On December 2nd, Elon Musk retweeted a thread which was posted at Musk’s behest by Matt Taibbi, called The “Twitter Files.” The thread details the censorship Twitter executives engaged in during the 2020 election. The censorship is concerned with a New York Post Article detailing contents found on Hunter Biden’s laptop, the son of the then democrat presidential candidate.
According to the New York Post, Hunter Biden left his laptop at a repair shop. Materials were extracted from said laptop, most of which really do not put the Bidens’ reputation in the best light. From the New York Post’s article, in an email exchange between Hunter and Vadym Pozharskyi, Hunter introduced his father to the then top executive of a Ukrainian energy company. From Pozharskyi to Hunter, on April 17th of 2015: “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent some time together. It’s…an honor and pleasure.” In the same article, another email from May of 2014 shows Pozharskyi inquiring about how Hunter Biden “could use [his] influence” on behalf of the Ukrainian energy firm he partook in. There was also a “12-minute video [of] Hunter, who’s admitted struggling with addiction problems, smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman, as well as numerous other sexually explicit images.” Tons of other information extracted were included in the article, indicating the apparent unethical acts behind the scenes such as the abuse of political power for personal financial gains, foreign collusion, and off the book affairs between the Biden family and the Ukrainian government and energy company.
Once a story gets out, there is no going back. Seeing as how Hunter is the son of Joe Biden, it does not take a political scientist to figure out that news which put Hunter in a bad light would also negatively affect his father’s campaign and their reputation.
According to the facts presented so far in Twitter Files, Twitter executives did purposefully engage in the active censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story by the New York Post, resulting in less viewers seeing it. Even when viewers did see tweets with the link to the story, there were warnings informing users of misinformation. People have all sorts of differing political preferences, but if said preferences result in the disproportionate censorship and content moderation of stories favoring one political party over another, then the executives who participated in this censorship have de facto made themselves into an extended branch of the government in their selective and politically driven content moderation.
The tenth amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” With regards to keeping elections free and fair, it is up to each state to safeguard this responsibility. Outside of obvious election frauds, such as manipulating the polls and executive coups, it isn’t obvious to what extent should the state or federal government impose their jurisdiction over other factors which influence elections.
In a high quality democracy, basic human rights are guaranteed so that election outcomes are not gerrymandered by constrained conditions. If there was only one national news outlet which favors a particular candidate, if voters are purposefully and disproportionally shown information promoting one party and slandering other parties, or if fundamental rights such as free speech was to be impeded, most would agree these practices are the antithesis of free and fair democratic elections.
As of January 2022, Twitter remains one of the largest social media worldwide and the 5th most well known social network in the US, having 436 million active users monthly. On December 3rd, former President Trump posted on Truth Social the following in reaction to Matt Taibbi’s Twitter files: “So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION…with Big Tech Companies…do [we] throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT…A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules…even those found in the Constitution.”
On April 4th 1864, in a letter to Albert G. Hodges by Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln voiced his concerns over the issue of slavery. In particular, the possibility of slavery being an issue so contentious to the point where it can destroy the union in spite of its legality in the Constitution.
“Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.” – Lincoln, April 1864.
Election integrity is not as contentious as slavery is, but in viewing Trump’s message through the lens of Lincoln’s letter, one can better understand Trump’s sentiment. It is undeniable that people often vote by their feelings and not on facts. It is also hard to say that social media plays no role at all in affecting voters’ feelings about their candidate.
Certain contents on social media, such as childpornography and death-threats, are severely monitored and censored because the same rules of free speech apply both in person and online in dealing with the most blatant cases. That said, there is a large gray area with the boundary of free speech online.
Sure, it is the states’ responsibility to safeguard free and fair elections. However, if the states have no power in regulating social media, especially with regards to targeted censorship favoring one political party over another because there happens to be a disproportionate amount of employees of one political leaning in a company, then, in some sense, are we are allowing and tolerating a form of large scale, and perhaps direct, election gerrymandering?
There is no barrier to entry in creating one’s own social media, but how many people would use said new outlets and prefer them over what they are used to? With Twitter being one of the largest digital town squares for US voters, it has an intrinsic responsibility to safeguard free speech to the best of its abilities by applying the standards of free speech in real life to the digital world to the utmost rigorous extent. In a day and age where voter behaviors are heavily influenced by the information they take in, social media outlets need to be held at a higher standard with regards to its content moderation policies.
If it is ok for newspapers to publish an article, then censoring said article on the basis of misinformation would be a blatant violation of free speech. In placing restrictions on free speech, we need to do it with extreme caution because any restriction can lead us down a slippery slope, resulting in a very one-sided narrative dominating over all other narratives. If we are going to moderate content on the basis of misinformation on social media, then we should at least apply it equally to both sides of the political aisle.