(New York, NY) — Earlier this week, Twitter and Facebook took steps to limit posting and amplification in relation to a New York Post article on emails purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden. The platforms’ initial steps in response to a high-stakes, fast-moving and uncertain situation were justifiable in the face of concerns that, absent such action, the platforms were poised to play a major role in propagating disinformation designed to interfere with the U.S. election. They must now come forward with fuller explanations for their actions as well as policy clarifications that safeguard free speech, PEN America said today.

“As private companies, Twitter and Facebook are free to moderate content as they so choose. But given their control over vast swaths of public discourse, their actions carry significant free expression implications. In this case, they took quick steps to limit the spread of what they judged to be potentially false and intentionally misleading content during a critical pre-election period in the United States,”said PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel. “PEN America has long documented how the unbridled spread of disinformation can threaten free expression and open discourse. Given what we know about the weaponization of information as part of deliberate attempts to undermine democracy, Facebook and Twitter are justified in taking steps to prevent their platforms from algorithmically abetting and accelerating the spread of content that bore clear hallmarks of disinformation. That the FBI is reportedly investigating whether the emails form part of a Russian disinformation operation underscores that the concerns that motivated these steps were not idle.

“Political speech—commentary on government action—warrants special deference not only by the government but by private platforms that profess a commitment to free speech. But throttling back algorithmic amplification, as Facebook did, is not the equivalent of extra-governmental censorship. Expunging and blocking content entirely—as Twitter initially did—should be a last resort subject to a heightened threshold of certitude about the nature of the content and the potential harms of making it available. It is essential that debate on the implications of the New York Post story not be foreclosed.

“Our primary concern is that, though understanding that they have moved in necessary haste, both companies have fallen well short of their obligations to articulate the basis and implications of their decisions. This opacity has left them exposed to charges that their actions were politically motivated and risks emboldening calls for intrusive government regulation and ideological policing of online content, measures that would violate the First Amendment. They need to take action now to remedy those shortcomings and provide the public with transparency and accountability regarding how these powerful platforms and the teams that administer them are shaping what we see and know.”

PEN America recommends the platforms:

  • Offer a full explanation of the decisions they have made and the basis therefore, including what steps are now underway to inform final dispositions for the content in question;
  • Specify criteria for future such suppressions of content that bears the markings of a political disinformation operation, and instate rigorous review processes to ensure that they are applied without regard to party or ideology;
  • Foster dialogue about these interventions and answer questions from the public and civil society.
  • Offer empowered officials for media interviews; and
  • Work to establish a new norm of “after action reviews,” in formal consultation with civil society, regarding this and future instances of high-profile emergency actions in relation to content.

“The platforms are under no obligation to propagate any content in particular and are right to want to avoid catalyzing the spread of disinformation,” said PEN America’s Nossel. “But Twitter and Facebook’s self-proclaimed commitments to free expression demand a scrupulous approach to adjudicating political speech and ensuring that decisions aimed to safeguard against disinformation do not end up themselves feeding conspiracy theories and false accusations.”

Read PEN America’s report  Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, with an introduction from Nossel outlining how fraudulent news poses serious threats to free expression.