The New York Times Daily podcast this morning took up the Hunter Biden story published by The New York Post last week, although the story wasn’t about the contents of Hunter Biden’s alleged hard drive, but the role of social media in the story. When the story surfaced, Facebook was quick to devalue the story — or make it less shareable — while Twitter put the brakes on it completely, nixing any links to the story.
It’s dicey terrain. Social media’s attempts to mute the story created a sort of Streisand effect, giving the story more air but — as the The Daily notes — the focus has been less about the hard drive itself and more about censorship.
Soon after the original piece ran, David Harsanyi at The Post itself ran an op-ed:
The press has spent four years pressuring social-media outlets to censor speech and limit access with scaremongering over the alleged nefarious influence of foreign accounts, “fake news” and hate speech — all of which are preferable to authoritarian technocrats shutting down open discourse.
Of course, as far as we know, the New York Post piece on Hunter Biden’s shady foreign dealings was written using the same journalistic ethics and standards that have been in place for decades. Twitter’s ostensible justification — crafted in conjunction with its media “partners” — for banning The Post story make zero sense. Twitter says it “prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization. We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials.”
If the press were asked to follow these evolving standards, there would no useful journalism on Twitter. Certainly, the vast majority of “Russian-collusion” rumor-mongering that was pumped out by The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times would be censored, as it relied heavily on faulty sourcing and foreign disinformation.
He’s right and he’s wrong, yeah? Yes: The press relies on anonymous sourcing and materials gained — in some cases — without permission (as in the case of Trump’s tax returns), but those sources are vetted, and facts are independently confirmed using other sources, which is something that no other outlet could do here, which is why no other outlet would touch the story. In fact, Giuliani himself said that he took the story to The Post because they wouldn’t waste a lot of time fact-checking the story, and even said on a North Dakota radio show yesterday, “But even if it isn’t accurate, the American people are entitled to know it.”
There are a lot of reasons to doubt the veracity of the story, not least of which is the source: Rudy Giuliani — who has been a source of a lot of Russian disinformation — and Steve Bannon, who invented the playbook on laundering disinformation through “legitimate” outlets. That has long been Bannon’s strategy, and it’s one he has bragged about frequently. It worked to a goddamn T here, because it didn’t matter whether the story was true: The Post ran it, and now everyone is talking about it. The Post gave Fox News license to talk about this story 22 hours a day.
But is it Facebook or Twitter’s job to fact check for a news organization? Social media outlets should not be responsible for fact-checking every article before they decide whether it can be shared. That is the job of a news outlet, not the job of a social media company, and in this case, The Post completely f*ked this up, arguably on purpose for political reasons.
Contrary to what David Harsanyi writes, the Post did not use the same journalistic ethics and standards that have been in place for decades, at least not for legitimate news organizations. The writer of the article refused to put his name on it, and for the byline, the Post had to use the names of someone who had little to do with the reporting on the story, and another person who didn’t even know her name was on it until after it had been published.
That’s not “journalistic ethics and standards.”
So, where does that leave Facebook and Twitter? They cannot arbitrate every story, but they can arbitrate every news outlet, and if a news outlet does not use appropriate “journalistic ethics and standards,” then Facebook and Twitter should devalue posts from those outlets. Social media cannot choose political sides, but it can choose between fact and fiction, between well-reported stories and obvious disinformation from shady, unreliable sources.
Twitter and Facebook (and finally even YouTube) have started basically deplatforming sites that spread QAnon conspiracy theories, which would have been nice before ONE-THIRD OF AMERICANS BECAME RECEPTIVE TO THEM. They should do the same for sites and news organizations that intentionally or negligently spread Russian disinformation, or any other legitimately fake stories. This Hunter Biden hard drive story is only a story because the Post ran it, which gave every right-wing outlet an excuse to talk about the contents of it. It wouldn’t be a story if the Post had vetted it, and then put Twitter and Facebook in the position of playing whack-a-mole and doing the impossible: Killing a viral story. But, if every time an outlet like the Post runs a shitty, poorly sourced story that can be easily linked to Russian disinformation (or QAnon), then that outlet should be penalized by the social media algorithms, and if they are penalized often enough, their stories will no longer surface. This, in a way, would incentivize good reporting and make bad reporting less valuable. The NYPost has 4.7 million followers; they would be super pissed off if those were to become completely worthless.
And FYI, this should not just be political outlets, but entertainment ones, as well, and they should start with We Got This Covered, the goddamn Enquirer of entertainment outlets, where they make up stories and sources. Often because they are stories that fans want to hear, they are shared widely despite the fact that they are complete bullshit, like this story about Jim Carrey being eyed to sign on as the title character in one of two sequels to Todd Phillips’ Joker. Just because an idea sounds interesting doesn’t mean it should be reported as news, but I guess I’m old-school like that. We Got This Covered is doubly sketchy because they will change the headline on a popular story and run it again weeks later.
Still, this was one of their most widely shared articles on Facebook, so they were rewarded for making sh*t up, just like grifters are rewarded for posting QAnon conspiracy theory videos on YouTube. The key is to take away the incentives — likes, shares, follows, ad views — that reward people and outlets for making sh*t up. In the future, it will be accurate stories that go viral — because their outlets will be favored by the algorithms — instead of bullshit The Walking Dead news about Steven Yeun returning to the series.
Header Image Source: Getty Images