Opinion | A tabloid, a dubious story and Big Bad Tech
And then there is some confusion about what social media companies owe their audiences when it comes to distributing these stories.
Here is what you need to know about the New York Post story: We are supposed to accept that Hunter Biden dropped off his laptop at a Wilmington, Del., computer shop in 2019 and never retrieved it, despite probably knowing that its contents would ruin him and his father.
We are supposed to accept that there is nothing odd about the prospect that the shop owner then called the FBI, but not before making a copy of the hard drive and giving it to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, defender and top Biden-hunter, so to speak.
And we are supposed to accept that the hard drive purportedly contained emails — which no one can verify — that suggest that, as vice president, Biden met with an executive of the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, in 2015. At the time, Hunter Biden served on the board of directors, earning a hefty sum.
Hmmm. If I had a mustache, I’d be twisting it now.
The New York Post played the story bigly, with several splashy articles, and so, predictably, did President Trump, in part because Biden has long denied discussing Burisma with his son.
Other news organizations, including The Washington Post, have been unable to authenticate the story or even the key emails that suggested (to some, anyway) there was a White House meeting.
The confusion about the New York Post story quickly gave way to confusion about what social media companies should do when it came to sharing it around. That unfolded Wednesday when Twitter and Facebook deployed measures to limit the articles’ spread.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) joined Trump in slamming Twitter and Facebook for blocking the articles from wider distribution. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson pleaded with the squelchers of free speech not to ruin the country even if they hate Trump. The election is only a few weeks away, after all, and Trump is behind.
The two confusions seem, if I may, a bit overwrought.
First, no free speech has been hampered by the social media platforms. Twitter is not the U.S. government, and agents of some unnamed federal agency in Washington are not fanning out to close newspapers, shut down platforms or take over television stations. That is what the First Amendment is designed to prevent. You can still find all the supposed blockbusters with just a few keystrokes, which was probably the point.
Second, it is easy to imagine that a platform such as Twitter or Facebook might reasonably hesitate to circulate such a potentially consequential story when some old-fashioned news organizations have been sounding alarms about it. We used to call that editing.
But is editing Twitter’s job? And should Big Tech, of all industries, be deciding what Americans read and know about?
Given a chance, I’d vote no, but there’s no law against it. The most likely explanation is that the bosses who run big social media platforms, having once believed they had displaced the mainstream media, have no clear idea how to navigate in a world filled with facts, lies and disinformation, and so are making it up as they go.
Yes, in the past few years, Facebook and Twitter say they have taken steps to monitor (and censor) egregiously offensive or unproven content. But the flow coming in far exceeds their ability to catch all the bad stuff.
And whatever they are doing about offensive content, the net they cast is too big when it censors political speech. Such censorship presumes that voters can’t think for themselves.
In blocking the New York Post story, Twitter and Facebook weren’t shutting down hate speech. They were making an editorial judgment.
I will be surprised if Twitter or Facebook gets to the bottom of the New York Post story, whether it came from a Delaware computer shop or somewhere more mysterious.
More likely, that tell-all scoop will come from one of the legacy news organizations that do their own reporting the old-fashioned way.
Of course, there’s no better way to ensure wide readership than to have your story censored by Big Bad Tech. And it’s a fact that no respectable newspaper would publish a story of such dubious origins without first double-checking the facts according to its own best practices.
Lest there be any confusion.