Twitter’s Calvinball Rules on Illegally Obtained Materials

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(Photo Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

You may recall, in the fall of 2020 in the heat of the presidential campaign, Twitter locking a major American newspaper, the New York Post, out of its account over the Post‘s story on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. It did the same to the Trump campaign and its press secretary for sharing the Post‘s reportage. According to Twitter at the time, this was not due to any issue with the authenticity of the Post‘s journalism (which turned out to be well-supported and all-but-admitted by the younger Biden), but because of a Twitter policy, purportedly in place since 2018, that “prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization. We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials.”

As with so many things in the world of Big Tech regulating the speech of its users, this was a policy suddenly applied on the fly to a story that helped Donald Trump against Joe Biden. The rule was abandoned by Twitter once it had served its purpose, and the journalistic solons who defended it had no such qualms when the New York Times published Trump’s confidential tax returns. They are now unconcerned that ProPublica is publishing “a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years,” all of which was extremely illegal for anyone to leak to the press. This is reminiscent of when Facebook and Twitter recently blocked another Post article about a “Marxist” Black Lives Matter founder buying a swanky mansion, on the theory that it revealed details about her private residence, a rule that is likewise not applied at all consistently. Just this week, a major controversy in the New York newspapers revolves around the residence of mayoral candidate Eric Adams. The press has likewise pursued House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy over an apartment he leases; Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post even directed his readers to where they could find “good photos of the property.”

The lesson here is that these platforms make up rules on the fly without any sort of principle, then change the rules as needed (or when they are no longer needed). That will only fan the flames of calls for the government to regulate their vast power over the distribution of public speech.