New York Post Editor Sohrab Ahmari: Big Tech Censorship Should Concern Catholics
The Catholic commentator spoke with the Register about Facebook and Twitter’s clampdown on his newspaper’s reporting about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, relevant to the presidential election.
The New York Post published an explosive story last week reporting that, on the basis of files recovered from a laptop allegedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter, then-Vice President Biden met with executives from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm for whom his son worked in 2016.
If true, the report would undermine the presidential hopeful’s previous claims that “he has never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” and would suggest he used his political influence for familial financial gain.
The story has received national attention, but perhaps less so for its politically-charged contents, and more because of how social-media giants Facebook and Twitter have suppressed it. Both Silicon Valley-based companies — whose employees send more than 90% of their political donations to Democrats, according to Fox News — took action on Oct. 14, the same day the Post story was published, to limit its reach on their platforms.
Facebook adjusted its algorithms to prevent the story from appearing high in people’s news feeds, effectively curbing the number of users who would see it. Twitter went even further. It blocked its users from tweeting posts that included links to, or even pictures of, the Post story. Twitter has also locked the Post’s Twitter account since the article was published.
Twitter justified its decision by pointing to its policy that “prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization” — a policy that has not been consistently applied before.
The tech giants’ moves drew criticism from across the political spectrum, from concerns that their policies and decision-making lacked transparency to accusations of downright politically-motivated censorship. On Oct. 22, the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized subpoenas to compel Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify about why they suppressed distribution of the Post’s article.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor for the New York Post and a Catholic convert and commentator. He spoke with the Register Oct. 21 about the deeper dynamics surrounding Big Tech’s treatment of the Biden story and why it should be a concern to Catholics and others who hold views unpopular with Silicon Valley progressives.
What are the implications of what you’ve experienced at the New York Post for the Church, Catholic causes and other viewpoints unpopular with Big Tech?
I think the Church and Church leaders, both clerical and lay, should be aware and vigilant of what’s happening, because this is very sinister. The two major [social-media] platforms, Twitter and Facebook, have arbitrarily and baselessly censored our reporting, reporting that is still undisputed by the subjects of the story — Hunter Biden and Joe Biden [note: the Biden campaign, citing the former vice president’s calendar in 2016 and the absence of any mention of meetings with Burisma officials, has denied that the alleged meetings ever took place, but Biden himself has yet to go on the record regarding the allegations].
There had been no factual dispute when the censorship dictates came down. And those dictates are still illegitimate because there are plenty of stories that are far less verified, far less deeply corroborated than ours that never get censored.
So why should this matter to Church leaders? Because we know that, as I’ve reported for the Post separately, these institutions are basically staffed by ultra-woke, ultra-lefty young programmers. And of course they view Church teaching on a range of matters as not only wrong, but illegitimate and harmful. Catholics might refer to these things as part of the natural law, but they reject any and all of that. So you can easily see how the censorship dragnet could be dilated, expanded, to include “views that make people feel unsafe and don’t have sufficient context,” namely, on marriage or abortion or what have you.
Twitter frames its own stories; it has its own editorial voice. What could that mean? These Big Tech powers, as powerful and unaccountable as they are, could turn their attention to the Church. The Church is always the enemy of these forces. So why wouldn’t they seek to silence bishops, Catholic outlets like the Register, or just your average layperson who [posts on] Church teaching on controversial issues?
If our politics today are characterized by power grabs and a lack of a shared vision of the common good, what’s your argument against this kind of censorship by privately held companies? Why can’t they censor views they disagree with?
The right to free speech means anything, it lives or dies on these platforms. If I, as a private citizen, were to go out into a street corner and bang a drum and say, “Hunter Biden is corrupt,” sure, I have the right to do that, but very few people are going to hear me, and I’m going to look like a nutter. And if free speech lives or dies is on these platforms, so they are effectively our public square. And so the formal distinction of whether coercion happens publicly or privately is, in a way, secondary or tertiary even, and irrelevant.
This has deep roots in classical thought, as well. Private tyranny is as much tyranny as public tyranny, and in fact it can be more dangerous because it’s much more unaccountable, much less responsive to popular concerns and pressures, as we see right now with what’s happening to the New York Post.
The Church has always, insofar as it draws from classical thinkers like Cicero, has been aware that there are such things as private tyrants. A lot of the classic legal-political tradition is more concerned with these kinds of private tyrannies than it is with government, which is seen as a way to correct for or discipline private tyranny.
So that’s my philosophical argument. The more practical argument I’d forward is that the fact of the matter is that these platforms are acting like publishers. When the governing law on these matters, called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, was enacted in the 1990s, what Congress had in mind was that these types of platforms operated like bulletin boards, and anyone could come and have their say on the bulletin boards. Therefore, they rendered them immune from the typical liabilities of a publisher, like the New York Post or the National Catholic Register, but allowed them to censor things like prurient content and pornography and so forth. So they said, you can sort of act like a quasi-publisher and also be immune to a publisher’s typical liabilities.
But [Facebook and Twitter] have gone far beyond that in terms of what they censor and edit. In other words, the law, at least as interpreted, has failed to keep up with the reality of these corporations, which is that they go far beyond eliminating prurient content. Instead, they censor content with which the disagree politically, for political reasons, and they promote a narrative of their own. In other words they act like a publisher in dual ways: They both have their own worldview, which they put forward, and suppress other worldviews.
So, really, it’s just a question of fairness. If I, as an editor of the New York Post, could be held liable for publishing libel on my site, or you, as the Register, could be held liable for defamation or libel, because we act like publishers, then why shouldn’t these platforms? All the critics are asking for is a level playing ground. If you’re going to act like publishers, let’s have them treated as a publisher. If not, go back to being a bulletin board, as was originally promised.
You’ve tweeted about politicians who talk a big game about concerns with Big Tech censorship but aren’t willing to follow through. What are your hopes, either from a Senate hearing or action from Congress, on these issues of fairness and censorship?
I think a Senate hearing is important, and it’s important to be done urgently, as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has been calling for. He has been a very bold and courageous voice on these matters. I was also able to get a comment yesterday in a piece that appeared in today’s paper from Sen. Marco Rubio [R-Fla.], reporting how the team that helps finetune these censorship algorithms for Facebook is composed of at least six Chinese nationals. When I put that before Sen. Rubio, he said, “This to me says that the firms no longer deserve Section 230 protections.” That’s a pretty big deal, because I don’t think Sen. Rubio had previously said that. And so you see lawmakers moving.
Also, on a parallel track, the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Agit Pai, recently released a statement saying the FCC has the authority to clarify what the law meant. And he did this right after the Post got censored on Facebook and Twitter. Is it connected? I don’t know, but the fact that they’re now saying that there might be regulatory interpretation, that’s another promising avenue.
But the bottom line is that this is not a commercial issue alone. It’s not an issue of free markets alone. Because these corporations are acting politically, and, therefore, they’re open to action by legitimate authorities. And so we need a political response, and not just a kind of market response, “Well, let’s just badger them, or beg them, or petition them with nice words.” We need political action. Because again, from classical thought, politics is architectonic; it shapes and determines everything else. And so we can’t leave these various realms of life to the vagaries of high-tech billionaires who happen to be woke and lefty.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style and clarity.