History Repeats: Political Censorship, Twitter and Joe Biden

Social media censorship has become a key issue at a time when 62 percent of American adults get their news from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The long-standing argument at tech giants such as these has been that these platforms are purely just that, platforms, and that they are not responsible for the nature of content that they distribute. 

In recent years, though, whether due to political scandals, election rigging, or the distribution of violent and horrific content - such as the Christchurch shooting - platforms, buoyed on by political pressures, are taking a more active role in policing what is shared. Facebook currently employs about 15,000 content moderators who spend all day deciding what can and can’t be on Facebook. 

Initially, moderators, as well as algorithms, were deployed to flag content that was violent or considered outright abhorrent by most standards of human decency. In fact, some of the content witnessed by moderators has been so devastating that they’ve developed PTSD, prompting Facebook to agree to pay an in principle sum of US$52 million in damages.

Removing shootings and porn is one thing. Extending these powers to discriminately censoring political content, and influencing hearts and minds in the process, is another. 

Twitter bans the New York Post

Last week, Twitter banned users from sharing a New York Post article which alleged to incriminate Hunter and Joe Biden for their dealings with Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings. Twitter’s official position was that the article was blocked because it included personally identifiable information and violated its policy on unauthorised materials.

In a world where big tech leans blue and has the ability to control what does and does not get distributed or amplified by its platform, this move amounted to an attack on the democratic and political process. Just weeks ahead of the election, putting a lid on content that might paint the Democratic nominee in an unfavourable light is a case of clear election tampering. 

And it turns out that this is nothing new, but a case of history repeating.

History Repeats

During the 19th Century, public libraries assumed the role of benevolent guardians of literature, and effectively censored books such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!

The modern-day post office traces its lineage back to France in 1464. It subsequently became used as a censorship instrument, particularly during times of war. The British Empire censored mail during the first half of the 20th Century, ultimately to influence public opinion, and gain or maintain political support for its decisions.

During the 1930s, the Hitler Youth torched thousands of books - some 20,000 volumes of books written by Jewish authors, communists or humanists. Heinrich Heine, the German author, warned that burning books would end in burning humans, and tragically, he was right. 

And today, books are again being burned - only its manifest as the shadow-banning, prevention and deletion of posts on tech platforms. The mail is again being censored. 

And while Twitter claims that the New York Post article was blocked because its contents were obtained through unauthorized means, it had no qualms publishing amplifying posts about Trump’s old tax returns, which were also obtained without authorization, which is but one of countless examples of the same. 

Facebook too suppressed the article, and its position was that it needed to have its team “fact check” the story before distributing it. Really? In a world where 4.4 million blog posts are published each day, do we really expect that this policy is carried out consistently or effectively?

It’s not. 

And as we’ve seen in the past, censoring can have devastating consequences on public opinion, discourse and social cohesion.

Power and Responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility, and once platforms start to apply a specific rule, they need to do it consistently, or alter it when it is evident that the rule is not for the greater good. 

Anything short of this is favouritism and undue influencing of political and/or other outcomes.

On a positive note, Twitter reversed its decision because the once private information was now widely available on the internet. But that doesn’t change the fact that they chose to suppress it in the first place for reasons that it appears not to extend to left-leaning news. 

As I wrote in Spotify’s Censorship Moment, does being proficient at Python, optimizing on-page conversions or writing a narrative form podcast script suddenly render you an oracle who can make far-reaching decisions with full consideration of immediate and downstream biological, political, social and economic consequences? Of course not. 

We often don’t know we’re doing wrong when we do wrong, and our decisions can turn out to be either good or bad in retrospect many years down the track. Stalin too, had good intentions. As a result, tech platforms should avoid playing God, lest this burning of digital books also ends with burning humans.