Social Media Giants Have Far Too Much Power Over What You See.
The Hunter Biden story shows what a brave new world we've entered.
One of the great frustrations of living in the age of Donald Trump is having all debate defined by his very existence, his inability to slip out of the national consciousness. Trump is like the supergiant star at the heart of our galaxy, his heat and light blinding, his gravity sucking us ever deeper. In a few short weeks, he may be defeated, and in a few short months, he may finally be an ex-president. There are many reasons to want this. For those craving debate on terms absent Trump, this will be a great day.
Last week, I found myself in a strange place: arguing with journalists about the perils of censorship. If Trump were not president, I imagine this debate could have played out differently. You may have heard that Twitter and Facebook—one the most dominant social media company of the media elite and the other, the most dominant social media company period—reduced access to a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. The Post, as New Yorkers know, is a conservative, often incendiary newspaper that has published dubious, fact-challenged accounts. At the same juncture, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid has also employed many talented journalists and performed a dogged watchdog role on the local scene. I’ve been a stinging critic of the Post; I also don’t want it to disappear. In the Trump era, the Post has occupied, at times, a strange place, initially critical before evolving, like all conservative media, into a mouthpiece for the White House, its columnists towing the Trump line.
On October 14 , the Post published a purported blockbuster: “smoking gun” evidence involving Hunter and the work he performed for the dubious Ukrainian energy firm, Burisma. An email suggested that Biden himself set up a meeting for his troubled son in order to get him the well-paying gig. Biden denied the meeting ever took place and the emails have not been verified—though the Biden campaign did not directly question their validity. A Biden campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, said that “we have reviewed Joe Biden's official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place." The backstory of this all is quite bizarre. A computer repair shop in Delaware reportedly came to possess a laptop belonging to the younger Biden and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, gave the emails to the Post. The emails could have been hacked or stolen. Some are suspecting the Russians are involved. The emails could be fabricated. On Sunday, the Times reported the story was pushed out over the objections of veteran Post reporters and editors.
Emphasis must be placed on could. No evidence has emerged that these emails aren’t real. While a federal investigation is reportedly underway over whether the emails were linked to a foreign intelligence operation, an investigation does not equal proof. For Democrats and many journalists, however, the issue was cut and dry—this was a nonstory that must be suppressed because of the possibility that, like in 2016 when Wikileaks published a trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails, foreign actors were interfering with an American election. NPR’s David Folkenflik summed up the thinking: “With all these warning signs, other news organizations, including NPR, have held back. Reporters who shared the New York Post story on social media found themselves denounced by Democrats and even many of their peers.”
Many Democrats and journalists pumped their fists, or at least nodded along with approval, when Facebook and Twitter moved to suppress the Post’s Hunter Biden story. Twitter temporarily blocked users from tweeting the Post’s report. Facebook limited the story’s reach on their platforms until it could be thoroughly fact-checked. Twitter’s justification for the hard block, which was eventually lifted, came down to their contention that the Post story violated a new policy because the emails on which it was based may have been hacked and contained private information. Kevin Roose, in his front page New York Times column, offered a defense of Twitter and Facebook’s thinking, pointing to the ways social media has spread disinformation and sowed discord. “It’s true that banning links to a story published by a 200-year-old American newspaper — albeit one that is now a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid — is a more dramatic step than cutting off WikiLeaks or some lesser-known misinformation purveyor,” he wrote. “Still, it’s clear that what Facebook and Twitter were actually trying to prevent was not free expression, but a bad actor using their services as a conduit for a damaging cyberattack or misinformation.”
Twitter reversed its policy a day later, allowing the Hunter Biden story and similar content to be shared, along with a label to provide context about the source of the information. It is understandable why both Twitter and Facebook made such sudden, far-reaching moves, even against a news outlet that does have some legitimacy. Both social media platforms have enabled the spread of false stories and outright propaganda in the last five years. Facebook, which is far more pervasive than Twitter, has been particularly nefarious, wielded by dictators and mobs in other countries for violent ends. It is not an exaggeration to say that Facebook, especially in countries newer to the internet, has aided and abetted genocide. In cities and towns across America that have lost reliable news outlets, Facebook has filled the void, now the place where rumors and conspiracy theories proliferate. The strength of QAnon would not be possible without Facebook. With so many people, especially over the age of 30, now gathering information on Facebook—with Facebook evolving into the front page of the internet—it has become a de facto news publisher, though it never set out to become that. Facebook is a private company, not a utility, but it is functioning more like a monopolizing power company than a consumer product. It is ubiquitous, perhaps, like nothing else in history.
What to do? For many journalists and partisan Democrats, the answer is for Facebook and its far smaller rival, Twitter, to act more like news publishers. Hire fact-checkers. Purge bad actors. Regulate more of what we see. These are impulses I understand. I support Facebook adding fact-checkers and being far more transparent about how it determines what we can see in our feeds. Its algorithms must no longer live in a black box. Its policies on regulating news must be obvious and open to scrutiny. Journalists, not tech support, should be making these decisions. In the interim, this is necessary.
It is not, however, ideal. Twitter’s initial policy, echoed by Facebook, that the Biden story should be suppressed because it relied on hacked material is deeply deleterious to the aims of journalism. Journalists and believers of a free press who support this policy in any form do not understand what it is they are endorsing. The most ground-breaking investigative and accountability reporting often relies on information that is acquired in an unauthorized or even illegal way. If journalism were governed simply by the law that only legal obtained information can be published—hacked material must never see the light of day—many of the most revelatory news stories of the last half century could not have appeared in newspapers. COINTELPRO was exposed through a burglary. The Panama papers, the Pentagon papers, the Snowden files, and the original Wikileaks cables of 2010 all relied on unauthorized material. What if Trump’s tax returns were leaked to the New York Times through a hack or were acquired in some unauthorized way? Would Twitter and Facebook have a right to suppress such news? The Times has stated the tax returns were acquired through legal means. Otherwise, we have no idea where they came from. It’s not as if certified personal accountants are allowed to just hand over the tax returns of their clients to a journalist. It’s unlikely any liberal commentator or reporter would be cheering if two social media giants decided a major Times scoop violated their new policy on sharing unauthorized material.
Whistleblowers break laws to ferry sensitive information to journalists who then vet the information and publish it—this is, in every sense, the backbone of accountability journalism. That tech giants like Facebook and Twitter don’t understand this is to be expected because they are not news organizations. They did not get into the news business. They do not want the role of regulating news or speech. The role, however, has been foisted on them, and they are now pressured to act. Though there are some on the left who celebrate these kind of proactive crackdowns, they will inevitably lead down a darker path. Social media giants can cut off web traffic to most news stories and publications on a whim. The liberal magazine Mother Jones was revealed to be one such victim of a sudden algorithm shift. In authoritarian nations like China, access to the internet is extremely restricted, and tech companies play a pivotal role in censoring what articles can be viewed, shared, and searched for. The United States does not operate in such a way and never should. But the possibility is always there. Under well-meaning policy, leftist news outlets that call for radical change could be suppressed under the guise of preventing violence or hate speech. Unorthodox voices could be effectively silenced.
If journalists and Democrats are concerned about the mass spread of disinformation, they should target the social media platforms themselves—not demand they take on new sweeping powers as speech regulators. Earlier this month, Congress released a historic report that offered a blueprint for breaking up tech monopolies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google. The future will be in ambitious anti-trust regulation of the likes that hasn’t been seen in decades. Rather than champion speech crackdowns, left-leaning commentators should take up the cause of breaking up these companies for good. As Matt Stoller has written, the monopolization of internet space has had disastrous consequences for democracies globally. Rather than demand social media giants walk the beat as better cops, we should force them to surrender their weapons altogether. Stoller argues for splitting information utilities from one another so that search, mapping, YouTube and other Google subsidiaries are separate companies, as well as curtailing advertising on any of these platforms. Advertising revenue would once again flow to journalism and art. Decoupling social media from advertising is pivotal: information utilities have an incentive to keep users on their properties so that they can keep selling more ads. They have an incentive to self-deal, putting content in front of users that benefits the utility rather than the user. They have the greatest of incentives to surveil, so they can target their users as aggressively as possible.
There can be no end to the disinformation age as long as social media giants command such power over the space we use to gather information and learn about the world. Asking them to dominate in a different manner—purge information here or there—will not work, and could have dire consequences for our democracy. Next year, Trump may no longer be president and Democrats could have control of Congress. Unified control of government will offer a rare opportunity to take generation-defining anti-trust action against the social media giants. There is reason for both optimism and despair. Barack Obama’s administration forged close relationships with Silicon Valley and allowed Facebook and Google to swell ever larger. If Joe Biden surrounds himself with the same sort of people who want to appease and flatter Big Tech, nothing will change. But if progressives in Congress and monopoly-skeptical Republicans force Biden’s hand, the internet can be dramatically reimagined. This will be the decade to do it.