PIRATE WIRES #17 // Zen and the Art of Political Censorship

jack dorsey's disaster, the new york post in limbo, election interference?, measuring truth, and tech braces for impact

The New York Post has been locked out of Twitter for six days.

Fact check: we’re screwed. Last week, a small handful of leaders at just two companies challenged journalism at the conceptual level, potentially interfered with the U.S. presidential election, proved to half the country a grim and longly-held suspicion — that Silicon Valley is both capable of, and committed to mass political censorship — and placed in serious jeopardy the entire technology industry. Not just Twitter. Not just social media companies. The entire industry. Wednesday, Andy Stone, a communications director for Facebook and former Democratic Party operative with his partisan background insanely included in his Twitter bio, made an announcement: a breaking story on Joe and Hunter Biden from the New York Post would have its distribution reduced while “third-party fact-checkers” judged the veracity of the Post’s claims. In other words, the story was “fake.” Immediately following Facebook, Twitter escalated to an absolutely insane level, blocking all links to the story sent publicly as well as privately via direct messaging, and shutting down every account that shared screenshots of the offending material, including accounts belonging to the U.S. Press Secretary and the New York Post. But according to Twitter, the veracity of the Post’s claims was not the issue. The offending material was “content obtained without authorization.” There was concern the emails published by the Post were stolen from Hunter Biden. In other words, the story was “true.”

Happy Tuesday, folks, and welcome back to discourse Hell.

Last Wednesday, the New York Post alleged “smoking gun” evidence of corruption, reporting that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, introduced his father to an executive at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company where Hunter reportedly held a board seat for $50,000 a month. Then Biden, while serving as Vice President, pressured the Ukrainian government into firing a prosecutor investigating that same company. For good measure, editors of the Post mentioned a drug-fueled Hunter Biden sex tape in their story, and included a picture of Hunter smoking crack. According to the Post, the emails, with all the evidence of illicit sex and drug abuse, were obtained from what was allegedly Hunter Biden’s laptop, which was brought to a shop maybe or maybe not by Hunter himself for repair, never paid for, and ultimately seized by the FBI. The owner gave a copy of the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani. Rudy gave a copy to the Post. Shortly after publication, The Washington Post ran an analysis of The New York Post’s allegations. WaPo pointed out, in the first place, their reporters couldn’t independently verify that the Hunter Biden emails were authentic. They further reported that Joe Biden’s team denied the meeting ambiguously alluded to in the Hunter emails ever took place, though his team notably fell short of saying the emails were fake. Importantly, per deeper look at the clusterfuck Twitter response, WaPo also noted that while Biden did press for the Ukrainian prosecutor to be fired, it was because the Ukrainian prosecutor was himself corrupt, and basically everyone involved in the drama, from the Ukrainian government to the international community, wanted the man gone.

Okay, I really do not care about this story. Where did that computer come from? Let’s be real, it would not be hard to secure a sex tape of Hunter Biden, or a picture of the man smoking crack. That’s not proof of anything other than that material is out there, which we all know, and which doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you? Hunter isn’t running for president. But that Biden’s team didn’t deny the veracity of the emails connecting the Vice President to Burisma? I don’t love that. Still, as The Washington Post argues, the emails are kind of unclear, and we have no hard evidence that the meeting — ambiguously alluded to — ever took place, which is actually the crux of the issue. It’s clear that even were the Hunter Biden emails verified beyond doubt, editors at The Washington Post would simply disagree with editors at the New York Post about what the emails mean. This is exactly the kind of story that cripples us in 2020: two interpretations of available fragments of information framed as two “truths” on some highly contentious, politically charged issue. There can obviously not be “two truths,” so someone must be lying. Right? But when you really dig into the story, it’s just… complicated. The only thing I know for sure is Facebook and Twitter — not the media, not the government — are responsible for the information disaster that followed, and Jack Dorsey is the clear winner of this week’s dunce cap. Congratulations, Jack.

After blocking The New York Post’s story and locking the accounts of everyone trying to share it, Twitter stickied The Washington Post’s analysis to trending topics, and incorrectly summarized that analysis as “according to The Washington Post, then-Vice President Biden played no role in pressuring Ukraine officials into firing the prosecutor.” This piece of information, published directly by Twitter, is at the time of my writing this wire the only piece of objectively inaccurate information I could find in this entire saga, and it was pushed to tens of millions of people.   

We are two weeks from a national election.

The failure of the technology industry here is enormous, and multi-faceted. First, there’s the maddening, indefensible act of censorship, argued from two opposing directions, with close to no transparency into the decision-making process from either company, and no coherent rule for the future. There’s also the obvious sense of partisanship on the technology platforms where much of our democracy is now conducted, but in the case of Twitter this was further complicated by that company’s spreading actual misinformation and, separately, invoking a rule that has clearly and recently not been followed for stories targeting our current, Republican President. That rule — on sharing information without authorization — has since been reversed, as has Twitter’s position on the original, offending story, which can now be shared. Meanwhile, The New York Post remains locked out of its Twitter account for failure to delete tweets no longer in violation of Twitter’s rules. And folks in media? The professional talking people who should, presumably, care about this?

Oh, you sweet summer child.

I’m pretty sure Casey Newton just said this made him… happy. In fact, he appears to be taking credit for this historic act of censorship. But for the moment, let’s keep our focus on the industry responsible for last week’s disaster.

If “truth” is apparent, and all panicked discussion of such things much ado about nothing, why is setting rules concerning truth so difficult? My sense is, as demonstrated by the ongoing Post disaster, we’re not often talking about what is or isn’t true, we’re talking about what is or isn’t a fair interpretation of reality. Interpretation concerns questions of language, which is imprecise, intent, which is often ambiguous, and meaning, which is highly subjective. Here, we descend tribally into our various corners of political culture, with our competing reams of “facts,” almost always in conflict, held out before us for ideological combat. We charitably interpret the words of perceived tribal members, while ascribing worst possible meaning to every word uttered by perceived tribal rivals. This is human nature, an information gathering impulse rooted in group identity that has persisted for even longer than the wisest among us have debated questions like “what is true,” which has by the way been parsed for literally thousands of years. As if our innate connect between identity and information wasn’t dangerous enough, the nature of social media means we can now see how fast stories are being shared, including stories framed in ways we find dishonest, and the number of people reading those stories — a precise number, often growing before our eyes, of people who aren’t like us. This is an isolating, frightening experience, and when people are frightened they run or they fight.

On the internet, there’s nowhere to run.

An overwhelming majority of people will never agree on a single interpretation of reality. Arbitrating such interpretations is therefore something companies like Facebook and Twitter have historically attempted, however so imperfectly, to avoid. But their decisions last week changed everything. They can now never again avoid such complicated, often unanswerable questions.     

By so publicly sending The New York Post’s story on to a “third party fact-checker,” Facebook re-wrote expectations of the platform. Andy Stone attempted to frame the move as standard, and pointed to Facebook’s rules concerning moderation of suspected misinformation. But the Post isn’t a Russian bot farm. It’s a two hundred-year-old legacy media company founded by Alexander Hamilton that may lean, obviously, to the political right, and that may be, yes, sort of trashy, but which nonetheless breaks real stories. Is Facebook fact-checking every story by every legacy media company? Twitter’s moderation policy — they don’t allow the distribution of any content obtained without authorization — seemed cleaner… until you thought about it for five or ten seconds and realized a moderation policy like that would basically end the institution of journalism as we know it.

But anyway, has this ever actually been the Twitter standard?

Of course not. Twitter wasn’t moderating the Post for its source, they were moderating claims made by the Post, just as Facebook was, which they themselves didn’t believe. This explains Twitter’s spectacular failure to accurately summarize The Washington Post’s analysis. Dorsey believed The New York Post was caught, objectively, in a lie. Dorsey’s editorial team was therefore the only editorial team in a position of power last Wednesday that actually didn’t seem to understand the details of the story they assumed responsibility for policing on behalf of hundreds of millions of people. They acted clearly on partisan instinct concerning a series of “unconfirmed claims,” and they shut the story down. But if that can happen to the Post, it can happen to any serious media company in the country, all of which make public claims, every week, that have not been “confirmed” by Facebook or Twitter.  

Or, are we now meant to believe every claim made by the media, and shared to Facebook and Twitter, has been confirmed by third party fact-checkers? Is every breaking news story on these platforms undergoing some process of corroboration? If not, why not? By the way, are we ever going to hear back from the Facebook fact-checkers? It’s been a week since the Post published the Biden story. What’s the verdict? Which pieces of the story are true? Which pieces are false? These seem like rather important questions given last week’s incredible reaction. Then, moving forward, when a media company’s story is fact-checked, will the company have any recourse? Will the company even know the identity of their fact-checker(s), which, given the often political nature of breaking news, seems extremely relevant? Who actually are these people, and will anyone be fact-checking their fact-checks? Another question I’ve been mulling over: if this policy has been in place for years, what else has been fact-checked?

Was the story on Trump’s taxes fact-checked? What about… let’s just go ahead and say literally every “breaking story” about the Steele Dossier, which in aggregate argued Trump was a Manchurian Candidate working for Russia? While we’re on the topic of Russia, let’s dip into Glenn Greenwald’s meticulous documentation of misinformation. Were any of these stories fact-checked? Rachel Maddow conducted a years-long dissemination of now-debunked conspiracies. Have any of her clips been removed for further investigation? Can we expect conspiracy theories like hers to be “fact-checked” moving forward?

By engaging with this single story from the Post as they have, Facebook and Twitter have invited all of these questions and more. Politicians of every kind will now justifiably demand similar treatment for every piece of anonymously-sourced breaking news that concerns them, their party, or any of their political allies. How can Mark Zuckerberg possibly say no when Trump demands the next bombshell story about his administration from The New York Times be taken down until Facebook verifies the facts, which can’t be done unless the Times gives up their sources to some random 23-year-old in Menlo Park? Facebook and Twitter just made Silicon Valley our nation’s arbiter of truth. That is an incredible power. There is also almost by its nature no fair, impartial way to wield that power.

What to do, then?

This isn’t a new question. Do you think the Founding Fathers wrote free speech into the Constitution on a whim? No, a robust freedom of speech was the solution to a problem. To this problem. Almost no disagreement significant enough to divide entire populations comes down to “simple facts” (though I’m not saying it’s impossible). It’s interpretations of facts that mostly drive people crazy, and to crazy demands like mass political censorship. There is therefore no way to “moderate” political speech without some sense of “fair interpretation,” which is informed entirely by the unique political frame with which any given interpreter observes the world. In other words, barring the most absolutely egregious examples of disinformation, there is no fair way to moderate political speech at all. As everyone arguing for such moderation knows such “fair” moderation doesn’t exist, what we’re really discussing here is which kinds of politics, specifically, are out of bounds. Republicans are as aware of Silicon Valley’s famously left wing politics as is the left wing media, which is why Republicans will never accept this new dynamic and the media, which has smartly, if insidiously, taken to lying about the politics of the technology industry, is calling for moderation from Facebook and Twitter. If Silicon Valley were actually run by the far right, do you really think The New York Times would be demanding Dorsey assume moderation of their work? Kara Swisher would lose her fucking mind.

Facebook and Twitter should have remained neutral. Better tools for curation should have been developed so the more sensitive among us didn’t so often have to look at offensive opinions. But where speech was legal, it should have been allowed, and any petitions for change to those rules should have been forwarded to our elected representatives in Washington. But the industry’s leadership was weak, and the pro-censorship media said very mean things about them all the time!, so Facebook and Twitter capitulated. They picked a side. A political side. What comes next will test how powerful the industry really is, and my sense is that is less powerful than we think.

The Democratic Party is already committed to dismantling the technology industry, which, for those who have not been paying attention these last few years, was made abundantly clear this past August at our last congressional tech hearing. Republican leadership has been loud about tech censorship, a popular topic with their base, but until this week the GOP was the only thing holding back Washington’s punitive, “kill tech” hammer. Last Thursday, following Facebook and Twitter’s censorship of the Post, Ajit Pai, Republican Chairman of the FCC, revealed the GOP’s most likely counter-attack: a reinterpretation of Section 230.

Earnest and reasonable to a fault, many in tech have since begun defending Section 230.

But Republicans don’t actually care about a reinterpretation of some arcane piece of legislation they anyway just heard about for the first time last week. Pai’s statement on 230 is a call to arms. It doesn’t matter what Jack Dorsey intended, Republicans believe the technology industry just declared war on half the country. They’ll do whatever they can to diminish the industry’s power.

With the base of both major American political parties alienated, tech leadership has provided an enormous incentive for anti-tech industry platforms which will almost certainly persist through the next major election cycle. Politicians will hit the industry in any way that resonates with voters, and there are any number of ways that could manifest. The right is chiefly animated by censorship, the left by tech’s incredible wealth. But these frustrations will frame every issue that impacts the industry, from immigration and trade to the tax code. A bi-partisan consensus on the topic of diminishing tech’s wealth, influence, power, and perhaps even its ability to persist as it historically has, is our new reality. The political right now believes itself in existential conflict with the technology industry, while the political left, and certainly the Ocasio left, takes issue with “industry” at the conceptual level. No one is stopping at Twitter or Facebook. The media will point at every company that bothers them, for whatever niche ideological reason, and the government, with an abundance of support and nothing to lose, will strike.

But the worst thing about this whole disaster is when the career politicians slither from their swamp and come for the industry, tech will no longer have a moral high ground. The industry abused its power.  

All we can do now is brace for the consequences.