Twitter and Facebook in censorship row

Biden and son: In one email it is claimed Hunter (right) said a lucrative deal would be “interesting for my family”.

Should social media sites decide what news we read? Some argue that they play a key role in suppressing fake news – but others fear giving them too much power over the information we access.

It all started with an email. Just five sentences long, it seems innocent enough: one businessman inviting another for coffee in Washington DC. Yet within minutes of its publication by the New York Post on Wednesday, it was at the centre of a political storm.

What makes it explosive is a casual phrase at the beginning: “thank you for inviting me to DC and giving [me] an opportunity to meet your father.”

The email is from Vadym Pozharskyi, a prominent Ukrainian businessman, and it is addressed to Hunter Biden, younger son of presidential candidate Joe Biden. Critics have alleged that while Biden was vice-president of the USA, Hunter used his father’s influence to make business deals in Ukraine – which would be a form of corruption. The New York Post claims that the email is proof of this.

Biden’s campaign has stated that the meeting in question never took place, and the candidate’s defenders have suggested that the email may be fabricated.

But it is the response of the social media giants that has caused the most controversy. After the New York Post article appeared, both Facebook and Twitter immediately limited its circulation. Twitter even banned users from tweeting the link to the piece, and locked the New York Post’s account for almost 24 hours.

This quick response contrasts with a notably sluggish reaction yo other misinformation. Social media platforms have been used to spread an array of conspiracies, notably over the origins of Covid-19, with little interference by moderators.

Some people, especially Republican Party figures, have reacted furiously to what they see as an effort to squash a story that could damage Biden’s campaign.

Facebook insisted that it had a duty to restrict access to the article until it could fact-check its content. Twitter, meanwhile, claimed that the piece had been suppressed under a policy that bans information obtained by hacking.

But journalist Glenn Greenwald argues that Facebook should not be responsible for fact-checking the work of journalists. And he points out that important news stories like the Pentagon Papers have been obtained by hacking. Banning the use of hacked materials would stifle vital journalism. Greenwald accuses both companies of operating a kind of censorship.

These platforms have enormous influence over the news we consume: in 2018, a survey found that 43% of Americans get their news from Facebook, and 12% from Twitter.

Some argue that it is dangerous to give social media companies so much power over the distribution of news. Twitter is mostly owned by big investment banks. Few believe that these organisations have the public interest at heart.

However, most traditional media companies are also owned by billionaires. The New York Post is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Some suggest that since Murdoch is no more interested in the public good than Twitter’s owners, there is no reason why social media should let his outlets spread misinformation freely.

So, should social media sites decide what news we read?

Gentle giants?

Yes, say some. They argue that Twitter and Facebook play a vital role in ensuring that people are not misinformed. If they do not take action against untrue stories, then fake news will spread online and influence people’s votes. Twitter may be run by self-interested billionaires, but so are most newspapers; social media can therefore act as a counterweight to big news organisations.

Not at all, say others. They claim that people must be allowed to make up their own minds: Twitter has no right to decide that some information is “bad for them”. And they point out that, unlike newspapers, social media giants have monopoly power: if people are unhappy with what one newspaper publishes they can start reading another, whereas there are no alternative social media sites that have any clout.

You Decide

  1. Is it right for some people to decide what others are allowed to know?
  2. What conditions would have to exist to allow completely free speech?

Activities

  1. Design the front page of your own newspaper. Give it a name, then decide where your images and text should go.
  2. How should Facebook and Twitter determine what content is suppressed and what is allowed to stay up? Draw up your own brief set of guidelines for moderating Facebook posts or tweets.

Some People Say...

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Virginia Woolf, (1882–1941), English author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that censorship, whether private or public, tends to crush artistic and individual creativity. In his famous essay On Liberty, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that when speech and expression are restricted, the mind also becomes less free and original. He claimed that suppressing ideas, even mostly false ones, always kills truth.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over how free speech is actually to be practised. Even Mill recognised that people must be prevented from saying things that would substantially harm the public. Some have claimed that libel cases are often an attack on free speech, but others insist that there must be accountability for the things that people say – even if they are not prevented from saying them. Some suggest that free speech is impossible because every society always elevates some opinions over others.

Word Watch

New York Post
One of the USA’s oldest newspapers, it was created in 1801 by Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. For most of the twentieth century it was a centre-left outlet, but after it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1976, it turned into a conservative tabloid.
Ukrainian
Ukraine is an eastern European country that borders Russia. The country was part of the Soviet Union until it became independent in 1991. In recent years it has come into conflict with Russia, which seized parts of its territory in 2014.
Corruption
The use of political power for individual gain. It is regarded as a breach of trust between the people and their representatives, and widespread corruption usually undermines the legitimacy of a state.
Republican Party
Also known as the Grand Old Party or GOP, it is one of the USA’s two major political parties. Its first president was Abraham Lincoln. It sits on the right of the political spectrum.
Pentagon Papers
A dossier published in the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 that proved that the US state had lied to the public and to Congress about its involvement in the Vietnam War.
Investment banks
Banks that offer financial advice and support to large companies. They have been criticised for engaging in reckless behaviour that causes economic damage: several were implicated in the financial crisis of 2008.
Rupert Murdoch
An Australian businessman who has amassed a vast media empire since the 1970s. He has been accused of using the media outlets he controls to further his own business interests.

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