I have kept quiet for as long as I’m able. So far as I know, I still have a right to say what I believe to be truth. I could be wrong about that.
There are two stories blaring out of your televisions and newspapers today. One of them is played as big news, the other as secondary. They’ve got it backwards.
We all know by now that Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president and presidential candidate Joe Biden allegedly left his laptop at the repair shop with God knows what on it.
Did the appearance of this story—not the laptop but the appearance and timing of the story—surprise anyone? Anyone? Those of us who have watched a few elections barely batted an eye. I don’t know about you, but I was waiting for the October Surprise. I just didn’t know which side would push the plunger down to see a story explode. “Surprise!” said absolutely nobody.
I don’t know if it’s true or not. But here’s something I do know: Every four years, in the middle of October, somebody will push the plunger down.
If the story is not true, Joe and Hunter should show a little righteous anger and demand unimpeachable evidence from their accusers. If you are unjustly accused, righteous anger is an effective defense. If, on the other hand it’s true, folks are entitled to know about it. These things must happen now, because the story is out there. That’s politics.
You’ll find another story below the fold on the front page or at the end of the broadcast of your favorite talking head. In some newspapers and some networks, you won’t find it at all. That would be the story of how at least two major social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, unilaterally suppressed the laptop story. Tweedledee at Facebook judged it to be politically incorrect and possibly false. She pressed a button and endless algorithms went to work, removing the story and any attempts to share it. Tweedledum, her counterpart at Twitter, pressed the same button. Poof. Story doesn’t exist.
These two major social platforms deleted or suspended accounts of the New York Post, the President and his press secretary, among others. They digitally prevented the copying and sharing of the story.
To my very good friends who call themselves liberals or progressives (and I have many), you may be secretly high-fiving each other over this. I must tell you that, were the shoe on the other foot, I would still be outraged. I don’t get my news from social media, because it is so filled with bluster, baloney and hate. I tend to stay off of it. I know that major newspapers and media networks are polarized, so I try to avoid getting news from a single source. Truth be told (and it isn’t these days) we would probably agree it’s damned hard to find out what’s really going on out there. But that doesn’t negate the fact that gazillions of young people and others use social media as their only source of information. That’s scary even without the laptop thing.
The very idea of blocking a major story on the internet may not trouble you. You may honestly feel that it’s no different than what the newspapers and TV networks do. You may feel that these incredibly large and influential social platforms are basically publishers of news like the New York Times or Fox News.
They are not.
In the 1990s, government, news publishers, Internet platforms and the public were all balled up in an argument about “decency.” It went on for a long time–a complex issue. In 1996 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. And within that Act, Section 230(c) (1) attempted to insure the free flow of ideas. That section says in essence that social media platforms are not “publishers.” That section says that they are no different from UPS or the pizza delivery guy. That section says they are not responsible for the content of what they deliver and that you can’t take them to court for delivering or not delivering your pizza or your news.
In reality, Congress was concerned about “pornography,” whatever three hundred twenty-eight million people seemed to think that was—and is. Section 230 protected that free flow of ideas, exempting Internet platforms from liability regarding their content posted by third parties. In understandable language, that means that Twitter and Facebook cannot be held responsible for what you, me or anyone else posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Section 230 was flawed. We have just witnessed its failure. Amy Coney Barrett would understand what’s happened.
(And as to cleaning up pornography, do you think it worked? You may need the experience of sitting down with a grandchild to help her write her school assignment on Louisa May Alcott. You search for “Little Women”. And then you frantically cover your grandchild’s eyes from the result. Asking for a friend.)
Newspapers and television networks are publishers. They are businesses. They supply “news” and sell advertising, while rolling in Croesus-like sums of money for doing it. They are legally responsible for what appears in their product. They spend millions each year on lawyers and risk management to assess their liability exposure. And they get sued anyway. Happens every day. Regardless of whether you or I agree with their content, they do run this risk every time a story is published. You can demand their appearance in court for anything, if you so desire. This is America.
You cannot take Facebook to court for their content (or in this case, the lack of it). You can shout all day long at Twitter because of something you read or were unable to read. You have the right to shout at Twitter, but they don’t have to be legally responsible. This, also, is America, thanks to Section 230.
Full disclosure: I supported this law. I didn’t like the idea of it, but I felt freedom of speech was too important. I landed on the side of “Let everyone speak, regardless of what they say, warts and all.” We all make mistakes.
Facebook and Twitter say they are not “publishers.” Section 230 supports them. But it stands to reason that when they sell advertising and claim to offer “news,” when they profess to be champions of the “free flow of ideas”, and then actively suppress a story because they don’t happen to agree with it, they have become publishers. They are acting like the New York Times. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Today it means that the laptop story disappeared from Twitter and Facebook, two enormous social media platforms involving millions and millions of people and selling advertising to the tune of billions. Sounds like a publisher to me. In fairness, whether the story is true or false, some people believe it needs to be heard and investigated. Tomorrow, it will be a story you believe should be heard. And it will disappear. And your account will be suspended. Zillions of people will never see it, because that’s where they get their “news.”
We all seem to be concerned about being right. But maybe we have forgotten how to be wrong. Regarding Section 230, how difficult is it to say “Yeah, we got that wrong. Let’s get it fixed.”? Most folks in this country are forgiving if the problem gets fixed.
This is more important than Hunter Biden’s laptop. It goes to the heart of the Constitution—your right or mine to have access to a free press and make up our own minds.
I hope you will sit for just a moment and consider this. Don’t Google it. Don’t tweet. Just use that gray matter that God gave you and discover what you think. I trust your gray matter over every single newspaper, network or media platform in the world.
Is this right or is it wrong?