconstitutional.
Legal experts have little faith in Mr. Trump’s lawsuit, information the former president immediately used as a fundraising tactic.
Section 230 is a frequent target of lawmakers who want to crack down on Silicon Valley companies. While in office, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that removed the protections offered by Section 230, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed repealing or amending the provision.
But tech companies and free speech advocates have defended it, arguing that Section 230 was crucial to the growth of the internet. The companies said if the measure were repealed, it would stifle freedom of expression and bury social media companies in legal bills.
Twitter initially said that it had blocked the link to the Hunter Biden article because of its current policies against the distribution of hacked material and personal information. The article, which focused on the Bidens’ Ukraine ties, involved correspondence that The Post suggested was found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
But Mr. Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, admit in October, it was “unacceptable” to block “context-free” links.
Shortly after, Twitter said it was changing its policy on hacked materials and would allow similar content to be posted, including labels to provide context about the source of the information.
Republicans said the damage was done – and set a bad precedent.
“This censorship will obviously 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 distribution” of the article. article.
The committee documents reveal one reason why Twitter is particularly suspicious of the Hunter Biden article. The company’s head of website integrity, according to the committee, said Twitter had “received official warnings throughout 2020 from federal law enforcement that ‘bad state organizations'” may hack and release material related to political campaigns and that Hunter Biden may be the target of such an activity. “
The election commission said it found “no information that Twitter coordinated” its decisions with the Biden campaign. In a sworn statement, Twitter’s head of public policy said she was not aware of any contact with the Biden team prior to the company’s decision, according to committee documents.
Adav Noti, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, said he supported the rulings but he was concerned about the election commission’s use of what he called a “commercial rationale.” , because it’s too abusive.
“It covers almost everything that for-profit corporations do,” Mr. Noti said.