As 2020 hurtles to a close with Americans storming the voting booths, many of them desperately hoping to return the country to “normal,” events are already promising anything but. As grim previews of the future to come, we’ve already seen apocalyptic fires on the West Coast, a Republican who can sell Trumpism better than Trump, and a Supreme Court nominee who makes Antonin Scalia look like a moderate. And now we’re getting a taste of how tech monopolies will use their power in the years ahead to censor reporting that clashes with their political interests.
On Wednesday, the New York Post published a major story about the Biden-Burisma affair (aka “Ukrainegate”), the still-developing controversy over Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma at the same time that his father, then vice president, spearheaded anti-corruption efforts in the country and ultimately fired the prosecutor investigating the company.
The Post published e-mails purportedly drawn from a copied computer hard drive that belonged to the younger Biden, allegedly showing a Burisma executive thanking him for introducing him to the then–vice president, and imploring Hunter to “use your influence to convey a message/signal etc. to stop what we consider to be politically motivated actions” —meaning the “one or more pretrial proceedings” the Ukrainian government had launched against the company.
The contents of the hard drive, passed on to the Post by Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, are clearly an attempt at one final, desperate “October surprise.” Trump’s shot at reelection certainly looks to have all but collapsed after an unhinged debate performance that was soon followed by the mass spread of coronavirus within the White House. He’s in desperate need of something to turn around what seems to be shaping up — at least as far as the polls can be trusted — as a landslide defeat.
While the e-mails, if authentic, are not great for Biden — they flatly contradict his implausible September 2019 claim that he has “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — they’re far from a game changer.
They mostly back up what basic common sense and closed-door testimony from Obama administration officials already told us: that Burisma’s hiring of Hunter, with his zero experience in either Ukraine or natural gas, was an obvious attempt to curry favor with the US government, and that it undermined the Obama administration’s anti-corruption messaging in the country. In fact, they shed absolutely no light on Trump’s actual central and still unproven charge against Biden in the whole affair: that he fired the Ukrainian prosecutor to shield his son from prosecution.
No, in many ways the bigger story here is the response to the story. Because seemingly every major scandal damaging to Biden and, therefore, beneficial to Trump’s reelection has, during this election, been simply labeled Russian disinformation and ruled out of bounds — from his sexual assault allegation to this matter — social media companies quickly leapt into action to do what they could to make sure no one would get to even read the story and judge it for themselves.
Shortly after the Post story went live, both Facebook and Twitter — two of the several tech giants that are now more integral to the news publishing business than ever — announced they were stepping in to prevent the story from spreading on their platforms. Facebook, wrote spokesperson Andrew Stone, was “reducing its distribution on our platform” until it could be fact-checked, while Twitter simply blocked users from posting the story at all, citing its “Distribution of hacked material policy.”
This rush to censorship is equal parts absurd and chilling.
First, the absurd. As is often the case with heavy-handed attempts at censorship, it’s not clear the Burisma story would’ve been anything but a blip had the companies not tried to suppress it. Now, as Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm put it, “everyone will be talking about the NY Post story for a week instead of a day.”
The companies’ reasoning is equally silly. The policy Twitter initially cited to block sharing of the Post article states that “you can’t directly distribute hacked materials” on the platform, but it’s not clear that the material was hacked. While the Times has reported that US intelligence analysts were warning in September that hacked Burisma e-mails would be leaked this month, according to the Post itself, the hard drive was copied by a computer repair store owner who was given the computer to fix, and who handed it to Giuliani, who then passed it on to the paper.
As for Facebook, it remains to be seen which of its “third-party fact-checking partners” will actually end up fact-checking the story. Will it be, for instance, conservative outlets Daily Caller or Weekly Standard, both of which have a history of weaving their right-wing politics into their fact-checking for the company, and the first of which is currently eagerly pushing stories about what’s in the hard drive? Or will Facebook not task them with the politically sensitive story, tacitly admitting the partisan, Republican-friendly outlets aren’t actually fit to judge the veracity of their stories?
Now for the chilling. The tech giants’ hostility to “hacked material” — mirrored by a similar rule put in place by both YouTube and Google — is enormously threatening to press freedom, given journalists’ reliance on unauthorized disclosures of information, and these tech monopolies’ own central role in modern news publishing.
As many pointed out after the news broke, if enforced consistently, this blanket policy would have hobbled countless important pieces of reporting, including the Panama Papers (allegedly); the Vaza Jato stories about Brazilian prosecutors’ politically motivated targeting of the country’s most popular left-wing politician; the stream of reporting on US atrocities and a host of other issues that have come from WikiLeaks disclosures; and the revelations in 2016 that the DNC had put its thumb on the scales against Bernie Sanders’ campaign that year.
In fact, if Twitter consistently enforces this much broader line it’s now taken — a prohibition on “content obtained without authorization” — that could be even more perilous for press freedom going forward. Publishing “content without authorization” is also known as journalism, and would encompass anything from celebrated reportage like the Pentagon Papers or the Snowden documents, to more recent leaks about Trump’s monstrous treatment of immigrants at the border and his use of federal police against nonviolent protesters.
Then there’s the matter of double standards. It was only last month the New York Times began its series of major exposés on Trump’s finances, based on tax returns that someone almost certainly broke a signed agreement, ethical rule, or even the law to get into the paper’s hands — content obtained without authorization, in other words.
Like Biden did for this Post report, Trump denied that particular story, calling it “totally fake news, made-up, fake.” Meanwhile, as some conservatives correctly pointed out, the Post story’s fate isn’t one that appears to have befallen the bogus nonsense of the Steele report, or any of the seemingly endless stream of stories, some of them embarrassingly retracted, suggesting or pretty much outright alleging that Trump has actually been doing the bidding of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
This double standard is particularly significant in light of Big Tech’s clear partisan preference for Democrats. Tech companies, executives, and employees tend to give more to Democrats, are overwhelmingly backing Biden over Trump in the election, have close ties to his running mate, are starting partisan news sites to get them elected, and hire liberally from the ranks of Democratic offices.
In fact, Facebook spokesperson Andrew Stone, who announced the company’s censorship of the story, is a longtime Democratic operative, having served as the spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and as press secretary for former Democratic senator Barbara Boxer once upon a time. It stretches credulity that all of that didn’t play a role in this decision.
Perhaps that won’t bother anyone remotely left of center today. If it means the end of Trump’s presidency, why should it matter?
But there will be many more elections to come, and none of them (let’s hope) will involve Trump versus Biden. Accepting Twitter and Facebook’s crossing of this line today — censoring a story damaging to the political prospects of the presidential candidate they favor — means accepting it in any future election scenario, whether at the presidential level or lower.
It’s not hard, for instance, to imagine a Democratic primary contest one day between a conservative, corporate-bankrolled candidate, and a progressive or left-wing insurgent who calls for the break-up or even nationalization of tech monopolies. If and when those companies use their power to stop the spread of a scandal damaging to the candidate they prefer in that contest, no one reading this will be cheering then.
Twitter and Facebook’s move here is the logical culmination of two Trump-era developments: media guilt over its critical coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which members of the press view as a prime reason for Trump’s victory that year; and the nonstop calls from Democrats and some journalists for tech monopolies to become censors, and block the spread of disinformation, “fake news,” or other objectionable content, no matter how loosely defined.
It’s the Biden-Burisma scandal today, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that anything from environmentalism to protesting racism can be Russian dezinformatsiya if the right people want it to be.
The Post story is by no means the first instance of tech censorship, but it is the most aggressive so far, and the most brazenly political. And unless we rein in the power of these tech giants, it’s going to end up being something even worse: normal.