The Federal Election Commission has found that Twitter didn’t break any kind of election law when it blocked people from posting links to a New York Post story filled with dubious claims about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
In October 2020, shortly before the federal elections in November, Twitter prevented users from posting links to the Post’s holes-filled story and suspended the paper’s account outright, citing its policy against the release of information obtained via hacking. That resulted in a tidal wave of right-wing anger directed against the company, which eventually backed down somewhat after CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that “[s]traight blocking of URLs was wrong” and Twitter allowed the Post’s account to return to the website.
Twitter also nixed its policy on hacked information… sort of. Subsequent investigations trying to discern the validity of the Post’s claims about the corruption of the Biden clan have largely resulted in big nothing-burgers.
Still, the Republican National Committee (RNC) filed a complaint with the FEC, which claimed that the blocks amounted to an “illegal in-kind contribution” to Joe Biden’s presidential effort (basically, that Twitter’s moderation decisions amounted to a violation of the ban on direct corporate contributions to political campaigns).
The logic of this complaint never made much sense, as it would require the FEC to treat any action that a corporation takes which might potentially affect an ongoing race as a donation. But Republicans have elevated their conspiratorial outlook on social media firms to one of their biggest issues, and have resorted to all manner of dubious legal hijinks in their efforts to undermine the legal shields that companies like Facebook and Twitter use to protect themselves against liability for moderation decisions.
According to the New York Times, the FEC ruled behind closed doors last month that the NRC’s complaint amounted to nothing. The decision is not yet public, nor have any of the six FEC commissioners, who are split equally along party lines, released any statements about it that could shed light on their reasoning. However, the Times wrote the FEC determined Twitter had “credibly explained” that it blocked the article for commercial rather than political reasons, as well as that “factual and legal analysis” showed the blocking decision followed established Twitter company policies.
One reason that Twitter may have made a rash decision is that the federal government had basically told them to be on the lookout for this kind of thing during the campaign season, as foreign powers could be trying to influence the election. The FEC documents showed that a Twitter executive had demonstrated (in the FEC’s words) that the company had “received official warnings throughout 2020 from federal law enforcement that ‘malign state actors’ might hack and release materials associated with political campaigns and that Hunter Biden might be a target of one such operation,” the Times wrote. The FEC also found “no information that Twitter coordinated” with Biden’s campaign, and Twitter’s head of U.S. public policy told the agency that she was unaware of any contact between the company and Biden’s team about the Post story before it made the blocking decision.
The FEC separately rejected the idea that Twitter was “shadow banning” conservatives or otherwise suppressing right-wing content. Beyond anecdotal horror stories of conservative censorship, there’s never been any hard evidence for this allegation, but it has become a widespread conspiracy theory among Republicans thanks to continual gripes by Donald Trump and other high-profile figures in the party. According to the Times, the FEC wrote in the decision the claims of bias were “vague, speculative and unsupported by the available information.” (If anything, the available information indicates conservatives do quite well for themselves on Twitter.)
RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn told the Times that it would be “weighing its options for appealing this disappointing decision from the FEC,” though in an alternate nightmare reality where we were them, we wouldn’t be holding our breath.