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EDITORIAL: Silicon Valley as the arbiter of truth

The progressive media and Big Tech remain wholly perplexed at how Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election — but they’re committed to ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. In the process, however, the latter could be hastening its own demise.

The New York Post recently reported that emails on a laptop purportedly owned by Hunter Biden document his effort to cash in on his father’s political connections. The device’s hard drive was obtained by Trump operatives Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, who obviously sought to make its contents an election issue. There was some controversy over the legitimacy of the material, but the Biden camp hasn’t claimed the communication is fake and, in recent days, sources have come forth to confirm the legitimacy of some of the material.

The relevancy of all this should be up to individual voters, of course, but a whole host of gatekeepers aren’t interested in trusting them with the information. Mainstream media outlets ignored the story for the most part under the guise of not wanting to publish potential misinformation that could influence the election. But the tech giants went even further. Facebook limited distribution of the story; Twitter banned links to it and has kept the New York Post’s account locked until it deletes tweets about the Biden caper.

So much for these platforms being “content neutral.”

The incident only reinforces criticism from the right about the bias of Silicon Valley. It’s now difficult not to take such charges seriously. When Mother Jones magazine, for instance, broke the story of the Steele dossier, which contained all sorts of dubious and unverified information about Mr. Trump, it shortly became a mainstream media and social media sensation. Why are different standards being applied to the Hunter Biden emails? As Reason magazine’s Robby Soave noted, why not try to verify or correct the story rather than pretend it doesn’t exist?

Big Tech’s efforts at censorship, however, failed miserably. Not only did the Biden story’s suppression draw more attention to the issue — shares of the Post scoop almost doubled after the Twitter block — it also reinvigorated efforts on Capitol Hill to bring down the regulatory hammer. On Thursday, Senate Republicans authorized subpoenas for Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to appear before the Judiciary Committee to talk about their practices.

The companies also face increased scrutiny from those on the left who are uncomfortable with their sheer size and dominance. “Many of the problems that we’re discussing … are a direct result of the enormous market power of these tech firms,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told The Wall Street Journal. “The absence of competition has resulted in a decline of innovation, oppressive contracts, anti-competitive behaviors.”

As social media platforms “have become more active at algorithmically ranking the content that users upload, and moderating the undesirable stuff, they have edged toward being something more like publishers,” The Economist noted last week. “Mr. Zuckerberg says he does not want to be an ‘arbiter of truth’. The Post episode fed the suspicion of many that, willingly or not, that is precisely what he is becoming.”

The controversy raises questions about media practices during this age of connectivity in which ubiquitous devices deliver information instantaneously. And private tech companies are not government actors subject to the First Amendment. They are free to promote whatever political slant they deem appropriate, but it would be helpful if they were honest about their own predispositions rather than presenting an aura of impartiality.

The prospect of Washington politicians or bureaucrats stepping in to regulate online content should make defenders of free speech squeamish, to say the least. Even efforts to increase liability for tech companies regarding information they distribute could result in unintended consequences that limit discourse. The vital concept of free expression needs all the support it can get these days. It doesn’t help when the tech giants chum the Potomac by abandoning even the appearance of evenhandedness in service to their enmity for Mr. Trump.

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