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Online broadcast of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, shows former vice-president Joe Biden's son Hunter speaking during the last day of the convention on Aug. 20, 2020.

-/DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION/AFP via Getty Images

Had Facebook and Twitter not limited their users’ ability to share the New York Post’s story about the alleged influence-wielding tactics of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, the rather bizarre and sordid tale it describes probably wouldn’t have gotten the massive interest it has since received.

But on Wednesday, with little context or explanation, Twitter blocked users from posting the story on its platform, noting that the article has been labelled as potentially “unsafe.” Facebook didn’t go as far as blocking the story, but it did reduce its distribution by limiting how often it showed up on users' news feeds.

Predictably, and somewhat understandably, U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters went bananas. This was not, after all, a story by some fringe conspiracy site peddling abject nonsense – this was an article in an established newspaper that employs real journalists and ostensibly performs real reporting.

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That said, the story itself is rife with holes and curiosities. It alleges that someone brought a water-damaged laptop into a Delaware repair shop in April, 2019, when the owner found e-mails on the device between Hunter Biden and Ukrainian businessman Vadym Pozharskyi – e-mails that pointed to improper interference by the former U.S. vice-president. The Post does not explain if or how it verified the authenticity of the e-mails, or why the shop owner reached out to the defence attorney of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to share what he found, or whether it checked to see whether a meeting referenced in one of the e-mails actually occurred (the Biden camp claims it did not).

Some critics, including Johns Hopkins University professor and researcher Thomas Rid, suggested the whole thing sounded like a classic disinformation campaign, for which the Post might have been duped in its excitement to publish a juicy scoop.

But then, plenty of poor journalism is produced that still gets shared on social media without issue.

The Toronto Sun, for example, recently published a column that implied that the death toll from COVID-19 in long-term care homes during Ontario’s first wave was comparable to flu deaths from previous years, a conclusion reached by comparing data from the first three months of 2020 (when, crucially, there was no COVID-19 in care homes) to the first three months of 2019.

The New York Times is grappling with the notion that its celebrated Caliphate podcast might have been based on a made-up story by a Canadian who claimed he went overseas to fight alongside ISIS. There are plenty more examples of bad journalism or stories gone awry on social media, but most of them won’t garner the attention the Post story has now received – unless or until, paradoxically, social media companies step in to censor them.

The core of this issue is whether these companies see themselves as mere platforms – thus protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the U.S., meaning they can’t be held liable for posts by third parties – or as publishers, which generally maintain the ability to edit, limit and otherwise control content posted on their sites.

For a long time, companies such as Twitter and Facebook have tried to have it both ways, labelling themselves either platforms or publishers when appropriate or convenient. But this action on the Post’s Biden story should remove any remaining ambiguity: These companies obviously see themselves as publishers who reserve the right to moderate the content that appears on their sites. But if that is the case, as Mr. Trump and his Republican allies would argue, they should not be subject to the protections afforded under Section 230.

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Whether Republicans are successful in their continuing legislative efforts to amend Section 230 remains to be seen. But either way, it is clear that a blanket censorship approach to moderation of news stories will not meaningfully improve the state of our discourse (if that is, in fact, even the goal), since it will just drive interest, leave one side or the other feeling aggrieved, and make it impossible to implement in any coherent way.

Indeed, late Wednesday, Twitter belatedly explained that one of the reasons it blocked the Biden story was because of its policy against distributing stories based on hacked materials; users, however, can still post articles on Wikileaks documents and the Panama Papers.

The best approach on the part of social media companies may be to create smarter users, not insulated ones. Twitter has started labelling government officials and state media accounts so that users can see when they are reading government messaging. Facebook has also begun labelling stories where arguments or facts are misleading or in dispute.

It’s still not a perfect system – readers might infer that stories without a label are necessarily true – and it remains mostly an exercise in internet whack-a-mole. But providing context has to be better than flat-out blocking access to news, as Twitter acknowledged late Thursday in reversing its hacked-materials policy. Give readers the tools to decide if a story is bogus, then take a step back and let them decide.

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