Who will guard the gatekeepers of our political discourse?
AS SAVAGE HAS SAID MANY TIMES: “Who will watch the watchers?” Or in Latin “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
On October 14, a New York Post story presented evidence that Hunter Biden had monetized access to his father, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The exposé, based on the hard drive of a laptop computer alleged to have been owned by the younger Biden, may or may not hold water. It is, however, worth noting that no one has ever explained what else, besides the prospect of a direct connection to the Obama White House, could account for Ukrainian energy firm Burisma’s decision to make then-Vice President Biden’s dysfunctional son a board member and pay him $50,000 a month.
The pixels had barely dried on the Post article before it generated, then became intertwined with, a controversy about the controversy. Within hours of its appearance on the newspaper’s website, two of the biggest social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, took steps to suppress the story. Facebook announced that, pending an independent assessment of whether the claims were accurate, it had adjusted its operating software to make it more difficult for users to share or discuss the article. Twitter went further, flatly preventing users from sharing the “potentially harmful” story. It also froze the Post’s own Twitter account, which has had no new entries for the past 11 days, as of this writing.
If Facebook and Twitter intended to make the Biden laptop story go away, however, their intervention had the opposite effect. Questions about a political family’s corruption became part of a larger debate about the power of social media platforms. Do the proprietors of our digital public squares censor and curate our discourse there? Are the rules for what can and can’t be said clear and universally applicable, or arbitrary and selectively enforced?
Other media platforms, too, have moved on from disinterested presentation and examination of the facts to explicitly supporting particular political causes. National Public Radio, for example, announced that it would have nothing to do with the Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories,” a managing editor explained, “and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.” (In August, NPR felt that an excellent use of its journalists and listeners’ time was a long, sympathetic interview with Vicky Osterweil, who had written the book In Defense of Looting.) Similarly, Glenn Reynolds devoted one of his weekly USA Today columns to Facebook and Twitter’s efforts to halt the spread of the Post’s story on the Bidens. USA Today spiked the column without explanation; it was available only to readers of Reynolds’s blog.
Open the aperture wider still, and it becomes clear that cutting-edge “liberal” thinking is increasingly hostile to liberty. John Stuart Mill believed that the free and full exchange of ideas not only honors the rights of the people who express them but also enhances the understanding of those who read or hear them. People shielded from ideas that they find noxious or absurd “have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say,” Mill wrote in On Liberty, in 1859. As a result, “they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”