By Nolan Higdon
More than two years since Big Tech made the historic decision to limit access to the New York Post’s story about President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, users are getting a glimpse into how Twitter came to that decision. However, delusional legacy and social media outlets are doing everything they can to misrepresent and bury the consequential details of the process.
An October 2020 New York Post story titled “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad” offered sensationalistic photos and details of Hunter’s addiction issues coupled with damning emails indicating that Hunter utilized his connection with his father to curry favor and economic opportunity in foreign countries. At the time, intelligence officials told members of the press that the story was Russian propaganda aimed at influencing that year’s election. As a result, Big Tech platforms limited access to the story including in direct messages which is usually done only in extreme cases such as child pornography.
On Friday, December 2, 2022, Elon Musk promised to release files related to the matter. Soon afterward, journalist Matt Taibbi published a report based on thousands of internal Twitter documents. Taibbi demonstrated that Twitter’s decision to remove the Hunter Biden story was influenced in part by Biden’s campaign. Indeed, as Taibbi described, Twitter’s staff regularly fields phone calls from powerful people in government and acts upon their requests to moderate content. And it’s is not just Twitter. During a 2022 interview with Joe Rogan, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Meta (formerly Facebook) Mark Zuckerberg admitted that his company’s decision to moderate content – including the 2020 Hunter story – is sometimes based on recommendations from the intelligence community. Similarly, The Intercept reported in 2022 that the Department of Homeland Security regularly informs Big Tech’s content moderation practices.
In any other country, the revelation that government and Big Tech collude to shape public discourse and democratic participation would make Americans irate, but the story has received little coverage. The coverage received by legacy media has been dismissive. CNN reduced the files as simply showing “how employees debated how to handle 2020 New York Post Hunter Biden story.” Variety echoed the same sentiments. Meanwhile, giving readers less than 24-hours to process what Taibbi reported, WAPO declared that Musk’s Twitter Files “haven’t changed minds.”
The lack of substantive coverage of the Twitter Files is rooted in the legacy media’s fears over the broader implications of the story. Since 2015, legacy media have been fostering a moral panic over fake news and blamed their competition – digital media – for its spread. They have practically begged Big Tech overlords to fix the country and restore faith in journalism by censoring problematic content, which they often refer to as misinformation or disinformation. Taibbi’s reporting demonstrates that the news media’s framing of Big Tech content moderation as a solution to anti-democratic practices, actually functioned as an anti-democratic position that enables the elite political class to shape public dialogue and manufacture consent of the electorate.
Adding to the news media’s inability to cover the story is their business model which depends on framing every story as an issue of left versus right, blue versus red, Democrat versus Republican. Indeed, whether it is cable news audiences or legacy newspaper subscribers, news outlets cater to audiences’ confirmation biases by villainizing a caricature of the “otherside.” This has reduced every story to a partisan issue, and fostered such high levels of hyper-partisanship vitriol that half of Americans cite “other Americans” as their number one fear, while 40% contend that a civil war will occur in their lifetime.
Although they still try, the legacy media has found it impossible to frame the Twitter Files as a hyper-partisan story because the political duopoly, not one party, utilizes Big Tech to manufacture the consent of the people. For example, Big Tech’s content moderation of was influenced by Biden’s Campaign in 2020 and leading Democrats after January 6th. Similarly, Donald Trump’s campaign spent $100 million to work with Facebook staff to amplify their campaign messages, and Trump met personally with Zuckerberg in secret meetings throughout his presidency. Furthermore, legacy news media outlets cannot villainize the “other side” for censorship when loyalists for both parties are complicit. Indeed, the feckless liberals who begged Big Tech overlords to censor content about elections and Covid-19 are equally complicit as the neocons who championed censorship of the press and individuals, and organizations during the War on Terror and Trump supporters who lauded his attacks on the free press and whistleblowers such as Julian Assange.
Anyone can, and will, argue that Hunter’s photos are not newsworthy, but that is for the citizens to decide when they encounter the story. That is how a free press in a democratic republic works. A democracy does not depend on Big Tech overlords acting at the behest of the political class to determine what content the public should see. The notion that censorship will erode hate, correct falsehoods, or solve national problems is a fallacy of utmost proportions. The contemporary censorious crowd seems to be in such a state of delusion that they have come to believe that World War II and the Holocaust could have been avoided if Twitter was around to censor Nazis. It is ludicrous and the establishment news media deserve part of the blame for perpetuating this lunacy.
A truly independent press would privilege narratives that expose Silicon Valley propaganda, which has led users of all political ideologies to a delusional state of Stockholm Syndrome, where Big Tech exploits their labor, erodes their privacy, and manufactures their consent for the duopoly, but users still laud and entrust the industry with their democracy. To be clear, Big Tech commercialized tools that were developed by the military industrial complex during the Cold War (which was not so cold in much of the world) to surveil and exploit users. They advertised their platforms as transformative tools that strengthen democracy and inclusion. As whistleblower after whistleblower remind us, this is all nonsense: Big Tech’s oligarchs are rapacious capitalists who time and time again put profits over people. No entity should be moderating information in a democracy, and as the Twitter Files reveal, the unaccountable profiteers in Big Tech are no exception.