Twitter's NYC HQ (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Social media hypocrisy has huge implications for liability

Social media’s ridiculous denial of partisan editing and publishing

Barack Obama has just prescribed “a combination of regulation and standards within industries to get us back to the point where we at least recognize a common set of facts.” He requires an Orwellian Ministry of Truth to make sure his chosen successors win elections: Hillary Clinton lost, he claims, because of misinformation that she was protecting a paedophile ring; and Joe Biden almost lost, he claims, because of a perception that he is socialist.

The “industries” that Obama wants to regulate are the social media companies and big-tech-owned newspapers that mostly refused to report negative stories about Clinton and Biden.

Twitter is enforcing its policies on what content is allowable

For instance, in April, The New York Times complied with the Biden campaign’s request to redact its report on an allegation of sexual assault against him. Most media followed suit. In mid-October, The New York Post (the only conservative paper in town) reported on Biden and son leveraging his vice-presidency to do business abroad. Most media outlets boycotted the story, while Twitter and Facebook locked The New York Post out of its accounts, and blocked and limited (respectively) any links to the story.

While Obama was telling untruths to Britain’s Ministry of Truth (the BBC), the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee was asking the chiefs of Twitter and Facebook to explain themselves.

The Republicans pressed a point whose significance is not obvious to laypersons, but could ruin social media impunity from civil liability for content. The Republicans are championing the view that social media companies are editors and thus publishers. Social media claim to be non-publishers, in which case they are not responsible for content. But if they are not responsible for content, why are they editing it? If they are responsible for content, they can be sued by the victims of defamatory and slanderous content, and by the victims of censorship.

Lindsey Graham (chair and Senator from South Carolina) told the company chiefs: “you’re the ultimate editor. The editorial decision by The New York Post to run the story was overridden by Twitter and Facebook in different fashion to prevent its dissemination.” The chiefs insist they are not editing, their errors are accidental, they are victims of their own policies, and they should be given more chance for “self-regulation.”

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, chose to appear by Zoom, wearing black, in front of white walls and white crockery, behind a Rasputin beard and a ring in his nose. He added to the mysticism by speaking with a soft croak and looking puzzled in various directions. His legal and policy advisers were off screen, researching, writing, and holding what he should say.

However, the leading Republicans on the Committee asked questions at a rate that forced Dorsey to blink and croak for himself. He made some admissions, then became incoherent and evasive (with a baseline of carelessness and defiance).

The most enlightening dialogue in more than four hours of testimony was led by Ted Cruz (from Texas). Dorsey defined Twitter as a “distributor of information.” Isn’t that a publisher? Dorsey defined a publisher as “an entity publishing under editorial guidelines and decisions.” Isn’t Twitter editing? No, says Dorsey. Twitter is enforcing its policies on what content is allowable.

Yet Twitter is making partisan decisions about content. What Twitter doesn’t censor it labels with information, or links to information, that Twitter declares is factual. Not all of this information that has been generated by users. All of it has been edited. Similarly, Facebook is posting “fact checked” information that has not been generated by users. They are publishing new content. They are publishers.

Social media companies are manipulating content for partisan objectives

The distinction between publisher and distributor might seem semantic, except that social media companies are using immunity from civil action over content while manipulating content for partisan objectives. These are the companies that are censoring the President of the United States, Republican representatives, conservative outlets, and their supporters, while censoring negative information about the Democratic Party and its increasingly radical influencers (including the violent protesters under the banner of Black Lives Matter).

Cruz cornered Dorsey for labelling Tweets expressing scepticism about electoral legitimacy with editorial statements about the rareness of electoral illegitimacy. Dorsey insisted Twitter was only linking to a “broader conversation,” while Cruz pointed out Twitter was adding labels that Twitter had written.

Cruz cleverly asked Dorsey whether he would add the same labels to statements from Jimmy Carter’s and James Baker’s bipartisan Commission on Electoral Reform (2004). Before he knew the source of what Cruz was reading, Dorsey admitted they would be labelled.

On the case of The New York Post, Dorsey admitted in his opening statement that Twitter’s treatment of the Hunter Biden story was wrong. “We made a quick interpretation using no other evidence that the materials were obtained through hacking,” which a policy from 2018 prohibits. But the story was not based on hacking. It was based on a computer hard drive that Hunter Biden had turned in for recycling, plus verbal testimony from associates.

Dorsey claimed that the decision was “corrected within 24 hours,” but contradicted himself in the next sentence. Twitter told The New York Post to delete the original Tweets before it could unblock its account. The New York Post demanded that the original Tweets should be released, given that Twitter’s claim of hacking is wrong. Thus, The New York Postremain blocked, more than two weeks after Twitter supposedly admitted its error.

Social media companies are constructing social amnesia

Dorsey’s explanation beggars belief. He claims Twitter had no “policy” for “retroactively” correcting a prior policy with a new policy. In October’s testimony, Dorsey denied he could do anything about it, and pivoted to how Twitter was educating the public before the election. Then he denied any influence on elections. He failed to explain himself, while Ted Cruz failed to let him finish. Then when the Chair insisted that Dorsey should have time to answer, Dorsey fixed his eyes on something to his lower right and stumbled over a statement about the need to show transparency and earn trust.

A few days later, Twitter suddenly retroactively unblocked The New York Post. Now, in his latest appearance, Dorsey claimed to have created a retroactivism policy that is “fair and transparent” and demonstrates how well Twitter “takes feedback.” But he didn’t specify any policy and moved on to boast about Twitter’s contribution of information useful to voters (i.e., as a publisher).

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, appeared in a shiny blue suit and tie, which accentuated his greyness above the neck. He answered every question with the following formula: “Senator,” pause to swallow and squint at something behind the camera, “I am not aware of that,” or “I do not know,” or “My team will follow up with you on that.”

Zuckerberg’s opening statement claimed to be committed to non-partisanship, “free expression,” and democracy, but also admitted “trade-offs.” Facebook posted its own election information site, he said, while censoring “misinformation,” “misleading claims,” and “conspiracy theories.” He used the words “transparency” and “trust,” without specifying any policies.

Amazingly, these multibillionaires, with their thousands of legal counsels and policy advisers, seemed unprepared for the inference that they are publishers. On the other hand, passivity and defiance make for an effective strategy, given a general media boycott of the hearings.

Josh Hawley (from Missouri) displayed screenshots of Facebook’s internal tools, provided by a whistle-blower, suggesting that the companies were colluding on policies and collecting private information across platforms (useful in shadow-cancelling opponents before they can become influential).  Zuckerberg claimed unfamiliarity. Hawley declared with practised exasperation: “It is always amazing to me, Mr. Chairman, how many people before this committee suddenly develop amnesia.”

Indeed: social media companies are constructing social amnesia about information harmful to their partisan causes, while pretending personal amnesia about what they’re doing.

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