Recently, after New York Post placed an article about Hunter Biden ties with Ukraine business, Twitter and Facebook started to restrict spreading of it.

Trump immediately called this a censorship:

So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of “Smoking Gun” emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost. It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230!!!

Facebook and Twitter rejected that claims, explaining that as blocking materials, obtained by a hack.

Abstracting from context, that really looks a bit like political censorship.

Question is, is it a political censorship?

That's not about how lawful it is - private company surely can do-whatever-they-want. It's about existence, or non-existence of mentioned activity. Like a question, does, or not, company trade donuts. Just that one is a bit tougher.

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    Anyone can of course call anything whatever they want.
    – Jontia
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 12:30
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    Sure. But there is a wikipedia article about political censorship. It's interesting for me, is it applicable to that situation. Of course, you can call your cat a "dog", but that doesn't change its nature. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 12:44
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    – DK Bose
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 13:14
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    I think it is pretty clear - as private companies, Facebook/Twitter can do what they want. Question is, are their action an act of political censorship, or not. I even do not mention "free speech" - because is not relevant here. For me, it is not very clear, is it more close to the phone company, or newspaper. And I expect well argumented answers, like that one from o.m. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 15:02
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    I think the question is currently too broad and invites low quality answers, from legalistic to generic "it all depends on the definition" statements Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


Taken literally, the answer to your question is obviously YES. The companies obviously applied censorship, and the nature of that, which was censored, was political. The term "censorship" in disjunction from government is however a rather neutral term, as others have pointed out.

The spirit of the question seems to be whether the censorship in this case was problematic or not.
Making a judgement focussed solely on this particular case would be opinionating, which isn't allowed, and obviously at this point pure speculation.
It is therefore much more helpful for this question to point out that the general state of the big tech companies is currently "problematic".

The comments already mentioned Section 230, which at his core states:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Section 230 furthermore grants those providers the right to apply moderation to their service, as long as they do it "in good faith".
The vagueness and shortness of this law make its age quite unsurprising: Its from 1996.

In 2020 however we are facing huge tech companies that effectively hold monopolies in their respective business sector. There is only one Twitter. The alternatives are neglectably unimportant.
With regard to those monopoly-holding giant corporations the term "in good faith" becomes a big issue since the way in which those companies apply their guaranteed right of moderation has potentially wide reaching consequences.

Let's take the current issue that triggered the question:

It doesn't matter whether the NYP story was 100 % true, 100 % fake or something in between, or whether the actions of the tech companies were factually/morally right or wrong. What this whole affair shows once again is that these tech companies have a ridiculous amount of power under current law, potentially even the power to swing elections.
When they decide to censor something, this censorship, owing to their monoply, effectively carries the same weight and power as government censorship, which is a problem, regardless of whether it was justified in the underlying case.

In one way or another this issue will have to be adressed. After the current event maybe sooner than later. The currently most commonly discussed possible measure is treating and regulating social media as a public utility.


A question of definitions and expectations ...

There is no clear, uncontested defition of censorship, which makes this question somewhat opinion-based. Yet there is some common ground to those definitions. By a narrow definition, censorship is the prior vetting of material by a government agency. Others would include government suppression after the publication, or actions by certain non-governmental organizations.

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. have a place in modern life that is unprecedented and defies traditional expectations.

  • If you have a newspaper with pages of "letters to the editor" in each edition, then it is clearly not censorship if the editor decides to print some letters, and to discard others.
  • If you have a phone company, and they find a way to interrupt any call that debates a certain subject, then it might be understood as censorship even if the phone company does not qualify as a government agency.

In my opinion the facebook action is not censorship because facebook is not properly classified as a common carrier; they are news media with editorial control over user-provided content. The core of their business model is not to transport messages from A to B, the core is to select messages which are shown to their users according to Facebook's algorithms.

Other people could argue that Facebook is a modern kind of telecommunications provider and thus should not interfere in the content they transmit at all, beyond providing information to queries from legitimate law enforcement. If it is illegal, let the courts decide.
As you can see in the comments, that seems to be the opinion of many users of this social media site.

Yet other people could define Facebook and similar quasi-monopolies as so important to public life that they have a duty of political neutrality which is expressed as non-censorship. That seems to be the unspoken assumption by many who forget that it is a commercial company.

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    Facebook scans private messages and blocks those it doesn't approve of which is very close to your "phone company" example. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 14:10
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    @SurpriseDog, the business model of the phone company is to transmit messages against payment. The business model of Facebook is to select messages from a pool and to display them mixed with advertising. (They do other things as well, but that's secondary).
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 14:28
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    The question already mentions "SECTION 230", i.e. Communication Decency Act. Section 230 : "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider". That is the section under which Facebook and Twitter operate here, but this answer ignores that.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 14:29
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    @ o.m. Over 1 billion messages are sent through Facebook Chat everyday. For comparison, Verizon only handles 800 million calls per day. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 14:33
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    So many examples of this now, but I don't want to get dragged into the minutiae of debating the pros and cons of each controversial link blocked by facebook so here is a simple Google search to get you started: "facebook censors private messages" - The point being that even if you agree with some of these links being blocked, culture never stops changing and someday sooner than you think, you will find that your messages are the ones getting censored. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 15:07

Censorship is by its nature a political term: it is the removal of material that is considered to be obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security. The phrase 'political censorship' is redundant, though perhaps not problematically so.

Here's what's clear: Twitter and Facebook have restricted access to this New York Post article (though I think Twitter may have backtracked on it). The question is whether their act was overtly political. There are two sides to this issue:

  • The article itself makes claims about on a candidate for US President, and thus is prima facie political speech. However...
  • The article itself is misleading, conspiratorial, poorly substantiated, and in all ways of dubious credibility and merit.

The issue boils down to an unresolved legal question of whether acts of explicit libel against political figures are protected political speech. LBJ may have may have said that it is acceptable in politics to call your opponent a pig-f*cker just to force him to deny it, but this has never been addressed in court.

Further, as we all know, Twitter and Facebook are private companies, not government agencies, and have a right to censor content as they see fit. The only First Amendment issue here, in fact, lies in whether the Trump administration can use its power to force these private companies to publish information that goes against their internal policies. That is also an unresolved legal issue: whether the government can dictate and enforce the dissemination of propaganda through private media.

The unfortunate fact is that institutional norms that previously precluded this kind of behavior have fallen apart, and we do not have legal precedents that tell us how to cope with this new political reality.

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