What is Twitter's real problem

When does journalism become manipulation? : How Twitter and Facebook could influence the US election

Perhaps the luridly announced text in the tabloid “New York Post” was one of those hotly debated “October surprises” that many observers of the US presidential campaign have been waiting for a long time.

Especially the supporters of Donald Trump, who has slipped further and further in favor of the voters in recent weeks. The article mentioned a “smoking gun” - that is, absolutely watertight proof - against the democratic applicant Joe Biden in the “Ukraine affair”.

The information is said to come from stolen emails. The circumstances: rather dubious. The alleged evidence: more than thin. Ordinarily, that wouldn't stop Trump's supporters from sharing such content on a large scale.

In this case, however, barely three weeks before the election, the social networks stepped in. Facebook severely restricted the distribution of the text until a fact check provided clarity about the truth of the text. Twitter completely prevented the text from being shared.

How do you deal with stolen data?

One could book the process as a successful prevention of election manipulation. The case is somewhat more complicated, however, and it also affects the dissemination of journalistic research during election campaign times. How do social media decide what is still journalism and what should already be viewed as election manipulation?

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In the specific case of the “New York Post” it is on the one hand a question of whether and how one should report on information stolen by hackers or data thieves. According to the "New York Post", the data comes from a laptop that was handed in in 2019 to an unspecified repair shop in Biden's home state of Delaware by an unspecified person.

It allegedly contained emails allegedly showing that Hunter Biden introduced his father to a Ukrainian businessman - although Joe Biden claimed that he had never spoken to his son about his Ukraine business. According to the New York Post, a video that is allegedly also on the laptop shows Hunter Biden in clearly compromising contexts.

Dubious circumstances, dubious evidence

It is unclear from which source the alleged data originate, neither the shopkeeper nor the informant are named. It is therefore not possible to determine who the alleged revelations were made and what motives the source might have had for making the data public. The image files shown in the article also have significant inconsistencies with the story of the New York Post, as data analysts pointed out shortly after the publication.

And the type of data allegedly found bears clear traits of what was already known as “compromise” at the time of the Soviet secret service KGB: real or fabricated material that is used specifically to damage a person's reputation over the long term.

So there are good reasons to be extremely careful with your New York Post research. Especially after the experiences of the US presidential election campaign in 2016, when reports of emails stolen by hackers from the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton dominated the reporting for weeks. It is likely that the emails were brought to the public by means of Russian secret services in order to influence the outcome of the election.

On the other hand, the case also touches on the question of how social media should generally deal with research by traditional media companies. For example, Donald Trump's tweets were flagged with warning notices. However, the fact that a research service of a print medium that is potentially relevant for public discourse is throttled in its reach - even before a fact check is completed - is new, however.

Due to their market power, social networks have effectively become infrastructure providers in political communication. With a view to the federal election in the coming year, those criteria could also become relevant for German politics, according to which Twitter and Facebook activate their protective mechanisms against election manipulation and, if necessary, also use them against research by local media companies.

Twitter reveals criteria

Twitter is very transparent on this issue: just a few hours after the “New York Post” article was prevented from being distributed, the group posted the reasons for the move via the @TwitterSafety account.

For example, personal information was published in the article, such as email addresses or telephone numbers, which violated the Twitter rules. Furthermore, Twitter has been opposed to the spread of hacked material in general since 2018. The article makes images and links directly available to the public. The pure reporting on a hack - without making the data accessible - is allowed, however.

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Twitter Germany was not available to inquire about the role such rules play in protecting the 2021 federal election from manipulation.

Andy Stone, spokesman for Facebook in the USA, referred for his company to the standard procedures for the prevention of election manipulation that had already been established in 2019, which, among other things, provide that the distribution of articles is throttled as long as a fact check is pending.

However, when such a fact check is decided and which indicators lead to it, it is not clear from the guidelines. Facebook Germany described the question of criteria for the federal election in 2021 compared to Tagesspiegel Background as "speculative" and did not want to comment on the subject in any further detail.

Reporters Without Borders is working on standards

Christian Mihr, managing director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Germany, told Tagesspiegel Background that his organization is in principle in favor of classifying information from social media. This also applies to the "deprioritization" of content, i.e. the less prominent presentation and slowed distribution.

"From the perspective of Reporters Without Borders, this is a much better way of dealing with the phenomenon than deleting such content," said Mihr. "The problem remains, however, that in the absence of independent supervision or independent standards, the platforms become the judge of truth and false statements."

Currently, a working group within the framework of the Forum for Information and Democracy founded by RSF is concerned with the question of what such independent supervision could look like and according to which standards content should be dealt with.

The group is led by the Filipino media entrepreneur Maria Ressa, founder of the news portal "Rappler", and the former Dutch politician and internet rights expert Marietje Schaake. According to Mihr, the panel will soon present results.

Meanwhile, Twitter is following up: On Thursday afternoon, the short message service blocked @teamtrump's account after an attempt was made to share a video with content from the "New York Post" article. The reason for this was a violation of the community standards regarding the dissemination of personal data.

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