The New Gatekeepers

This is what happens when speech gets outsourced to Twitter and Facebook

June 21, 2018

Both Facebook and Twitter are struggling to get a handle on how their platforms are being used by bad actors, but their solutions are causing almost as many problems as they are solving. In the case of Facebook, the giant social network has been building an archive of political ads, as a way of making up for the fact that Russian trolls manipulated the platform during the 2016 election, but news companies are being caught in that net, and they are not happy about it.

Reveal, which is published by the Center for Investigative Reporting, complained on Wednesday that it was blocked from promoting a news story because Facebook said it was political advertising, and others have complained of similar behavior. What makes this particularly galling, some publishers say, is that since Facebook has reduced their “organic” reach, they have no choice but to pay to promote their news stories if they want any of their readers to see them, but then when they do they are penalized.

ICYMI: Washington Post apologizes to freelancer after killing story over retweet

Rob Goldman, VP of advertising for Facebook, explained in a series of tweets on Wednesday that this happens because the news outlets in question haven’t been approved to post political ads, and paying to promote a political news story qualifies as a political ad. Megha Satyanarayana, engagement editor at STAT News, told CJR the site had been blocked from promoting stories in the past, but after getting authenticated—which involved a page administrator supplying photo ID and a special code—there hasn’t been a problem. This doesn’t change the fact that many media entities, including The New York Times, believe they shouldn’t have to go through this process at all, however.

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In the case of Twitter, the company blocked a range of accounts—including many belonging to journalists—for 24 hours, after they posted messages about a story published by Splinter News (formerly Fusion, which is owned by Univision) that included the private phone number of White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, the person many blame for the separation and internment of immigrant families. Twitter apparently saw publishing his phone number as “doxxing,” or revealing personal information about someone for the purpose of harassment, and put the users in “Twitter jail.”

Whether posting Miller’s phone number should be seen as doxxing is obviously up to Twitter to decide, as is the punishment for this supposed crime, since it (like Facebook) is a private corporation running a platform it controls, and thus isn’t bound by the First Amendment. That said, however, blocking someone for simply posting a link to a website raises some interesting questions. How far is Twitter—or any other platform—willing to go in taking this to its logical conclusion? What if a journalist links to a site that has ISIS videos, or pro-Nazi content, for news purposes. Will they be blocked?

The reality of the internet as it exists right now is that several large platforms effectively control speech in a much more dramatic and far-reaching way than was ever possible in the past. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are like shopping malls, where the mall owner gets to control the speech of anyone who enters, but these malls include literally billions people all across the globe, and the speech that occurs there—including journalism—has very real social consequences. The algorithms these companies are using to curb certain kinds of speech, meanwhile, tend to be both erratic and clumsy. Can the platforms find a way out of this Catch 22 without stomping all over publishers and users?

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Correction: An earlier version of this post described Splinter as being the former Gawker Media, but it is the renamed Fusion site, which was merged with Gawker Media by Univision.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.