Where we go when we can’t depend on benevolent billionaires, and we sure as hell can’t depend on government protection of free speech.
Friday night, Author and Journalist Matt Taibbi laid out a massive tweet thread detailing what most of us already knew or suspected: Twitter has been censoring speech and even breaking news events at the behest of both left and right politicians for years.
This 37-tweet thread was based on information shared by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, in an attempt to create transparency concerning political bias and free speech.
While I do not see any specific smoking gun first amendment violations in the thread, Musk has announced that there will be much more to come. What I do see are top officials at Twitter willing to censor speech to further their own political agendas.
On OCT 14th, 2020, the New York Post published what we know as the Hunter Biden Laptop Story. Possible details found on the abandoned laptop included corruption between the Biden’s and China, numerous examples of drug use, nude photos, you name it. Generally not something you'd want to forget at a laptop repair shop.
The story was almost immediately marked as “unsafe,” links were removed from the site, the ability to share was removed, the New York Posts account was locked, and the story was even blocked from being shared via direct message, something Taibbi points out had only been reserved for extreme cases like child pornography.
Twitter’s initial excuse for censoring the story was a violation of their “hacked materials” policy. It was immediately pointed out that the excuse would not hold. Former Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth stated “The policy basis is hacked materials - though, as discussed, this is an emerging situation where the facts remain unclear. Given the SEVERE risks and lessons of 2016, we’re erring on the side of including a warning and preventing this content from being amplified.”
Former VP of Global Comms Brandon Borrman asked, “Can we truthfully claim that this is part of the policy?”
There was one semi-bright spot from the left on this matter, and that was Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna (someone with whom I disagree on nearly everything).
“This seems a violation of 1st amendment principles,” Representative Khanna wrote to Vijaya Gadde. “If there is a hack of classified information or other information that could expose a serious war crime and the NYT was to publish it, I think the NYT should have that right. A journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack. So to restrict the distribution of that material, especially regarding a Presidential candidate, seems not in the keeping of the principles of NYT v Sullivan. I say this as a total Biden partisan and convinced he didn't do anything wrong.
It also is now leading to serious efforts to curtail section 230 -many of which would have been a mistake. I believe Twitter itself should curtail what it recommends or puts in trending news, and your policy against QAnon groups is all good. It's a hard balance. But in the heat of a Presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if NY Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.”
While Taibbi did point out that requests to remove content came from both the left and right, including the “Biden Team” and the Trump White House, he was equally clear that an overwhelming majority of the censorship was “handled” on behalf of the left. After all, 98.47% of political donations from Twitter employees went to democrats.
It remains to be seen what the Trump White House requested Twitter to censor. On a legal/constitutional basis, that would be more concerning than acting on behalf of an unelected political candidate.
Until we see communications from (or on behalf of) those in a position of power, this should be seen as a major indictment on the old-regime at Twitter, and an opportunity to call for more transparency from our social media companies. Keep in mind that Twitter is a business run by human beings with political biases and personal agendas. We will likely never end personal biases affect on free speech, but it would be nice to know when it's happening. For right now we have that from Elon Musk, but the mission creep of safety will always pull in the direction of suppression.
We can’t depend on social media being run by benevolent billionaires, and we sure as hell can’t depend on the government to protect free speech. We can only depend on competition in the market, and the will of the users to demand the proper direction.
One thing that we will never know is the outcome of the 2020 election had this story been allowed to run its course. Several pollsters have concluded that anywhere between 4%-17% of Biden voters would have changed their votes had they known the details. It’s a big “what if,” but until Donald Trump invents a time machine all we can do is work towards a better, more transparent future.