The decision by Facebook and Twitter to block discussion of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden's emails during his work for a Ukrainian energy company has become a bigger story than the article itself.
George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley called the social media giants' decision to limit distribution of the story "perfectly Orwellian" and "quite chilling" for free speech. George Freeman, on the other hand, the executive director of Media Law Resource Center, called it "responsible" and long overdue.
Which is it?
The furious debate concerns allegations published by the Post that as vice president, Joe Biden, contrary to his claims, met with an adviser to Burisma, the Ukrainian company that employed his son Hunter.
First, let's separate the specific issue of whether Facebook and Twitter should have taken steps to block this story from the broader issue of whether social media companies, which in political shorthand are considered part of Big Tech, have too much power and discriminate against conservative views.
Yes, Facebook, Google, and Twitter undoubtedly have too much power. And yes, they have discriminated against conservative views (for instance, YouTube, which Google owns, has continued to block a video I recorded several years ago about whether we were "lied" into the war in Iraq. Censorship is indeed a slippery slope, particularly in democracies, which depend on an educated electorate and the free flow of ideas, however obnoxious those ideas may be.
And yes, Congress should move to limit Big Tech's monopoly power and its ability to limit or suppress debate, free expression and commerce after carefully considering whether proposed "fixes" would do more harm than good. On Tuesday, the Justice Department and several states filed a long-anticipated antitrust suit against Google, accusing the company of maintaining an illegal monopoly over online search and advertising.
Nevertheless, while I have not independently tried to verify the authenticity or provenance of the Post story or Twitter and Facebook's justifications for blocking it, I understand why most mainstream news organizations declined to publish the story as it initially appeared. I also believe that Twitter and Facebook acted responsibly, if too erratically in this case.
The Post story, if true, was explosive. It asserted that Joe Biden was lying when he claimed never to have discussed Ukraine or energy with his son Hunter or, as his campaign asserted, that he had not met with the Burisma executive named in the story. The Post quoted an email from Vadym Pozharskyi of Burisma thanking Hunter for having given him the "opportunity" and "spent (sic) time" with his father who as vice president was then handling Ukraine.
That email was one of 11,500 supposedly taken from a laptop that a computer repair shop owner in Delaware said may have belonged to Hunter Biden and had been left for more than 90 days at his shop. In a rambling, semi-coherent audio interview with another media outlet, the shop owner subsequently contradicted himself, said he couldn't be sure if it was Hunter Biden who had left with computer at his store (he is mostly blind), acknowledged that he supported Donald Trump, and added that he had been inspired to share the computer's contents after the FBI appeared not to have pursued the hard drive he gave them after having made a copy for himself. Since the paper published only screenshots of the emails, many computer experts noted that their provenance was impossible to verify on short notice or at all.
Second, the emails came to the Post via highly partisan and therefore questionable sources: the personal lawyer of Rudy Giuliani, who has spread several false conspiracy theories, and former White House adviser Stephen Bannon, who was arrested this summer and charged with fraud. The New York Times reported last January that Burisma had been hacked by the same Russian intelligence unit that had hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and had promoted the distribution of emails that had hurt Hilary Clinton's presidential bid. The Times also reported that U.S. intelligence officials had picked up "chatter" that stolen Burisma emails would be leaked as part of an election "October surprise." (Facebook, too, was alerted to the possibility of a hack.)
Several papers reported that U.S. intelligence sources warned the White House that Russia was trying to use Giuliani to plant disinformation about Biden. Obviously, any media outlet should have been worried that the leak might be part of a Russian pro-Trump disinformation campaign given Russia's 2016 hack and dump of Democratic emails, especially so close to a presidential election.
Another reason for skepticism was the recent report by Senate Republicans who had been investigating Hunter Biden's foreign business dealings; it concluded that while Hunter Biden had clearly "cashed in" on his father name and position to get his Burisma job, there was no evidence of wrongdoing or improper influence by then-Vice President Joe Biden with respect to his son's business dealings.
True, Biden's campaign did not help its candidate by its non-denial denial to the Post story. A senior Biden campaign official said there was "no indication at all" that the meeting had occurred, then that it wasn't on Biden's calendar (lots of meetings weren't) and that even if it had been held, Biden "would not have discussed Burisma." Candidate Biden, moreover, could have flatly denied the report at his town hall broadcast had he been asked about it. He wasn't, but he should have been.
Given the proximity to the election, the questionable nature of the story and its sourcing, and its potentially damaging impact on the Biden campaign, Facebook and Twitter were within their rights to try to limit its distribution until they or other publishers could independently verify its provenance. Increasingly alarmed by how their platforms have been manipulated to affect elections and stoke social discord and even violence, both have recently taken steps to prevent the spread of false information on their sites. Facebook, for instance, recently barred groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy group QAnon and announced it was suspending political advertising shortly before the election.
Some of their efforts may turn out to have been missteps or downright overkill. As Robby Soave of Reason magazine argued in a recent posting, Twitter went too far in blocking the posts of journalists who initially shared the Post story, if only to criticize it. Days later under Republican pressure, Twitter flip-flopped and reversed its ban on links to the story, vowing instead to add warning labels. Such labels have still not appeared.
But the impulse to stop the spread of violence-inducing or "fake news," as President Trump calls, it, however belated, was not misplaced. Facebook and Twitter are no longer simply neutral platforms and should stop pretending to be. They are increasingly publishers — content providers of real and occasionally phony news. And at this stage, they should be just as subject to civil and legal punishment whenever they knowingly distributing libelous, slanderous, or violence-inducing material as the newspapers and broadcasters whose content they steal.
I am a steadfast, vocal opponent of government censorship. But even the First Amendment is not unlimited. Just as no one has the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater if there is no fire, Facebook and Twitter and other private publishers do not have an obligation to post incendiary material they believe to be false. This is not censorship; it is responsible behavior. As private companies, even with Congressionally given protections that need reviewing, they have the right to decide what appears on their networks.
Those rules, however, should be clear and consistent. They are not.
Finally, contrary to Trump's claims, the mainstream media did not ignore the Hunter Biden emails. They attempted to verify their authenticity, published assessments that raised questions about their provenance and veracity — including news that a veteran reporter at the New York Post who had worked on the story refused to put his byline on it given his reservations about it — and decided that given the existence of so many red flags, the story was too problematic to disseminate.
They also decided that the email messages did not prove that candidate Joe Biden, as opposed to his sleazy, desperate son, had done anything illegal or unethical. Americans are already well aware of Hunter Biden's myriad financial and substance abuse problems.
Finally, we must not forget this overriding fact: Both Twitter and Facebook have permitted Trump for four years to publish literally thousands of lies, slanders and questionable materials that have contributed to chaos and social discord in the land. No one has figured out to stop the spread of such vile without endangering free speech. But if Facebook and Twitter, however belatedly, want to stop being the messenger of such false, or dangerous news, more power, if not monopoly power, to them.