October 16, 2020

For years there has been a growing concern about the influence of Big Tech. Increasingly, the giant platforms have been muting, shadow-banning and occasionally chucking people off the sites entirely. But few saw the emerging problem because the users being targetted were either not desirable enough or not big enough for the world to bother itself over.

But developments this week may have changed that, with the tech giants daring to make their biggest encroachments so far in deciding what the public could and could not know.

On Wednesday, the New York Post published a major exposé on the activities of Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The investigation, based on leaked emails, revealed the manner in which Biden Jnr had used his father’s connections to pitch for lucrative contracts with Ukrainian businessmen. Since then, more news has emerged of the younger Biden seeking remuneration from Chinese firms, among others. In an election season this is, of course, explosive stuff — but it is also information that the American public have a right to know.

Since Joe Biden presents himself as the honest candidate in this election, the fact that his family members may have been enriching themselves through their connections is relevant to the decision the voters are about to make.

But Big Tech decided that they couldn’t know it. On Wednesday, after the New York Post story emerged, both Twitter and Facebook made an unprecedented move into overt censorship, with the world’s largest social media companies deciding to prevent the dissemination of the story. They did everything they could to stop it from getting out, with Twitter in particular blocking users from posting links to the Post’s article, initially claiming that sharing of the piece violated the platform’s rules on the use of hacked materials.

The idea that the Hunter Biden emails are the result of a hack is disputed. But even if the claim were accurate, it is not the case that these platforms usually take a strong line against stories based on hacked material. Over recent years, there have been numerous stories, from celebrity gossip to major political stories like the DNC nomination scandal at the 2016 election, which have come about solely because of the use of hacked information. Yet Twitter did not prevent people from sharing them, so the claim that “hacking” is the justification on this occasion is in fact nothing other than a retro-fit.

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Yet on this spurious basis Twitter took a range of extraordinary actions, which included locking the accounts of the official Trump campaign and of the White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, because they had dared to share the story. Such is the extraordinary power that the tech companies now have and the extraordinarily brazen behaviour they feel that they can get away with.

It is conceivable that Twitter might rightfully act if there were knowingly false information being disseminated ahead of an election by obscure or unknown actors seeking to affect an election. But it is quite another thing for the social media giant to decide that the reposting of a story in the New York Post — one of America’s oldest and most venerable papers, founded by Alexander Hamilton — should be cause to suppress the speech of the White House Press Secretary. This is not an attempt to prevent interference in an election — it is itself interference in an election. Interference carried out by Facebook and Twitter, tech giants and monopolies in possession of unprecedented amounts of power.

Perhaps people should have woken up to such actions by Big Tech earlier — but too often the platform’s targets seemed to be too obscure or unpleasant to find defenders. So they slowly — and occasionally in sudden purges — chucked out people who they decided to be “hateful”, so people such as Katie Hopkins or Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yet on top of this, Twitter went for a less overt form of control by using its power to quietly muffle accounts (“shadow-banning”) without anybody noticing. In the last year, this has been formalised by the site, which has made its users sign a new agreement conceding that the platform has the right to filter and manipulate which voices its users do or do not hear. But, most people decided, things go on as before and shadow-banning was just for other people.

So while the platform picked off or muted obscure or unpleasant figures, they — and the rest of us — clearly lost sight of exactly where a line could be drawn. And inevitably the bloated, over-rich, overpowerful and under-informed tech entities thought that they should decide where that line was.

So here we are, in the weeks before the election, with the platforms suppressing a story that affects one candidate, trying to pretend that one of America’s great papers is an unreliable source (and if they want to play that game, then wait until they discover the New York Times), and blocking the social media account of the White House Press Secretary.

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One other turn in this story deserves to be noticed. On Wednesday Twitter had as its top story a minor exchange in the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett for a position on the Supreme Court, during which Senator Mazie Hirono claimed that the use of the term “sexual preference” was an anti-gay slur. Hirono said that the phrase — which Amy Coney Barrett had only used earlier in passing — is “an offensive and outdated term”.

The claim itself is of course a crock. “Sexual preference” has been used for years and has no pejorative connotations. Indeed it has been used multiple times recently by no less a figure than Joe Biden; and just last month The Advocate (America’s main remaining legacy gay publication) used the term in a Tweet. So the story about Senator Hirono “calling out” Amy Coney Barrett was nothing other than a piece of political posturing.

If Barrett had been a man, the Democrats would have accused her of misogyny by now. If she had not adopted two black children and loved them, cared for them and brought them up as her own, then doubtless they would have attempted to accuse her of racism. But neither of these charges being available they instead made an attempt to accuse Barrett of homophobia, based on nothing more than the use of a term which everybody used until yesterday. Meanwhile Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary chose to update their entry on the term “sexual preference”, in order to pretend that the new “offensive” spin on the term was widely, indeed authoritatively recognised.

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That this story — the most minor imaginable exchange which relied not just on a misrepresentation but a nasty little untruth — should have been the top chosen story on Twitter on Wednesday tells us something. This was not the story which users had put at the top of the site — it was the story that Twitter chose. And it did so on the very same day that an actual story from the New York Post could not be shared on the platform.

There have been many eye-opening moments with Big Tech in recent years. The companies have been repeatedly caught out lying, cheating and attempting to exert political influence under the guise of fact-checking. But Wednesday should be seen as a watershed moment — the moment when the last remaining pretences of the platforms were finally shed.

People may still use Twitter and Facebook. They may continue to find some value in them. But after this week there is no way of avoiding the fact that in doing so they are helping companies which have chosen to make overt interventions into the political process — and to do so in order that their chosen candidate wins.

We hear a lot about purported, exaggerated “foreign interference” in elections, but here is the real interference. It is done by an organisation more powerful than any government, more unaccountable than any politician and more sinister than anyone but the most crazed conspiracists could ever have guessed.

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