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Facebook and Twitter “spent years preparing to face” the kind of controversy that came with the New York Post‘s publication of emails allegedly taken from the computer of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, said Robert McMillan at The Wall Street Journal. They still ended up with a mess. Twitter, which initially blocked users from sharing the article (and even froze the Post‘s official account), did “an about-face” after an outcry from Republicans and said it would change its ban on hacked content “unless it’s directly shared by hackers.” Meanwhile inside Facebook, “executives had performed role-playing exercises about how to respond to an email dump.” Following the playbook they developed, Facebook flagged the Post‘s articles for fact-checking and limited their exposure in news feeds. That didn’t shield Facebook from widespread criticism: Republicans lawmakers complained of censorship, even as the Post‘s articles stayed at the top of the most-shared charts.
“What were they thinking?” asked Matthew Walther at The Week. The platforms’ explanations of their actions “are not credible.” If Facebook was really concerned about users sharing “unconfirmed” reporting, it wouldn’t have waited until last week to block Holocaust denial. It looks instead like “the deliberate use of long-tolerated monopoly power to influence the course of an election.” The fallout could well mean that those monopolies as we know them now “will not survive another presidential election.” Imagine if these Silicon Valley giants united to ban all content critical of President Trump and promote criticism of Biden, said Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept. Twitter’s rationale about blocking documents taken without authorization is unjustifiable and dangerous. What about The New York Times’ reports on Trump’s leaked tax returns? Anyone cheering for Twitter or Facebook now is “being short-sighted and myopic.”
If you’re complaining that there is no simple rule telling social media companies what to publish, you’ve fallen for a false narrative about “censorship,” said Max Boot at The Washington Post. “Social-media companies have no obligation to pass along possible Russian disinformation,” and it “would be the height of irresponsibility” to broadcast these stories without some fact-checking first. After they got burned in 2016, “it’s entirely understandable and proper that Facebook and Twitter exercise some caution.” That’s not censorship. “It’s editorial judgment,” and we need more of it.
These platforms have never been neutral, said Kevin Roose at The New York Times. They’ve been controlling what we see for years. It’s just that “their decisions were often buried in obscure ‘community standards’ updates or hidden tweaks to the black-box algorithms that govern which posts users see.” They’ve just made their “high-stakes decisions” more visible. But Facebook and Twitter still haven’t provided nearly enough visibility into their decision, said Andy Kessler at The Wall Street Journal. On the contrary, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s explanations and reversal have given “his adversaries the fuel to burn his tweet house down.” If the social media giants with their multibillion-dollar valuations want to survive this, they’ll need to go much further on transparency. I want to see Facebook’s community standards “chiseled in stone” and detailed explanations for each banned post.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.