Twitter and Facebook Contend With Concerns Over Election Interference, Censorship

Social-media companies spent four years prepping their response to campaign-document leaks ahead of U.S. elections. When one came, things got messy.

When the New York Post this week published articles based on email exchanges with Hunter Biden—Joe Biden’s son— Facebook Inc. FB +0.29% and Twitter Inc. TWTR -1.24% saw the situation as one they spent years preparing to face.

Both social-media companies had been heavily criticized for doing too little to address manipulation and other problematic posts on their platforms in the run-up to the 2016 election. On Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook—within hours after the articles were published—determined the content triggered measures they developed in response and acted to limit the articles’ spread.

Their actions quickly drew a mixture of support, confusion and criticism, illustrating challenges the platforms face when they handle controversial content around elections. The moves fueled questions from everyone from users to lawmakers that the companies didn’t immediately answer about how they decide which articles from which news organizations to target for such scrutiny. Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey criticized his own company for not adequately explaining its actions, and in an about-face Thursday, Twitter said it was changing how it enforces potential violations of its hacked-content policy.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to subpoena Mr. Dorsey to testify about his company’s handling of the matter. Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that the Twitter and Facebook actions reflect bias against them and an effort to influence the election. The companies have strongly disputed those characterizations.

Inside Facebook, executives had performed role-playing exercises in recent months about how to respond to an email dump and described such scenarios in planning documents, according to people familiar with the matter. None of that preparation shielded the company from criticism.

After a Facebook spokesman in Washington said Wednesday morning that the New York Post articles were flagged for fact-checking—a potentially lengthy process—the company hasn’t made additional public statements on the matter. Facebook has said flagged items are less likely to show up in users’ news feeds.

Twitter went further, blocking people from sharing links to the articles or tweeting of images from them. It also suspended accounts of users who attempted to do that, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter said the material violated its rules aiming to prevent sharing information obtained through hacking and private information like phone numbers and email addresses without consent. It had blocked this type of material in the past, but never from a large news publisher like the New York Post.

News Corp—the corporate parent of The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.—also owns the New York Post.

Thursday evening, Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde said the rule change on how it enforces its hacked content rules came after receiving “significant feedback” over its handling of the Post articles. From now on, Twitter will provide context about the potential violation instead of blocking links unless the material was “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Ms. Gadde said. “We are trying to act responsibly & [sic] quickly to prevent harms, but we’re still learning along the way,” she tweeted.

Matt Perault, a former Facebook public-policy director who now runs Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday called the platforms’ explanations of their actions lacking.

“Generally, companies interested in protecting free speech would leave up content from major news organizations,” said Mr. Perault, before Twitter’s announcement.

Twitter and Facebook’s restrictions reduced the spread of the articles, but didn’t stop links to them from reaching an audience on their platforms outright.

The New York Post’s articles were shared on websites and social-media platforms 1.1 million times on Wednesday, according to an analysis from media analytics firm Zignal Labs Inc.

On Wednesday and Thursday, social-media research firm Storyful counted more than 94,000 tweets mentioning alleged censorship of the articles on Twitter and more than 6,300 mentions on public pages on Facebook, where it gained millions of interactions on pages, including those of President Trump, Fox News and Breitbart News. News Corp owns Storyful.

“The response that Twitter and Facebook have taken have clearly had the opposite of the intended effect because this is now the top story,” said David Perlman, a former Twitter data scientist who now works for computer-security company Leviathan Security Group Inc., adding that the companies need to think more strategically when addressing these issues.

The responses Wednesday were shaped by the reckoning over social media’s role in the spread of manipulation and disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to officials from social-media companies and independent cybersecurity analysts. In the summer of that year, for example, Russian intelligence operatives used a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 to leak Democratic Party groups’ emails that had been obtained through a cyberattack.

Since then, the companies have announced a bevy of new policies intended to crack down on election-related manipulation and disinformation, including restrictions on circulating so-called “hack-and-leak” material that appears to be private information stolen during a cyberattack.

“Russian actors relied on this technique in 2016, and we should all be ready in case they or others try again,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, earlier this month.

Leaders at social-media companies have said their priority has been addressing foreign influence operations targeting U.S. elections. Often, quick action is required during these operations, where stories can gain traction and go viral within hours, disinformation researchers say.

The New York Post’s articles cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden that were provided by allies of President Trump, who in turn said they received them from a computer-repair person who found them on a laptop. One article included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

The Biden campaign said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing and that no such meeting took place. It also said the New York Post didn’t ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead of publication.

The flagged articles cited email exchanges the New York Post said were written and received by Hunter Biden.

PHOTO: PAUL MORIGI/GETTY IMAGES

The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the New York Post articles.

A New York Post spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment. Post editors have said the social-media companies’ actions amount to censorship and that it stands by its articles.

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing and said he exercised poor judgment in joining Burisma’s board while his father’s vice-presidential duties included Ukraine. A recent investigation by Republican senators didn’t support an accusation by Mr. Trump and other Republicans that Joe Biden sought the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from investigation.

The timing of the email release by the New York Post and the circumstances behind how the information was obtained raised concerns among cybersecurity experts and some government officials that the material could be linked to a foreign disinformation operation—in an echo of 2016. Russian hackers have previously targeted Burisma Holdings, they say. And Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who the New York Post said gave it a copy of the hard drive, has visited Kyiv in search of damaging material on the Bidens, the Journal has reported. He has worked with multiple Ukrainians in that effort, including a lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned last month for acting as a Russian agent interfering in the 2020 presidential elections.

Mr. Giuliani told the Journal on Wednesday he didn’t know if the material published by the New York Post had come from a hack. On Thursday, he said on a satellite-radio program that “categorically, this has not been hacked.”

About a month ago, U.S. intelligence officials reached out to independent analysts familiar with Russian hacking attempts on Burisma, saying they had seen an uptick in signals that leaks of emails could be forthcoming as an “October surprise” event akin to the WikiLeaks releases of hacked Democratic emails in 2016, according to a person familiar with those conversations.

Earlier this year U.S. cybersecurity analysts said hackers believed to be affiliated with the same Russian military intelligence that hacked emails from Democratic Party groups in 2016 had breached Burisma and had been targeting the company since the previous November, as Congress was holding hearings on whether Mr. Trump abused his office by pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to work with Mr. Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. The Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump last year, and the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment in February.

Both social-media companies had been heavily criticized for doing too little to address manipulation and other problematic posts on their platforms in the run-up to the 2016 election. On Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook—within hours after the articles were published—determined the content triggered measures they developed in response and acted to limit the articles’ spread.

Their actions quickly drew a mixture of support, confusion and criticism, illustrating challenges the platforms face when they handle controversial content around elections. The moves fueled questions from everyone from users to lawmakers that the companies didn’t immediately answer about how they decide which articles from which news organizations to target for such scrutiny. Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey criticized his own company for not adequately explaining its actions, and in an about-face Thursday, Twitter said it was changing how it enforces potential violations of its hacked-content policy.

TECH NEWS BRIEFING
Twitter, Facebook Questioned Over Restricting New York Post Articles

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On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to subpoena Mr. Dorsey to testify about his company’s handling of the matter. Republicans, including President Trump, have argued that the Twitter and Facebook actions reflect bias against them and an effort to influence the election. The companies have strongly disputed those characterizations.

Inside Facebook, executives had performed role-playing exercises in recent months about how to respond to an email dump and described such scenarios in planning documents, according to people familiar with the matter. None of that preparation shielded the company from criticism.

After a Facebook spokesman in Washington said Wednesday morning that the New York Post articles were flagged for fact-checking—a potentially lengthy process—the company hasn’t made additional public statements on the matter. Facebook has said flagged items are less likely to show up in users’ news feeds.

Twitter went further, blocking people from sharing links to the articles or tweeting of images from them. It also suspended accounts of users who attempted to do that, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Twitter said the material violated its rules aiming to prevent sharing information obtained through hacking and private information like phone numbers and email addresses without consent. It had blocked this type of material in the past, but never from a large news publisher like the New York Post.

News Corp—the corporate parent of The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.—also owns the New York Post.

Thursday evening, Twitter legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde said the rule change on how it enforces its hacked content rules came after receiving “significant feedback” over its handling of the Post articles. From now on, Twitter will provide context about the potential violation instead of blocking links unless the material was “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Ms. Gadde said. “We are trying to act responsibly & [sic] quickly to prevent harms, but we’re still learning along the way,” she tweeted.

Matt Perault, a former Facebook public-policy director who now runs Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday called the platforms’ explanations of their actions lacking.

“Generally, companies interested in protecting free speech would leave up content from major news organizations,” said Mr. Perault, before Twitter’s announcement.

TECH AND SELF-REGULATION
What technology companies are doing to combat the spread of disinformation.

Twitter Slows Down Retweets Ahead of U.S. Election
Facebook to Suspend U.S. Political Ads on Election Day
Google and Twitter Sharpen Tools to Stop False Claims About Election (Sept. 10)
Facebook Joins With Researchers to Study Its Influence on Elections (Aug. 31)
Twitter and Facebook’s restrictions reduced the spread of the articles, but didn’t stop links to them from reaching an audience on their platforms outright.

The New York Post’s articles were shared on websites and social-media platforms 1.1 million times on Wednesday, according to an analysis from media analytics firm Zignal Labs Inc.

On Wednesday and Thursday, social-media research firm Storyful counted more than 94,000 tweets mentioning alleged censorship of the articles on Twitter and more than 6,300 mentions on public pages on Facebook, where it gained millions of interactions on pages, including those of President Trump, Fox News and Breitbart News. News Corp owns Storyful.

“The response that Twitter and Facebook have taken have clearly had the opposite of the intended effect because this is now the top story,” said David Perlman, a former Twitter data scientist who now works for computer-security company Leviathan Security Group Inc., adding that the companies need to think more strategically when addressing these issues.

The responses Wednesday were shaped by the reckoning over social media’s role in the spread of manipulation and disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to officials from social-media companies and independent cybersecurity analysts. In the summer of that year, for example, Russian intelligence operatives used a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 to leak Democratic Party groups’ emails that had been obtained through a cyberattack.

Since then, the companies have announced a bevy of new policies intended to crack down on election-related manipulation and disinformation, including restrictions on circulating so-called “hack-and-leak” material that appears to be private information stolen during a cyberattack.

“Russian actors relied on this technique in 2016, and we should all be ready in case they or others try again,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, earlier this month.

Leaders at social-media companies have said their priority has been addressing foreign influence operations targeting U.S. elections. Often, quick action is required during these operations, where stories can gain traction and go viral within hours, disinformation researchers say.

The New York Post’s articles cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden that were provided by allies of President Trump, who in turn said they received them from a computer-repair person who found them on a laptop. One article included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

The Biden campaign said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing and that no such meeting took place. It also said the New York Post didn’t ask the campaign about critical elements of the story ahead of publication.

The flagged articles cited email exchanges the New York Post said were written and received by Hunter Biden.
PHOTO: PAUL MORIGI/GETTY IMAGES
The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the New York Post articles.

A New York Post spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment. Post editors have said the social-media companies’ actions amount to censorship and that it stands by its articles.

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing and said he exercised poor judgment in joining Burisma’s board while his father’s vice-presidential duties included Ukraine. A recent investigation by Republican senators didn’t support an accusation by Mr. Trump and other Republicans that Joe Biden sought the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 to protect Burisma from investigation.

The timing of the email release by the New York Post and the circumstances behind how the information was obtained raised concerns among cybersecurity experts and some government officials that the material could be linked to a foreign disinformation operation—in an echo of 2016. Russian hackers have previously targeted Burisma Holdings, they say. And Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who the New York Post said gave it a copy of the hard drive, has visited Kyiv in search of damaging material on the Bidens, the Journal has reported. He has worked with multiple Ukrainians in that effort, including a lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned last month for acting as a Russian agent interfering in the 2020 presidential elections.

Mr. Giuliani told the Journal on Wednesday he didn’t know if the material published by the New York Post had come from a hack. On Thursday, he said on a satellite-radio program that “categorically, this has not been hacked.”

About a month ago, U.S. intelligence officials reached out to independent analysts familiar with Russian hacking attempts on Burisma, saying they had seen an uptick in signals that leaks of emails could be forthcoming as an “October surprise” event akin to the WikiLeaks releases of hacked Democratic emails in 2016, according to a person familiar with those conversations.

Earlier this year U.S. cybersecurity analysts said hackers believed to be affiliated with the same Russian military intelligence that hacked emails from Democratic Party groups in 2016 had breached Burisma and had been targeting the company since the previous November, as Congress was holding hearings on whether Mr. Trump abused his office by pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to work with Mr. Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. The Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump last year, and the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment in February.

Media Echo Chambers: Ana Kasparian

um and one of the issues is that media
06:12
has become like hyper-specialized
06:14
and so with the way algorithms are set
06:18
up on social media
06:19
you’re exposed to a very specific bias
06:23
based on what you’ve read and what
06:24
you’ve been interested in watching
06:27
those algorithms learn your behavior and
06:29
then they just like continue spitting
06:30
out
06:31
like content that reinforces what you
06:34
already believe so your
06:36
your own views never get challenged
06:39
unless you make a
06:40
real effort uh to listen to perspectives
06:43
that differ from your own
06:44
that’s why even now even though it makes
06:47
me sick every time i do this
06:49
i i make an effort to hear what
06:51
conservatives are saying what are their
06:52
arguments
06:53
and it’s good to know what their
06:54
arguments are because very rarely they
06:57
might have a point but that’s rare
06:59
honestly and you should investigate what
07:01
they’re saying because they might have a
07:02
good point
07:03
but more often than not in the process
07:05
of investigating
07:06
what their claims are you became you
07:09
become better prepared
07:11
to uh support and defend where you stand
07:14
on the issues
07:15
but here’s the thing like most americans
07:17
don’t have time for that and and
07:19
there needs to be a real discussion
07:20
about uh media literacy media
07:23
uh consumption i don’t even know how to
07:26
tackle it at this point uh because there
07:28
are moneyed interests that play a huge
07:29
role in how
07:31
social media operates so i think that’s
07:33
a huge problem
07:34
and yeah i think that there’s like this
07:36
culture on the right of
07:38
owning the libs while they’re really
07:40
just owning themselves they’re finding
07:41
themselves in terrible economic crises
07:44
uh you know they’re seeing their own
07:46
family members die from a virus that
07:48
they did not need to die from
07:50
and it’s all because of you know their
07:53
avid support for someone who does not
07:55
care about them never has and never will
07:58
want to win a free electric scooter
07:59
while our partners at aspiration
08:01
and zoom electric are making it possible
08:04
all you have to do is head to tyt.com

Jack Dorsey Has Floated Decentralized Fact-Checking at Twitter. Here’s What That Could Look Like

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently re-tweeted a call for fact-checking through open-source tech rather than new intermediaries like Twitter.

Dorsey’s message came at the end of May, after Twitter fact-checked tweets by President Donald Trump about mail-in voting, leading Trump to sign an executive order attacking Section 230 protections. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from civil liability for the content on them and has enabled companies such as Facebook and Twitter to thrive.

A decentralized approach to fact-checking is likely to be popular in the blockchain community, which has long championed ideas like the “verified web.”

“It shouldn’t be tech companies per se getting into fact checking,” Balaji Srinivasan, an angel investor, entrepreneur and former CTO of Coinbase,  tweeted. “It should be open source technology. Free, universally available code and data for epistemology. Take a piece of text, parse it, extract assertions, compare to explicitly specified knowledge graphs and oracles.”

“Agree this should be open source and thus verifiable by everyone,” Dorsey replied.

Facts are a flashpoint on the political stage right now, and given Dorsey’s quasi-endorsement of a tech “solutionism” approach to fact-checking, it begs the question: What would such a system look like?

Thousands of people commented on Srinivasan’s and Dorsey’s tweets, referring to projects they thought might serve as future models.

Newsblocks

One project is called Newsblocks, based in Glasgow, Scotland, and was conceived as a way to organize data for Newslines, a sister project. Newslines creates interactive news timelines about any topic. Think of it as a kind of “Wikipedia for news.” 

Here is an example for Conor McGregor, which has almost 2,000 events in it.

Mark Devlin is the CEO of Newsblocks and has been in publishing for years. He founded Metropolis, one of Japan’s top English-language magazines and Japan Today, a popular Japanese news site in English. His claim to fame: He was the first person anywhere to place reader comments directly under news stories.

Devlin realized the news he was collecting was actually data. For example, an article about Yoko Ono holding an art exhibition today will likely mention that she was married to John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980. That’s three pieces of data that can be extracted from the article and then used in different ways.

“Once news is data then the data can be used to make all kinds of new products. You can sort the data to create timelines and newsfeeds,” said Devlin. “You can compare the meta data, like the data’s sources and other factors to enable verification and fake news detection, and you can compare data with other data to do automated fact-checking by comparing pieces of data.”

As an open platform everyone can use the same data, companies can create news verification systems, such as credit agencies for news, and could be used by social media companies, like Twitter.

The idea of news-as-data led Devlin to blockchain technology, which can collect, verify, store, price, and distribute such data, in something like a news data marketplace.

Ideamarket

Ideamarket, a Los Angeles-based startup, aims to provide more objective rankings of information or ideas and move beyond traditional gatekeepers like media companies. It launched its prototype in November of 2019, and is built on Ethereum.

Idea markets use investment to establish credibility for ideas and narratives without trusting a centralized third party,” said founder Mike Elias in a blog post. “Fundamentally, idea markets use price discovery to advance discovery.”

Ideamarket functions somewhat similarly to Reddit, in which people can upvote various media brands, including independent journalists. But instead of having no cost, upvotes cost money and increase in cost as vote count increases, meaning that people have to put their money where their mouth, or itchy retweeting trigger finger, is.

THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO PAY HEED ARE THOSE WHO ARE OPEN TO QUESTIONING WHAT THEY HEAR

It makes credibility expensive, said Elias. “For media corporations it makes it equally expensive for everybody in the same way that bitcoin makes money equally as expensive for central banks as it is for you and me. It creates true competition for credibility and incentivizes the public to do due diligence and seek undervalued ideas.”

In addition to investing in and earning interest on the sources they trust, users could also sell the ones they don’t, and earn money off that as well. Elias likened it to a stock market, but for ideas.

Elias’ plan is to launch a browser extension that would include the ranking of the news source next to articles from it on social media. 

So, for example, depending on how the market shakes out, CNN might sit at 10th and Brietbart at 90th. Anyone can see how much trust a publisher has earned. Such a system could rank news sources on a platform like Twitter, without a single company having control over them and having to be the dreaded “arbiter of truth”.

“Rather than say this is true or false, which doesn’t really respect the readers free will and ability to make different judgments, we’re saying the market has put this at this rank,” said Elias. “And you can interpret a low ranking as fake news or an opportunity, because it’s undervalued.”

Any time soon

All of these models are at the early-early stage. Ideamarket is in the middle of raising its first round of angel investment, and Devlin has been unable to find funding for Newsblocks despite seeing significant interest in it, which he finds disheartening.

Another obstacle may also be the frustration of people trying to create platforms for facts in the current political environment. I reached out to Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab and the senior research scientist on a project called Defacto, for this article. Defacto is a decentralized crowdsourced news verification system.

He said he wished he could help but the dilemma he faces is that Defacto is preaching to the converted. This is not a new problem, said Lippman, but is intensified by the low friction and high speed of current platforms.

“We can develop all the mechanisms in the world to check facts and propagate results, but the only people who pay heed to that are those who are open to questioning what they hear,” said Lippman. “

As Jonathan Swift said 300 years ago, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”

Trump’s Response to Twitter Is Unconstitutional Harassment

His executive order aimed at social media companies should be ignored.

Last week Twitter began for the first time to suggest that some of President Trump’s tweets might lack a factual basis. It did so by attaching warning labels to messages in which Mr. Trump made false claims about mail-in ballots. The labels were not to the president’s liking, so he complained about them, accusing Twitter of “interfering” in the 2020 presidential election and “stifling” free speech.

Mr. Trump is free, under the Constitution, to complain all he likes. But he didn’t stop there. He also issued an executive order, which named Twitter numerous times, meant to potentially expose the company to considerable legal liability by weakening the legislative protections that social media platforms enjoy for user conduct. Before issuing the order, Mr. Trump warned on Twitter that Republicans “will strongly regulate” social media companies or “close them down” if they continue to “silence conservatives voices.”

By retaliating against Twitter for what it said in its warning labels, Mr. Trump violated the First Amendment. Official reprisal for protected speech, as the Supreme Court has put it, “offends the Constitution.”

It is crucial to stand up to this kind of bullying. For the sake of what remains of America’s constitutional order, Mr. Trump’s executive order must be regarded by all law-abiding parties as null and void — as “no law at all,” as the legal maxim goes. To act otherwise, to give it one iota of influence, is to grant the president an alarming authority he is not supposed to have: to use the power of the state against speech with which he disagrees.

The two government agencies responsible for carrying out the executive order — the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — should politely ignore it (or in classic Washington style, put the matter under indefinite consideration). By design, neither agency has a legal duty to obey the president. Their chairmen, Joseph Simons of the F.T.C. and Ajit Pai of the F.C.C., cannot be fired for disagreeing with Mr. Trump, and they have a higher duty to uphold the Constitution.

Those targeted by Mr. Trump’s order — Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and any other host of content on the internet — should take this as an opportunity to demonstrate that they cannot be intimidated by groundless threats. Twitter, to its credit, has taken this path, having declined, so far, to budge. Facebook, less honorably, has reacted to the threats by taking great pains to assure the White House that it thinks it wrong to fact-check politicians. That may be the company’s genuine position, but its assertion in the face of threats is cowardly.

It is worth noting that the problem with the executive order goes beyond the issue of retaliation. The order is also what the law calls a “prior restraint” on the speech of other social media companies that might consider adopting policies similar to Twitter’s fact-check labeling. In addition, the order is an effort to rewrite a congressional statute — the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is the source of the liability protections at issue — which is a power the presidency does not have. Finally, the order evokes statutory authority that the Federal Communications Commission lacks and asks the Federal Trade Commission to take actions that are likely to violate the Constitution.

In short, the order is a legal dumpster fire. Any second-year law student could tell you this, and in a more responsible administration, the White House Counsel’s Office would regard it as its duty to prevent such an order from seeing the light of day. But the order was issued, and the danger is that even if and when it fails in court, it may nonetheless have succeeded in its goal of intimidating social media companies into not doing what the First Amendment gives them the right to do.

This is not to say that Twitter’s labeling and fact-checking policies necessarily strike the right balance between censure and tolerance of user conduct. The speech policies of internet platforms have been disputed and discussed at length since the 1990s, and for good reason: Getting content moderation right is not easy. Different platforms approach the problem differently.

But no one who believes in the importance of free speech wants the president, equipped with the censorial power of government, to be able to dictate what speech policy should be followed by social media companies nationwide. Independence in such matters has now become the equivalent of the editorial independence of the press. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both now clearly part of the media, need to show that they will not be cowed by illegitimate threats.

The tech CEOs’ year of reckoning

The head of a technology company won’t save the world.

It wasn’t so long ago that tech CEOs and their wares were changing the world. In fact, we heard that quite often: This or that “innovation” will make the planet a better place. Silicon Valley was clearly getting high on its own supply as it ramped up the hype that the earth was a wasteland until the titans of tech had graced us with an easier way to post a filtered photo or share our thoughts on the finale of Lost.

We were blind, and our eyes were opened by zeros and ones. The tech utopia was at hand, and we should just sit back and not ask too many hard questions.

Then things went sideways. Social networks that were the catalyst of the Arab Spring were suddenly being used by nation-states, shit posters and bot armies to destroy democracy and fuel racial violence. Using public roads to beta test software resulted in deaths and of course billions of dollars were essentially wasted. The messiahs thought-leaders innovators disrupters run-of-the-mill ultra-capitalists who promised a better tomorrow crumbled under the slightest scrutiny.

People started asking questions, and the answers weren’t what tech promised.

As the year came to a close, The Verge revealed that Away (which makes suitcases with batteries in them. I guess that means they’re a tech company) CEO Steph Korey was abusing employees via Slack. After the usual mealy-mouthed apology, Korey was fired.

There have been the usual back-and-forth articles and think pieces about whether Korey was targeted and/or if the dismissal was warranted. The reason some people might feel like treating employees badly shouldn’t be a fireable offense is that a long time ago most of us excused the behavior of Steve Jobs. There are far too many stories of Jobs’ cruelty to employees. We allowed it because “OMG, look at that shiny new iPhone” and “Wow, the MacBooks are so great.” Oh also, he saved Apple from complete collapse.

A generation of tech CEOs believed that this is how you manage a company. It’s not, and now their bad behavior is being called out by employees that work long hours in high-stress situations all hoping they’ll make it big via an eventual IPO. Dear CEOs, You’re not Steve Jobs. Stop trying to be Steve Jobs.

By the end of 2019, on the other side of the spectrum was the tech CEO who thought everything was a party. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann burned through billions of Softbank’s (and other investors’) money. The “visionary” offered up shared office space for thousands of startups and a few publications. Subletting space to those in need seems like a good idea. Hotboxing private jets and buying the real estate that your company is leasing, not so much. Ahead of its IPO, investors took a good look at Neumann’s company and realized that it was incinerating cash: $1.9 billion last year to be precise. In the first half of 2019, it lost $904 million. The real estate wunderkind was let go and for all his failures he got a sweet golden parachute of $1.7 billion in shares and loans. Meanwhile WeWork employees have been let go in the wake of his management decisions.

Tossing other people’s money into a pit of snake oil-fueled flames was the basis for the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about the rise and fall of Theranos and, more importantly, its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We all knew the story thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou’s investigation of the company way back in 2015. But seeing this unfold on our TVs in 2019 was a reminder that even though things didn’t seem right at the company, Silicon Valley’s sway as the answer to all the world’s ills blinded established companies, reporters and members of the US government.

The blinders that allowed companies like Theranos continuing to bilk people and companies out of money are not just turned outward. Sometimes, the person in charge seems to have no sense of what’s going on. Jack Dorsey wants to be the cuddly “woke” CEO of tech. At the end of 2018 Dorsey tweeted about his silent retreat in Myanmar. The country that has committed genocide and spread hateful propaganda via social media. He issued the usual non-apology apology. Then his account was hacked via an SMS SIM hijack.

This type of hack has been around for a while but it wasn’t until the CEO was compromised that the company put the brakes on the ability of Tweet via SMS. It felt like things were only worth fixing or updating if it affected the boss.

Twitter’s been a headache for another CEO. After some rather weird, unlawful and downright dangerous tweets about his company, reporters and individuals, Musk seems to have tamed his tweets as of late. His company is making a profit, and Tesla is building test vehicles at the new China factory. But, his past Twitter behavior came back to haunt him in the form of a lawsuit brought by the diver he called a “pedo guy.”

The jury found that Musk was not guilty of libel. But being hauled into court for calling someone a child molester via a tweet is never a good look. It’s ridiculous. Also, because of the trial, we found out that Musk hired a private investigator that was a convicted felon to dig up dirt on the diver. Musk’s fans truly believe he will save the world. If that’s his plan, awesome. But maybe concentrate more on climate change and less on hurt feelings and Twitter fights.

Lost money, angry tweets, unsafe medical practices and being blind to the woes of the world should not be something that shows up on the resume of a CEO. But the actual coup d’etat is the destruction of democracy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress again in 2019 (the litany of misleading statements he gave in his 2018 appearance concerning election tampering and Cambridge Analytica kept fact-checkers busy) to answer for his company’s Cryptocurrency scheme Libra and paid political ads on his platform. It didn’t go well. But he still insisted that his company would continue to allow politicians to lie in ads on his platform.

Zuckerberg always mumbles something about Facebook not policing free speech, which is a hilarious shield for a company that’s kicked abuse survivors off its platform for using pseudonyms or, worse, changed their names without their consent making them targets. The company has also policed and banned accounts and ads which it deemed has violated its nudity guidelines for ridiculous reasons. Like an ad for a breast cancer nonprofit.

Oh also this year he rewrote the history of Facebook during a college commencement speech laughably citing the first Iraq war as a reason he built his social network. In reality, he built a “Hot or Not” clone for Harvard classmates then decided to expand it for dating.

After years of essentially lying to the press, investors and the government, Mark Zuckerberg and his company continue to make a staggering amount of money on the backs of those lies.

Most of these CEOs are still rich. Golden parachutes, expensive lawyers and great quarterly numbers mean we’ll see these folks again. Some will fail upward. Some might get better. Others won’t.

What’s important is that, maybe once and for all, we’ll see that tech CEOs are not going to save the world. Like CEOs in other industries, they care more about making themselves and their investors rich. 2019 showed us that we’re not better off because of these folks. If anything, things have gotten worse. Technology and billionaires won’t make the world better. It’s up to us.