On 14 October, The New York Post published an exposé revealing how Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, introduced a top executive of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma to his father during the latter's vice-presidential tenure. Previously, Joe Biden resolutely denied any involvement in his son's business deals.
Almost immediately, Twitter and Facebook stepped in to limit the circulation of the bombshell article. However, Twitter went even further, completely banning the sharing of the newspaper's Biden story. Commenting on its decision, the social media platform claimed that "the images contained in the articles include personal and private information — like email addresses and phone numbers — which violate our rules", adding that they "also currently view materials included in the articles as violations of our Hacked Materials Policy".
Facebook and Twitter are Privately Owned Companies
Twitter's unprecedented move has drawn the ire of many netizens, who have been asking why the Silicon Valley giant is not restricting the dissemination of stories based on the already debunked "dirty dossier" by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele or the New York Times' opinion pieces discussing Donald Trump's tax returns which were allegedly obtained through illegal means.
Chuck Ross is conducting an experiment -- posting false anti-Trump stories from peak of media's Russia hysteria to see if Twitter allows them to remain on platform. You know the result... https://t.co/V42QWmFu8A— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 14, 2020
"This is a Big Tech information coup. This is digital civil war. I, an editor at The New York Post, one of the nation’s largest papers by circulation, can’t post one of our own stories that details corruption by a major-party presidential candidate, Biden", tweeted Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American columnist and editor.
To add to the controversy, Twitter locked White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s personal account after she shared the Hunter Biden "smoking gun email" story, according to The Daily Caller.
BREAKING: Twitter has locked the personal account of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany for sharing news Democrats don’t like. pic.twitter.com/eR8HhkgqVY— Trump War Room - Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) October 14, 2020
"The recent measures by Twitter and Facebook to prevent the republication and or linking of The Post article about Hunter Biden’s email leaks exemplify the power that these private social media platforms have to restrict open and free expression of ideas and news, and to potentially thereby bias what is reported/read by users with the further potential to affect the upcoming Presidential election", says Jeffrey Blatt, Silicon Valley tech lawyer and Founder of X Ventures.
The tech lawyer highlights that being privately owned, Twitter and Facebook are not currently legally obligated to provide for the open and free expression of users' opinions under the First Amendment. However, given the magnitude, size and power of the platforms, these activities trigger serious concerns, according to him.
"What makes this particularly dangerous is that Twitter and Facebook (and other social media) platforms, through censorship and filtering can bias what users read and limit user expression", Blatt warns. "The bigger question is that given how much we all rely on social media like Twitter and Facebook in today’s world, how should social media be regulated in the future to scale back the enormous power that these giants have over our ability to get news, express opinions and debate issues?"
One possible future path may be to have US federal laws that basically treat the social media giants similar to regulated utilities, the tech lawyer points out, explaining that although utilities like gas, electricity and water are owned by private companies, they are supervised by the government to ensure that all levels of society have guaranteed access to these critical resources.
"It would be possible to regulate social media to ensure that except for certain limited exemptions to censor to prevent defamation or copyright infringement that everyone is guaranteed to have equal access and effectively ensure freedom of speech", Blatt highlights.
'Facebook & Twitter Actions are Unlawful'
Former American diplomat and GOP foreign policy adviser Jim Jatras holds a different stance: according to him, Twitter and Facebook's actions are not only wrong but illegal.
"According to famous Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that there have been exempt from liability of what appears on their platforms is dependent on there not being editors that they have no content control", Jatras says. "Not only do they violate their obligations under that law, in my opinion, they are also violating campaign finance laws by providing contributions to one candidate. It’s not only a violation of free speech, people do focus on that because there is a violation but it’s also a violation of people’s right to have free information."
There is a pressing need for legislative reform which would hold the Silicon Valley giants accountable, argues the former diplomat, admitting that it would be hard to pass this legislation, given that the Democrats are obviously benefitting from the current state of affairs.
President Trump has repeatedly lambasted Twitter, Facebook and other US social media giants for the silencing, censoring and banning of American conservatives. In May, the president found himself in Twitter's crosshairs, with his tweets being tagged to a fact-check warning. In response, Trump came up with an executive order intending to repeal Section 230 which exonerates companies from the views posted by their users. In late September, he unveiled a new package of reforms aimed to tighten the screws on US social media platforms over potential bias and censorship. On 28 October, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Google are expected to testify on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act before the Senate Commerce Committee.
While new legislation has yet to be implemented, netizens have only one option – turn their back on social media platforms, remarks Choong-Fook Fong, CEO of Malaysia-based information security consultancy LGMS.
"When these platforms lose the popularity from their users, their influence will fade, they will fall", he notes. "Having said that, this is a Utopia that we will never get to see. Because we have already sunk so deep into the dependency of the social media platforms."
From a regulatory perspective, social media platforms shall be governed by regulations, and the platform shall be accountable for their users' postings, he concludes.