As a general rule, Journalists are not so precious about anything as they are about the freedom of the press. Tune into coverage of the war in Ukraine, for example, and you’ll find it hard to go twenty minutes without some reference being made by a television presenter to the “brave and vital work of Journalists on the ground”. The Fox News crew – including Irishman Pierre Zakrzewski, who lost his life – who were attacked in the conflict became international news, though, in the great scheme of things, their suffering is no greater than that of thousands of other civilians. The usual disposition of the media is that anything that threatens the freedom of the media is an existential and unprecedented threat.
So it is a surprise, then, that Twitter has largely managed to escape mainstream criticism for the disgraceful attack on the freedom of the press which we now know for a fact that it carried out during the 2020 American Presidential Election.
A brief recap for the uninitiated, from 2020:
Facebook and Twitter took action on Wednesday to limit the distribution of New York Post reporting with unconfirmed claims about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, leading President Trump’s campaign and allies to charge the companies with censorship.
Both social media companies said the moves were aimed at slowing the spread of potentially false information. But they gave few details about how they reached their decisions, sparking criticism about the lack of clarity and consistency with which they apply their rules.
The story was simple: The New York Post – America’s oldest tabloid newspaper – reported that it had obtained a laptop once owned by then-candidate Biden’s troubled son, Hunter, which had been abandoned in a repair shop in Delaware. They reported that this laptop contained a series of documents which potentially indicated that the younger Biden had been seeking to profit from his relationship with his father, and perhaps, to sell access to his father.
This, it is worth noting, was not a post on an anonymous blog. It did not come from a screaming right wing partisan website. It was a story in a major newspaper, under the byline of an established journalist.
And yet Twitter, and Facebook, decided to block access to it, and limit distribution. They even went so far as to lock the New York Post out of its own twitter account, accusing the newspaper of disseminating misinformation.
We now know for a fact that the story was true. Here is the New York Times:
People familiar with the investigation said prosecutors had examined emails between Mr. Biden, Mr. Archer and others about Burisma and other foreign business activity. Those emails were obtained by The New York Times from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop. The email and others in the cache were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation.
The facts here are relatively straightforward, and not in dispute. They are as follows:
- In the heat of an American Presidential campaign, a newspaper published a story potentially harmful to one candidate
- The two largest social media companies, Facebook and Twitter, then blocked that story from being circulated, and sanctioned the newspaper which reported it.
- The story was, in fact, true, and now forms part of a criminal investigation into the President’s son.
This is a straightforward case of two major companies using their power to attack and restrict the freedom of the press during an election. It is also not hard to divine a motive: Both companies are largely staffed by people who clearly preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The story from the New York Post harmed their preferred candidate. And so, they called it fake news and suppressed it.
The shocking thing here is not that this happened at all: It is that the thing having happened, there is next to no anger about it from mainstream journalists. The precedent that has been set here is that major social media companies could, potentially, take the scoop of their lives, call it fake news, and limit the number of people who read it. Twitter and Facebook have essentially and openly established a veto over what can and may be reported. If they will do this in an American Presidential Election, why on earth wouldn’t they do it in a smaller country, like Ireland?
Of course, journalists are in a bind: Speak to them privately about this story and you will, no doubt, find real discomfort with what occurred. But speaking out about it necessarily involves saying that it was wrong to censor a story which might have helped get Donald Trump, of all people, re-elected. And, really, what’s freedom of the press, in the larger scheme of things, compared to the risk of Trump?
That, sadly, is how many progressives think about these things. It is, undoubtedly, how Twitter and Facebook think about them: The truth is not so important, these days, as the larger truth. The larger truth is that Biden is better than Trump, and therefore the actual truth on minor matters – like whether Biden’s son is corrupt – is not as important.
We are living through a toxic combination of two phenomena: On the one hand, a growing progressive cultural imperialism which is hostile to its opponents and regards opposition (almost all opposition) as secretly in service of a mythical “far right”. And on the other hand, a massive expansion of corporate power over speech which enables “dangerous” and “extremist” views to be suppressed – even if they come from established newspapers.
The sad truth is that in an environment like this, nobody’s career is advanced by calling out misbehaviour on their own “side”. And since most journalists have a clear identification with a “side”, stories like this remain confined to websites like Gript, and channels like Fox News.
But eventually, there is going to be a reckoning. Or, perhaps, since Trump already won once, we should say “another” reckoning.