Networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google can determine what is read and what is not. For many younger people in particular, the tech giants serve as the most important source of information. The influence of these companies can be seen in politically relevant issues. This is particularly evident in times of crisis such as today.
The most recent example is the US presidential campaign. On October 14, the New York Post published confidential emails incriminating Hunter and Joe Biden. Hunter is the son of presidential candidate Joe Biden. In 2014 and 2015, he allegedly took advantage of his father’s position in favor of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Hunter Biden was on the board of directors of the energy company, which paid him 50,000 dollars a month while his father, Joe Biden, was U.S. vice president.
The emails show how Vadym Pozharskyi, the company’s board member, tried to get Hunter Biden to use his political power to protect the company from possible prosecution. The company had been targeted by the authorities on corruption charges. The emails speak of a meeting between Vadym Pozharskyi, a board member of the energy company, with Joe Biden, the then vice president and head of Ukraine policy. Hunter Biden is said to have threaded it.
This story was heralded as a “blockbuster” headline, though it had been known for some time: at the latest after Donald Trump called on Ukrainian leader Volodimir Selenski to open an investigation into Hunter Biden in July 2019, which later led to accusations of abuse of office and impeachment in Congress.
Joe Biden is accused of urging the Ukrainian government to oust Attorney General Viktor Shokin in 2016 for failing to fight corruption. However, it is also a fact that Schokin was investigating the energy company Burisma at the time. Joe Biden himself admitted that he had caused Schockin’s resignation. Earlier, the then US vice-president had made it clear to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that otherwise the International Monetary Fund’s loans to Ukraine might no longer be paid.
Facebook and Twitter censor critical articles about Biden
The critical article about Joe and Hunter Biden made waves and provoked remarkable reactions. Two hours after the story was posted online, Facebook intervened. “The distribution of the article is reduced on our platform,” wrote Andy Stone. Stone is a former Democratic Party employee who now works for Facebook. The censorship efforts on Twitter went even further.
It made it impossible for users to share the article. Anyone who tried to link to the “New York Post” story received an error message. Later, Twitter warned users that they couldn’t post the article’s link because Twitter deemed the content “potentially harmful.” The tech giant also blocked the New York Post’s account so that the newspaper could no longer publish content via Twitter. The same thing happened with a later article about Hunter Biden - even this one banned Twitter.
Wow. twitter going even further than FB and is no longer letting ppl tweet the NYPost story. This is what pops up if you try. https://t.co/YVlOTeF1iX pic.twitter.com/66kzYdwq21— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) October 14, 2020
Commenting on the actions of the two networks, US journalist Glenn Greenwald said: “In summary, the two Silicon Valley giants, without providing a real explanation, joined forces to prevent the sharing and distribution of this article.” Greenwald pointed out that, at least until now, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the emails. Joe Biden denies that the meeting with Burisma board member Vadym Pozharskyi took place. So far, however, he has not disputed the authenticity of the emails.
Networks boycott Assange hearing
The actions of the two tech giants in the Biden case occasionally caused head-shaking and anger, but it received a great deal of media coverage, which is not self-evident. For often the subtle mechanisms of censorship become less apparent to the general public – as happened during the extradition proceedings against Julian Assange in London.
Smaller online newspapers and blogs that informed about the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition process in London were systematically suppressed by Twitter and Facebook. This was felt by the British journalist and former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who reported directly from the court in London. Murray says he typically reaches about 50 percent of his readers via Twitter and 40 percent on Facebook.
During the September hearing, those numbers fell to 3 percent and 9 percent, respectively. At the extradition hearing in February, around 200,000 readers had accessed his website every day, now there were only about 3,000. Murray said: “This is much less than my normal daily traffic during normal times. It is the insidious nature of this censorship that is particularly eerie.” Murray’s articles were not visible to his followers on Facebook and Twitter. “90 percent of my traffic was cut off by an algorithm command that seems to avoid the Assange case,” Murray told former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, according to Russian state broadcaster RT.
That went so far that even family members couldn’t find Murray’s posts on Facebook and Twitter. The article appeared with a few followers, who then shared or retweeted the post. “What the followers arenoted about, however, is that their ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ is actually only visible to very, very few people. The total audience for the tweet or Facebook post will be reduced to just 1 percent of what it could be without oppression,” Murray wrote.
Other smaller online newspapers expressed similar experiences. The American journalist Alan Macleod, who writes for the anti-government online newspaper Mintpress, reported: “The changes to the algorithms have put pressure on independent alternative media – often the very ones most likely to report on the Assange case – and drastically reduced their search engine traffic.”
The systematic boycott of information on Assange’s extradition is all the more important because major newspapers did not inform little or no of the extradition hearing. Two examples: THE US broadcaster CNN did not inform once about what happened in London. The same can be said for the NZZ – since the end of August, there has not been a single article on Assange in the newspaper in the Swiss Media Database (SMD).
Information that did not endorse Axel Springer SE is blocked
The tech giants' censorship methods are also evident in the fight against the coronavirus. This was made clear by the scientific journal “The Lancet”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is responsible for this. On 15 February, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the Munich Security Conference: “We are not only fighting an epidemic, but also an information epidemic.”
The WHO has its own department for this purpose. “Combating information and misinformation is a joint effort by our technical risk communication team,” Aleksandra Kuzmanovic told The Lancet.
Kuzmanovic is a social media manager in the WHO communications department. Of her work, she said: “In my role, I am in contact with Facebook, Twitter, Tencent, Pinterest, TikTok and also with my colleagues in the Office in China who work closely with Chinese social media platforms.”
Kuzmanovic openly explained how closely the WHO works with the tech giants to preserve the sovereignty of interpretation over the coronavirus: People are to be led “to reliable sources” on social networks – it refers to Facebook, Twitter and Google. The websites of the WHO, the Department of Health or the US Health Authority (CDC) are considered reliable.
Campaign for flu vaccinations
Almost all other information platforms are judged to be less to not credible. Information that contradicts the Guardians on the sovereignty of interpretation often disappears. This is not only true for false information, but also for journalistic and scientific work. The latest example of this is that Facebook now bans all entries that speak out against vaccinations. The Corona pandemic shows the importance of “preventive behavior” to protect the population, Facebook said. Only content that criticizes certain measures taken by governments in connection with vaccinations is allowed. The internet company says it is planning a campaign in the US to promote annual flu vaccinations.
Difficult to understand justifications
The examples of censorship are numerous, the justifications leave questions unanswered. Twitter, for example, claimed in the wake of the suppression of the critical Biden reports that it did not want to distribute unauthorized and possibly illegal content. Hackers should not be rewarded. The New York Post article violated the so-called “Hacked Materials Policy,” Twitter wrote.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald commented on Twitter’s information policy. “If you take Twitter’s standards seriously, huge amounts of the most important and consequential journalism would have to be banned from the platform.” He pointed to revelations in recent decades, such as the Pentagon papers, WikiLeaks' war logs, Snowden reporting, and many more. Greenwald wondered why Twitter was not blocking access to the current articles of the New York Times" that disclose the contents of President Trump’s tax returns, as the newspaper had also received them “without permission.”
Facebook, for its part, justifies its censorship by saying that the content must first withstand a fact check. An argument that also raises questions. Greenwald added: “What makes Mark Zuckerberg’s social media company so competent to have the work of other journalists checked with fact checks?” Consistent thinking, this would mean that the Internet company would also have to first examine any article in which major newspapers rely on intelligence sources, which never happened in the past – a prominent example is the reports on Trump’s ties to Russia.