Press freedom advocates and progressive journalists continued to sound the alarm Thursday following moves by both Twitter and Facebook to ban or restrict sharing of controversial New York Post reporting published earlier this week that claimed to uncover new details about the past work of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, based on emails and documents supposedly found by a computer repairman on an abandoned laptop and then given to Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal attorney.
"Now everyone will be talking about the NY Post story for a week, instead of a day."
—Trevor Timm, Freedom of the Press FoundationAs the Guardian reports:
In an unprecedented step against a major news publication, Twitter blocked users from posting links to the Post story or photos from the unconfirmed report. Users attempting to share the story were shown a notice saying: "We can't complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful." Users clicking or retweeting a link already posted to Twitter are shown a warning the "link may be unsafe."
Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Intercept, was among those critics Wednesday who said that while the reporting may itself have little or no merit, the decision by Twitter to block users' ability to share the Post's article—and to shut down the right-wing newspaper's main Twitter account—was a counterproductive and troubling move with long-term implications that should not be overlooked.
"This whole thing is an absolute gift to the right wing. It was a garbage story that wasn't going anyway, just showed Hunter doing the corruption we know about," Grim argued in a tweet. "Now the right will use this censorship to further delegitimize the election."
Folks cheering this have the ability to see about 2 inches in front of their face. https://t.co/jDl3R3GjZr
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) October 14, 2020
Right on cue late Thurdsay morning, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas were among those charging that Twitter and Facebook, by their actions against the Post's story, were guilty of rigging the election in favor of the Democrats.
Cruz standing back there like the bouncer https://t.co/TGVcKfg7Jh
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) October 15, 2020
Grim's colleague at The Intercept, co-founder Glenn Greenwald, also let loose with his criticisms in a series of tweets Wednesday and again Thursday morning. For his part, in addition to other implications, Greenwald warned that all kinds of crucial reporting based on "unauthorized materials" would be in future jeopardy if such a policy by powerful media platforms was to remain unchallenged.
Look carefully at what Twitter is saying to justify censoring the Biden story. If applied consistently, it’d mean that some of history’s most consequential journalism — the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks’ war logs, Snowden docs, Panama Papers, our Brazil Archive — would be banned. pic.twitter.com/pQziZr1qwT
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 15, 2020
As one user said in response to Grim's tweet, the policy is not likely to maintain its aim only at reported pieces by right-wing outfits like the NY Post. "Today it was New York Post," the user said, "tomorrow it'll be Jacobin."
Greenwald also condemned self-identified liberals who were applauding Twitter's moves seemingly based on the sole fact that the actions were taken against a right-wing paper that published a story potentially damaging to Democrats. Such applause, he warned, misses the bigger implications of powerful tech corporations in the era of social media having such outsized impact on the public's ability to access information.
"Amazing how liberals are now full-on free market libertarians—let large corporations do whatever they want!—and have no understanding of or interest in monopoly power," Greenwald said.
While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday came forth to say that the company's handling of the story was "unacceptable," the fault he articulated was not the blocking of content itself but that the "communications around our actions... was not great."
Weighing in on the debate Thursday morning, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who serves the district representing Silicon Valley, said he believed critics like Grim and Greenwald are making valid points but added that he still has questions about where the line should be drawn by platforms like Twitter or Facebook on so-called illegally obtained materials.
The twitter policy is over broad. The cases @ggreenwald and @ryangrim cite show the dangers. But genuinely asking on where the line is. Let’s say someone breaks into a home and steals info about a private citizen. A journalist has a right to publish, but should they? https://t.co/TCx1TOR1eR
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) October 15, 2020
In direct response to Khanna's posted concerns and questions, Greenwald wrote: "That one can imagine a case where Facebook or Twitter validly block content—publication of the address or nude photos of a private citizen taken without consent—doesn't justify the broad rule Twitter invoked or repression of this story about the Bidens."
Meanwhile, Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, argued that the problem with Twitter's actions has nothing to do with how the company has communicated its reasoning. Similar to Greenwald, Timm warned such a policy—taken to its logical conclusion—would have woeful impacts on free speech and investigative journalism efforts like the Panama Papers project in 2016 which used internal documents—leaked or hacked or otherwise obtained—that exposed a global network of offshore banking operations and money laundering.
"No one really knows for sure, but there was a lot of speculation that the Panama Papers were hacked and then given to journalists," tweeted Timm. "Should Twitter wipe out all those old links too?"
To everyone telling me, "it's not because they were hacked!": Twitter itself is saying they are blocking links to the NY Post story because they refer to hacked material. https://t.co/thDn5YR6SX
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) October 14, 2020
Timm lamented that Twitter's decision will only serve to increase interest in the story—a dynamic that could be considered a backfire, especially if the nature or content of the reporting is, in fact, dubious.
"Now everyone will be talking about the NY Post story for a week instead of a day," Timm tweeted Wednesday night.