Facebook moves to limit spread of dubious Biden laptop story

October 14, 2020, 5:16 PM UTC

A spokesperson for Facebook took to Twitter on Wednesday to say the media company would restrict the spread of a tabloid story that recounts the alleged discovery of a “smoking gun” email linking this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, to corruption in Ukraine.

The decision by Facebook is significant since the platform has served as a key vehicle for spreading disinformation, especially during U.S. elections. The “smoking gun” nature of the story has been met with incredulity among reporters across the political spectrum. Here is how the Facebook spokesperson, Andy Stone, responded to the story:

The article in question alleges that someone left a laptop with a sticker for the Beau Biden Foundation—a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting child abuse and named after Vice President Biden’s late son—at a computer repair shop in Delaware and then failed to pick it up. The laptop allegedly contains a slew of compromising information about Biden’s other son, Hunter, who has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.

The owner of the shop then allegedly gave a copy of the laptop’s hard drive to an associate of President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The story also alleges the hard drive has been circulating among Republican operatives, including Steve Bannon, since September.

The report has been met with widespread skepticism. Critics have questioned the timing of the story—20 days before Election Day, with dozens of states already in the middle of early voting—and the unlikely possibility that someone forgot a laptop containing all sorts of sensitive information at a repair shop.

Ed Morrissey, an influential blogger with the right-wing political site HotAir, expressed similar skepticism, noting that “until this gets some authentication, stay skeptical, or at least remember that things too good to be true usually aren’t.”

Veteran political reporters cast further cold water on the story’s authenticity.

Given the high likelihood the tabloid story is false, Facebook’s decision to limit its spread could be key to preventing it from fueling conspiracy theories ahead of next month’s election. While Facebook has been widely criticized for allowing misinformation to run rampant on its platform, the company has taken steps this month to address the problem, such as declaring it will not allow anti-vaccination ads or posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. The company also said it would ban political ads from its platform after Election Day.

Facebook’s decision to limit the spread of the suspect Biden email story reflects another recent innovation by the company that involves using “circuit breakers” to preempt false stories from going viral.

Update: Twitter has responded to the controversy by blocking users’ ability to share the tabloid link in question.

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