Jen Gerson: Are we really fine with Twitter dictating what newspapers can publish?

Who can blame Big Tech for seeking to curry favour with the Democrats in such a moment?

This is a story that most readers would not have encountered except for Twitter and Facebook's accidental effort to make it infamous. 

On Wednesday, the Internet's tabloid, the New York Post, published a story alleging that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, engaged in influence peddling that ensnared his father while working as an adviser to the board of Burisma, a Ukraine-based energy company. And, the paper claims, it has the email receipts to prove it. 

The newspaper alleged that Biden Jr.'s harddrive came into its possession in a convoluted manner; a water-logged Mac found its way to a small computer repair-shop in Delaware last year. Accordingly, the harddrive was cloned and a copy sent to the lawyer of Rudy Giuliani — advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. Giuliani then passed the harddrive along to the Post

Numerous damaging files were found, including sexually explicit images and video of Hunter Biden, and several emails between him and various senior employees at Burisma. One such email read: 

"Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure." 

Joe Biden's team denied that any meeting took place although, interestingly, his spokesman did not claim that either the emails, videos, or the photos were fake. The Biden spokesperson went on to imply that the leak may be part of a Russian disinformation campaign, and one day that wolf may yet appear to eat the sheep.

To say that the Post story was journalistically thin is to put the matter mildly — and I'll get to that in a moment. What was unprecedented here was social media's response: Twitter and Facebook responded by banning and throttling sharing the link to the story.

Twitter initially justified its decision by noting the story violated its platform's rules against doxxing and hacking — and while that explanation gives us some insight into the values of the tech company in question, it must be noted that this reasoning is at odds with journalistic norms. 

Needless to say that the Post's explanation for the harddrive's provenance is not satisfying. It seems infinitely more plausible that Hunter Biden's iCloud account was, indeed, hacked in the search for damaging information. Further, that this information was laundered with a backstory, and then deposited to the Post via Giuliani, a Trump proxy. 

If that sounds bad enough to warrant the ban on the journalistic enterprise, I have some really uncomfortable news for you about the ugliest element of scoop-ferreting.

Sometimes journalists find themselves in possession of newsworthy information obtained through nefarious means. We are barred from engaging in illegal methods to obtain information — but we sure as hell aren't barred from reporting on that information once it lands under our door, or on our desks, or in our anonymous dropboxes. 

Twitter itself seemed to acknowledge the problems with using its anti-hacking policies this way on Thursday night, when it furiously backpedalled from its earlier decision, announcing a more nuanced position.

The second bit of bad news is that most journalistic sources aren't enlightened white-hatted heroes of the great work. Everyone who speaks to a journalist has an agenda. Sometimes that agenda is benign, even noble. Other times, it is neither. 

To make an admittedly imperfect comparison; do you imagine that there was no chicanery or violation of privacy involved in obtaining Donald Trump's tax returns, recently published and analyzed in the New York Times? Granted the Times spent a hell of a lot more time fact checking the tax returns piece than the Post did the Hunter Biden emails. But it's not a stretch to assume that both of these stories were probably the result of the same Dark Art — oppo drops to friendly media outlets strategically timed to do damage to their respective opponents. 

The Times' piece was journalistically solid; the Post's story was not. It included known nonsense, for example, claims that Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire an attorney general investigating Burisma. 

But if Twitter's standard is that the source material not be obtained via probable hacking — or, presumably, other similarly nefarious ends — a lot of valid journalistic work would be offside.

Hence the flip flop:

I think you have to be pretty willfully oblivious to ignore the problems with social media platforms arrogating to themselves the right to determine good journalism from bad. And, judging by its change of heart, this isn’t a role that Twitter itself seems prepared to occupy.

After all, these are the same platforms that will deny that death threats against women violate its terms of use — but will crack down on users who wish Donald Trump doesn't recover from COVID -19. Twitter permits white nationalists, yet bans a feminist named Meghan Murphy for misgendering Jessica Yaniv. Twitter is not renowned for its sound judgement, nor for consistent application of rational rules. 

Progressives and conservatives both like to play the victim on this front, claiming that Big Tech discriminates against them, or permits misinformation that violates their own beliefs and ideals. 

My suspicion is that it's worse than mere bias. To be biased would require that these platforms possess a set of extant values in the first place. 

No, my suspicion is that the rules by which social media platforms permit or disallow speech are arbitrary. These companies exist to keep their users engaged in the content, and the regulations, such as they exist, serve no aim beyond their own perpetual survival, relevance, and growth. Twitter’s aim here probably wasn’t necessarily to slow down the spread of information damaging to Joe Biden — it was just ham-handed attempt to avoid getting caught up in another round of reputation-damaging allegations that Big Tech was complicit in a Russian-backed disinformation campaign to rig the election, or some such.

The system isn't rigged. It's amoral. Subject to the prevailing political winds. If so, no ideological team can expect to stay on the side of the angels, forever singing from the same hymnals of the moderators. 

Perhaps the Republicans are getting what they deserve, here. If so, the frustrating thing about this Hunter Biden story is that it's another example of the political left getting in its own way. 

The Biden emails were not a "smoking gun." Left to the withering scrutiny of the news cycle, this story would have gone the way of Trump's tax returns: long forgotten by Friday. There was nothing here that couldn't be dealt with through the ordinary cut-and-thrust of fact checking and intra-media score settling. 

Instead of that happy outcome, now this thin tabloid hit is the subject of a grand brouhaha about Big Tech media censorship. Its importance has been massively inflated beyond its journalistic merit. 

And yes, we're all quite familiar with the argument that private social media outlets maintain a right to police their own sites as capriciously as they please. This argument doesn't hold when these outlets enjoy a growing monopoly over access to the public square. Once a company enjoys a critical mass over the distribution of a good or a service, competition becomes, effectively, impossible. 

To a news outlet, major social media platforms increasingly represent a monopoly on the means of distribution; they are the digital equivalent of the physical roads and trucks and drivers that we once used to deliver the paper. 

And if that analogy implies a regulatory solution in the service of the public good — and, indeed, this seems to be the way the U.S. is headed — well, who can blame Big Tech for seeking to curry favour with the Democrats in such a moment? Trump, after all, is likely on the way out, and it's always better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. 

Just as long as you're confident that the curve never bends back around again. 


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