Twitter's election meddling

Did we really need another October surprise in 2020? I had settled comfortably into the last three weeks of this presidential election expecting nothing else of interest to take place until November, when it will be time for Bush v. Gore II: The Secret of the Ooze. (Who remembers "hanging chads"?)

Then on Wednesday morning the New York Post reported that Hunter Biden, son of a certain presidential candidate, had exchanged emails with a Ukrainian business contact asking him for "advice on how you could use your influence" with the Obama administration. This apparently led to at least one meeting between Hunter's father and Vadym Pozharskyi, an executive at the mining company that was paying him $83,000 a month for his no-doubt limitless expertise on Eurasian mining infrastructure.

Is this a smoking gun? My view, no doubt extremely controversial, is that if until now you thought Hunter was getting paid for any reason except his proximity to the vice president, you are not a member of what used to be called the "reality-based community." Unfortunately, this group of maverick outsiders includes virtually the entire American media establishment and most sitting politicians in one of our two major political parties. As Donald Trump learned last year, suggesting otherwise is an impeachable offense.

The Post's report was also very briefly banned on various social media platforms on Wednesday, as I and thousands of others discovered when we attempted to share the article and were greeted with error messages reading "We can't complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful."

Harmful to whom, though? I am not entirely sure that I agree with those who say that the decision by Twitter and Facebook to prohibit sharing the link is an example of the so-called "Streisand effect," by which attempts to cover up information only draw more attention to it. Whatever the intrinsic interest of the story might have been, it was overtaken almost immediately by outrage at the unprecedented action taken by the social media platforms in question.

What were they thinking? Left well alone this story might have occasioned a few grumbles from right-wingers and a curt dismissal from the Biden campaign (which now says it cannot rule out the possibility that a non-official meeting similar to the one described in the Post article took place).

The explanations given by Twitter and Facebook are not credible. If these platforms were really concerned about users sharing "unconfirmed" reporting, they would have spent the last four years shutting down story after ludicrous story about Russian "collusion" and pee tapes and whatever Michael Cohen was supposed to have been doing in Prague. This is to say nothing of the fact that until a few days ago it was still possible for Facebook users to deny that the Holocaust took place. (The platform has since abruptly announced that their thinking has evolved since 2018, when a shrugging Mark Zuckerberg noted that "there are things that different people get wrong.")

Now the president and congressional Republicans are calling for an official investigation into what looks remarkably like the deliberate use of long-tolerated monopoly power to influence the course of an election. It will almost certainly take place.

Did things have to go this way? A simple provisional solution to the problem of serving as publisher to a host of media outlets with independent editorial processes would be not to interfere at all. Despite what many of these companies' critics might assert to the contrary, it is entirely possible to distinguish between an unflattering news article published by one of America's oldest newspapers and Alex Jones. Trusting the judgement of editors, reporters, and fact checkers is not fool-proof, but it makes more sense than leaving such decisions to the whims of programmers.

As things stand, it is difficult to imagine things going back. One way or another, Facebook and Twitter as we know them will not survive another presidential election.

Good riddance.

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