Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have suddenly switched sides. Not so long ago, the three social media giants let their users do their thing at the end of the longest of leashes, allowing them to post almost anything that wasn’t criminal or didn’t violate copyright. But over the past year especially, the Big Three have deployed policies and rules to more aggressively block content they find objectionable or dangerous.
At the beginning of the week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who had previously resisted policing political speech, announced his site would prohibit content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust.” On Wednesday, Twitter landed hard on a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s role as a go-between, allegedly connecting his father, Joe Biden, to a Ukrainian businessman, locking many accounts that posted links to the story or posted images of hacked materials. Over at Google-owned YouTube, executives issued a Thursday proclamation that’s aimed to throttle videos, as a company release put it, from “certain conspiracy theories that are used to justify real-world violence, like QAnon.”
Many liberal/truthsquad types praised the sites for finally taking misinformation seriously. Conservatives, on the other hand, decried a lockdown specifically aimed at them, one that arrived suspiciously close to the election. Nearly every critic, of whom there are tens or hundreds of millions, takes for granted that the platforms have unmatched reach and resources. But can they really take this one on? Have they bitten off more than they can chew? Can they even digest half of what they’ve swallowed?
These initiatives don’t mark the first attempts by social media companies to restrict the more outré examples of political speech from the web. Twitter, whose former CEO once claimed his company was “the free speech wing of the free-speech party,” has locked President Donald Trump’s account for sharing the email address of a columnist and added several warning notices to his tweets for things like claiming that Covid-19 is just like the flu and glorifying violence. Facebook has deleted what it considers Trump’s false claims about Covid-19. And YouTube has squelched Trump campaign ads. But with the election a little more than a fortnight away, they do signal an activist stance by the companies to temper the spread of the sort of disinformation that some believe changed the course of the 2016 election.
The task the companies appear to be carving out for themselves is beyond Sisyphean. Twitter hosts a half-billion new tweets each day. YouTube has logged 2.2 quadrillion video views so far this year. Every 20 minutes, Facebook users share 1 million links. There aren’t enough moderators or an algorithm smart enough to keep tabs on all of these accounts, so the best the social media operations can hope to accomplish is to pretend they’re resisting the incoming tide, not stopping it. For instance, Facebook admitted that while it will police statements about the Holocaust, the new policy won’t apply to the Armenian and Rwandan genocides. Likewise, Twitter affirmed that while it will suppress direct links to the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story, it will make no effort to stifle conversations or arguments that don’t link to personal and private information—or “hacked” material—contained in the story. That QAnon ban at YouTube isn’t really a ban, either. It only applies to videos that might justify or encourage violence.
If the social media companies are engaged in a Potemkin Village exercise, for whose benefit is the elaborate staging? Without question, the social media companies have every right to set rules for their sites, just as newspapers, TV networks, and bookstores have every right to determine what they find fit to purvey. (When was the last time you found a work of Holocaust revisionism in your local Barnes & Noble?) But as much as these companies worry about what users think, what really drives them is how their true customers—advertisers—react. Any time a big advertiser complains, the social media companies take notice, just as newspapers did back in the olden times when newspapers were the go-to venue for ads. Anger one social media user and you might lose him. Anger an advertiser—or make him feel uncomfortable because his content is adjacent to outrageous material—and you risk your bottom line.
The other intended audience might be the Democrats who, if you believe the polls and the chatter, are about to the beneficiaries of an electoral mudslide of gooey and gigantic proportions. The Democrats have been threatening the tech giants with anti-trust action and regulation and calling for the revocation of Section 230 because the social media companies are “propagating falsehoods they know to be false,” as their standard-bearer Joe Biden put it. What better way to get on the Democrats’ better side by making the right reformist (if ultimately meaningless) gestures just before a new government forms? Insurance policies this good don’t come any cheaper.
The social media companies have also displayed their timidity by going after vile and deranged movements. Few people in their right minds subscribe to the QAnon delusions or to Holocaust revisionism, so it’s safe to blue-pencil them out. To moderate Trump takes little courage—he’s been taunting the referees for all four quarters of his presidency. If we really want to grant social media to ban and police all outrageous thought, it won’t be long until somebody asks them to suppress the work of contentious thinkers like the late Christopher Hitchens, who called for Henry Kissinger to be jailed for war crimes. If Twitter is determined to keep stolen and hacked materials from being shared on its site, is it prepared to delete all the links to the stolen DNC emails in 2016? If it turns out the Trump tax returns the New York Times recently reported on were originally stolen, as Ross Barkan notes, would Twitter have to expunge links to those stories? Or will it give a pass to high-status publications and authors? The slope the social media companies have stepped onto is very slippery.
As much as I like to box the ears of the social media companies, it seems like the real villain of the week is not Twitter but the mendacious New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s purveyor of dirty tricks and half-baked journalism. Instead of whipping on Twitter, we should be giving it to the New York Post for publishing its half-baked story. As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler points out, the New York Post story alleges no wrongdoing by Joe Biden. The computer at the center of the story may or may not have belonged to Biden’s son, Hunter, and it was delivered to the newspaper by Trump ally and attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been under federal investigation for his work in Ukraine. It’s such a shoddy work of journalism that in a sane world we wouldn’t be arguing over whether Twitter was right or wrong to suppress the link to it but how and why the New York Post stooped below its usual standards to publish it.
But instead of ruing the existence of the New York Post, perhaps we should celebrate it. As playwright Tom Stoppard has noted, the existence of such “junk journalism” affirms not the decline of a free press but its health by declaring that nobody has the power “to dictate where responsible journalism begins.” We stand on dangerous ground when we allow governments to intervene to “protect” us from bad and dangerous words and thought. The only thing worse would be to encourage social media companies to do the same.
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