Facebook and Twitter's Intervention Highlights Dangerous New Double Standard

The decision to ban a New York Post expose about Hunter Biden flies in the face of years of "hack and leak" stories

On Wednesday, the New York Post released what they claimed was “smoking gun” evidence of corruption involving Hunter Biden, troubled son of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The “blockbuster” had a controversial provenance. A computer repair shop in Delaware reportedly came to possess a laptop belonging to the younger Biden. According to the Post, it contained a treasure trove of Republican oppo, including videos of the younger Biden smoking crack and having sex, and emails from a Ukrainian businessman pleading with Hunter to use connections to help the corrupt energy firm Burisma escape a shakedown.

Later, the Burisma exec appeared to thank the younger Biden for an introduction to his father. The Post strongly suggested that these emails, in conjunction with the well-known tale of Joe Biden demanding the ouster of then-General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, represented a misuse of influence.

Soon after the story was published, we were hit with a stunner: two major tech platforms, Twitter and Facebook, took third-world style steps to limit the distribution of the story. Facebook announced that it was slowing the article’s spread on its news feed via a tweet from Andy Stone, a Facebook employee whose previous jobs included handling communications for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and for Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer:

Twitter’s response was more extreme. It allowed the story to reach #3 on its list of Trending topics before blocking it as “potentially unsafe,” preventing anyone, even the author of the piece, from sharing it. It then took the extraordinary step of locking the account of the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McInany, explaining in a series of tweets that the story had been halted for several reasons, including on the grounds that the materials had been hacked.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey seemed torn about his company’s decision:

A day later, facing intense public pressure and threats of Senate inquiry, the company relented and said it would change its policy. Twitter’s legal chief, the New York Times said, was worried that the firm “could end up blocking content from journalists,” implying that it hadn’t already done just that. The company said it would henceforth allow similar content to be shared, affixed to a label about the source of the information.

The intervention by the two platforms resulted in a predictable Streisand effect, in which an effort to censor results instead in increased attention. Conservatives lost their minds; Ted Cruz described the platforms’ actions as “actively interfering in an election”; The Hill called it a “Declaration of War”; Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn used the word “despicable”:

The near-universal reaction among mainstream press outlets, meanwhile, was to denounce the Post story as dangerous, and probably foreign, misinformation. The expose “rings all the foreign-disinformation alarms in the book,” said Axios. “[Rudy Giuliani] and the New York Post Are Pushing Russian Disinformation,” sneered Mother Jones, the publication which introduced the raunchiest parts of the unverified Steele Dossier to the American public. “B.S. Ukraine Smear,” chirped Salon.

Of the outlets who bothered to cover the story, nearly all of them weighed it not according to its truth or untruth, but in terms of its potential impact on the coming presidential election. A New York Times headline was typical of the attitude of the “reputable” press toward this story:

Times writer Kevin Roose noted that “politicians and pundits” have hoped for a stronger response from tech firms ever since “Russian hackers and Wikileaks” injected “stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign” into the public discourse in the last election cycle.

“Since 2016,” he wrote, “lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services.”

Roose neglected to mention that the “stolen emails” in 2016 were real, and not “false or misleading misinformation.” That they may have damaged the Democratic Party was not great for them, but as Bill Clinton-appointed federal judge John Koeltl ruled in the Democrats’ failed lawsuit against Wikileaks, the Trump campaign, and Russia, those documents were of “public concern” and therefore protected by the First Amendment:

The only thing that should matter, when it comes to stories like this, is whether or not the material is true and in the public interest. This disturbing new confederation of media outlets and tech firms is rewriting that standard.

The optics of a former Democratic Party spokesman suddenly donning a Facebook official’s hat to announce a ban of a story damaging to Democrats couldn’t be worse. Moreover, the Orwellian construct described in papers like the Times suggests that for tech executives, pundits, and Democratic Party officials alike, the lines between fake news and bad news, between actual misinformation and information that is merely politically adverse, have been blurred. It’s no longer clear that some of these people see a meaningful distinction between the two ideas.

The public can’t help but see this. While papers like the Times denounce the true Podesta emails as “misinformation,” and Facebook says the New York Post story must be kept out of sight until verified, the standard for, say, the Steele dossier was and is opposite. In that case, we were told “raw intelligence” should be published so that “Americans can make up their own minds” about information that, while “salacious and unverified,” may still be freely read on Twitter and Facebook, reported on in the New York Times and Washington Post, and talked about on NBC, so long as it has not been completely “disproven.”

As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post points out, even that last point is no longer true, but the Steele dossier and plenty of other products of what Axios calls “hack and leak” journalism continue to be embraced and freely distributed. The obvious double-standard guarantees that the tech platforms will henceforth be viewed by a huge portion of the population as political censors instead of standards enforcers, and moreover that mainstream press pronouncements about such controversies will be deemed automatically untrustworthy by that same population.

A secondary problem involves the Hunter Biden/Ukraine story itself, which from the start teetered on conflicting narratives.

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