Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to investigate Facebook and Twitter for potential illegal in-kind contributions to the Biden campaign after the social media companies limited the spread of a news story damaging to the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“These possible campaign-finance violations by two of the most powerful corporations in America comes only weeks before Election Day, and while millions of Americans are in the midst of voting. I ask that the FEC take immediate action to investigate these potential violations and, if appropriate, take remedial action to prevent further interference with the 2020 Presidential election,” Hawley said in an Oct. 14 letter to FEC Acting General Counsel Lisa Stevenson (pdf).
Facebook and Twitter took action earlier in the day to stop people from spreading a story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
The story centered on alleged documents and photographs from a hard drive obtained by the New York Post, which included an alleged email indicating that Hunter allegedly introduced his father, who was serving as the vice president, to a top Ukrainian natural gas executive at Hunter’s request.
“There can be no serious doubt that the Biden campaign derives extraordinary value from depriving voters access to information that, if true, would link the former Vice President to corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs. And this censorship manifestly will influence the presidential election,” Hawley said.
Biden previously said that he has “never spoken” to his son “about his overseas business dealings.”
The Biden campaign said it reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules “from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.”
A Facebook spokesman said that the company was “reducing its [the article’s] distribution” before it’s reviewed by one of its fact-checkers.
“This is part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation,” he said.
Facebooks pays third-party organizations to decide what is true and what is not. If content includes a claim that has received a negative rating from any of the fact-checkers, Facebook will limit how many people can see it. The fact-checkers focused on American content are dominated by funding and personnel with left-leaning backgrounds.
Hawley sent another letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg questioning whether it’s indeed standard practice to suppress any article from a reputable news source before it could be fact-checked.
“The seemingly selective nature of this public intervention suggests partiality on the part of Facebook,” Hawley wrote. “And your efforts to suppress the distribution of content revealing potentially unethical activity by a candidate for president raises a number of additional questions.”
Twitter prevented many users from posting a link to the Post story, including the paper’s op-ed editor, Sohrab Ahmari.
A Twitter spokesperson told news outlets in a statement, “In line with our Hacked Materials Policy, as well as our approach to blocking URLs, we are taking action to block any links to or images of the material in question on Twitter.”
The policy states that Twitter does not “permit the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information, may put people in physical harm or danger, or contains trade secrets.”
Ahmari called the action by Twitter “digital civil war,” while Trump’s campaign said Facebook’s action showed it “is actively interfering in the election” and “is rigging the election for Joe Biden.”
Later on Oct. 14, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee posted the text of the Post article on its website so people could share it on Twitter that way.
Republicans have long accused Facebook, Twitter, and other technology giants of bias and censorship. The companies claim their services are made and operated to be politically neutral, but evidence to the contrary has been piling up.
Zuckerberg is now facing a subpoena after refusing to appear voluntarily before a Senate panel to answer questions on how the company moderates content and users, among other issues.
The Trump administration recently proposed an alteration to Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act, proposing a roll-back of liability protections that currently shield online platforms from many lawsuits.
Both Facebook and Twitter are planning on censoring a number of posts before and around the time of the Nov. 3 elections, including what the companies are describing as premature claims of victory.
Masooma Haq and Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.