From imagination to impact
Censoring the Biden story: How social media becomes state media
Chinese citizens watched President Xi Jinping deliver an important speech this week not far from Hong Kong. Well, not the whole speech: Xi apparently is ill, and every time he went into coughing spasms, China's state media cut away so that he would be shown only in perfect health.
Xi's coughs came to mind as Twitter and Facebook prevented Americans from being able to read the New York Post's explosive allegations of influence-peddling by Hunter Biden. The articles cited material reportedly recovered from a laptop; it purportedly showed requests for Hunter Biden to use his influence on his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, as well as embarrassing photos of Hunter Biden.
Many of us have questioned the sketchy details of how the laptop reportedly was left by Hunter Biden with a nearly blind computer repairman and then revealed just weeks before the presidential election. There are ample reasons to question whether this material was the product of a foreign intelligence operation, which the FBI apparently is investigating.
Yet the funny thing about kompromat - a Russian term for compromising information - is that often it is true. Indeed, it is most damaging and most useful when it is true; otherwise, you deny the allegations and expose the lie. Hunter Biden has yet to deny these were his laptop, his emails, his images. If thousands of emails and images were fabricated, then serious crimes were committed. But if the emails and images are genuine, then the Bidens appear to have lied for years as a raw influence-peddling scheme worth millions stretched from China to Ukraine to Russia. Moreover, these countries likely have had the compromising information all along while the Bidens - and the media - were denying reports of illicit activities.
Either way, this was major news.
The response of Twitter and Facebook, however, was to shut it all down. Major media companies also imposed a virtual blackout on the allegations. It didn't matter that thousands of emails were available for review or that the Bidens did not directly address the material. It was all declared to be fake news.
The tech companies' actions are an outrageous example of open censorship and bias. It shows how private companies effectively can become state media working for one party. This, of course, was more serious than deleting coughs, but it was based on the same excuse of "protecting" the public from distractions or distortions. Indeed, it was the realization of political and academic calls that have been building for years.
Democratic leaders from Hillary Clinton to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have long demanded such private censorship from social media companies, despite objections from some of us in the free speech community; Joe Biden himself demanded that those companies remove President Trump's statements about voting fraud as fake news. Academics have lined up to support calls for censorship, too. Recently, Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods called for Chinese-style internet censorship and declared that "in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong."
It turns out traditional notions of journalism and a free press are outdated, too, and China again appears to be the model for the future. Recently, Stanford communications Professor Emeritus Ted Glasser publicly denounced the notion of objectivity in journalism as too constraining for reporters seeking "social justice." In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Glasser insisted that journalism needed to "free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice." He said reporters must embrace the role of "activists" and that it is "hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity." Problem solved.
Such views make Twitter and Facebook's censorship of the Post not simply justified but commendable - regardless of whether the alleged Biden material proves to be authentic. As Twitter buckled under criticism of its actions, it shifted its rationale from combating fake news to barring hacked or stolen information. (Putting aside that the information allegedly came from a laptop, not hacking, this rule would block the public from reviewing any story based on, say, whistleblowers revealing nonpublic information, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate. Moreover, Twitter seemingly had no qualms about publishing thousands of stories based on the same type of information about the Trump family or campaign.) Twitter now says it will allow hacked information if not posted by the hacker.
Social media companies have long enjoyed protection, under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, from liability over what users post or share. The reason is that those companies are viewed as neutral platforms, a means for people to sign up to read the views or thoughts of other people. Under Section 230, a company such as Twitter was treated as merely providing the means, not the content. Yet for Twitter to tag tweets with warnings or block tweets altogether is akin to the telephone company cutting into a line to say it doesn't like what two callers are discussing.
Facebook and Twitter have now made the case against themselves for stripping social media companies of immunity. That would be a huge loss not only to these companies but to free speech as well. We would lose the greatest single advance in free speech via an unregulated internet.
At the same time, we are seeing a rejection of journalistic objectivity in favor of activism. The New York Times apologized for publishing a column by a conservative U.S. senator on using national guardsmen to quell rioting - yet it later published a column by a Chinese official called "Beijing's enforcer" who is crushing protests in Hong Kong. The media spent years publishing every wacky theory of alleged Trump-Russia collusion; thousands of articles detailed allegations from the Steele dossier, which has been not only discredited but also shown to be based on material from a known Russian agent.
When the Steele dossier was revealed, many of us agreed on the need to investigate because, even if it was the work of foreign intelligence, the underlying kompromat could be true. Today, in contrast, the media is not only dismissing the need to investigate the Biden emails, but ABC News's George Stephanopoulos didn't ask Biden about the allegations during a two-hour town hall event on Thursday.
This leaves us with a Zen-like question: If social media giants prevent the sharing of a scandal and the media refuses to cover it, did a scandal ever occur? After all, an allegation is a scandal only if it is damaging. No coverage, no damage, no scandal. Just deleted coughs lost in the ether of a controlled media and internet.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.