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.
While I agree that social media has the power to influence elections, it is exactly for this reason that I believe the government should not regulate what political content is allowed on it. The purpose of the First Amendment is to provide a check on the three branches of government (hence the media often being referred to as the fourth branch of government). Any significant consolidation of state power over media provides a frightening tool for any party with authoritarian intentions to use. While I do not necessarily support Twitter’s censoring of material, their lack of censorship is also a political tool– just look at how social media baselessly ran with Hillary Clinton’s email scandal immediately before the 2016 election and continued with it even after she was cleared by federal investigators. A lack of political censorship can also threatens democracy. In addition, I fully agree that any governmental censorship of a published newspaper article would be a violation of free speech, but newspaper staff reserve the right to edit out articles or quotes in order to spin a narrative– otherwise Fox and CNN would be broadcasting the same news. I suppose the question to me is should social media be thought of as a form of news media, or as a forum for public debate? It seems to me that the biggest issue facing Twitter was that it purported to be an open forum, but often took actions as if it was a news organization.
I wholeheartedly share with you my concern in the question of social media’s intrinsic purpose: whether or not it should be considered as a public forum or as a news organization which tends to take a clear political stand.
All social media platforms can be considered public forums to some extent, as they are open to anyone with an internet connection. However, some platforms are more explicitly designed to be public forums, where anyone can post and engage with content, such as Reddit and Twitter. Other platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, are more focused on creating personal connections and may have more restrictions on who can post and engage with content.
If a social media openly declares itself as a public forum, then it should behave like one. One aspect I haven’t been able to fully develop in my blog post is the fact that currently social medias are mostly monopolies – with most users using a selective few social media (namely, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). There is no barrier to entry for making one’s own social media, but it would hardly gain any traction in comparison to established ones.
I think that there is not quite enough information to support the argument of this piece.
Firstly, The New York Post article itself was not very high quality. The title of the article, “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad,” was not very accurate as to what the email has demonstrated. The email itself shows that Hunter “[invited Vadym Pozharski, an advisor to the Board of Directors of the Burisma Group, a Ukrainian natural gas company] to DC and giving an opportunity to meet [Hunter Biden’s] father and spent some time together” in 2015. It only proves the existence of the event, but does not speak to the “how” as alluded to in the title. A different email referenced in the same article “[asked] Hunter for ‘advice on how you could use your influence’ on the company’s behalf” was not shown. But even then, there is not a “smoking-gun” correlation, since there is no clear evidence as shown that Hunter Biden *offered* to use his influence.
Additionally the article itself lists a few pieces of information, such as the email and the NSFW videos, without laying out clearly and concretely what was meant to be proven. The article arranges information in a way that it only alludes, but does not prove. At the very end of the article, it refers to Biden’s pressuring of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and PM to sack the Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin “by threatening to withold a $1 billion US loan guarantee,” and that Shokin “has said that at the time of his firing. . . he’d made ‘specific plans’ to investigate Burisma that ‘included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden,'” but falls short of demonstrating that there is a clear collusion between Hunter Biden and Pozharskyi to use Joe Biden’s influence to prevent the investigation, despite hinting heavily at such. The main thing seems to discredit rather than criticize.
The level of journalism as demonstrated in the New York Post was not high. It walked in the grey area of fact and conspiracy, with a style that seemed to be tailored to avoid libel charges, without taking a concrete position on either and without taking responsibility for the information which they present.
It is entirely possible, in this context, for Twitter to have chosen to discourage and limit the spread of this information not because it has a position on politics, but because it has a standard for the quality of information.
Unfortunately, I cannot attest to what goes on on the other side of the aisle. Maybe Twitter does not limit the spread of liberal information to a similar extent. But what is more concerning to me is that there seems to be a problem where we can no longer distinguish truthfulness from politics. The New York Post decries that Twitter has censored their article, and that therefore there is a bias against conservatives, even though their article was not a case of responsible reporting. But if such reporting, that avoids taking a solid stance, that shies away from responsibilities, becomes widespread and enters the mainstream, the health of the whole media environment becomes at risk. The people will be trained to “fill in the blanks,” and that is the perfect breeding ground for conspiracies that can easily go out of hand and have real world consequences.
A world where truth is held prisoner by politics is a world where democracy withers and dies. The New York Post seemed to have simply ridden the wave, even though an anchor was what was more necessary.
Jezile Fe Torculas
Gerrymandering is indeed prevalent in the US. News media and social media are two of the most crucial agents of polarization. Any information provided by traditional news media (or corporate mainstream media) carries a certain level of authority that many people tend to believe, simply because of the notion that news media are people’s gatekeepers, the truth-tellers. Social media, on the other hand, albeit not a publisher of some sort, is only as important as news media as it serves a key role in the propagation of (dis)information with a worldwide reach.
For fear of damaging and incriminating pieces of information, people (especially those who are in one way or another affected by the content) call for censorship against “disinformation” and “fake news”. This is when the people of the opposite side of the pole invoke the First Amendment.
Free speech, social media and elections — we ask the question, what is the cost of imposing censorship against certain pieces of information? Who dictates what is “disinformation” and “fake news”? Aren’t corporate mainstream media and social media partisan, given that in one way or another, they are involved in America’s political machinery?
Honestly, I don’t think censorship is a realistic solution for our problem. In fact, it may only further democratic backsliding.
This topic is essential as social media becomes more prevalent and relied on for information. Understanding social media’s role in our political sector, especially regarding free and fair elections, is vital to protecting free speech.
When Twitter was first established as an online forum, there was no consideration for how it could affect our democracy. Now that platforms like Twitter have evolved into not only being platforms where people get their information but are also seen as reliable sources of information should be held to the highest standard of free speech. Regarding the Hunter Biden story, I am not surprised that there was a blatant cover-up, especially considering how entangled the private media sector is with the public political sector. However, it is not Twitter’s responsibility to manage its employees’ political ideology to ensure that all ideologies are represented.
Protecting free speech online is difficult because no law explicitly states how the federal government should impose free speech. The censorship of speech has created a sizeable gray area regarding free-speech in an online realm. Public companies do not have free speech at the top of their minds because it is not in their best interest, unfortunately. That is why as consumers, we must ask questions, vet all information, and understand that there is active censoring of information.