The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sorry, Republicans. Social media companies aren’t obligated to spread your lies.

Rudolph W. Giuliani gestures as he speaks during a rally in front of the Luzerne County Republican headquarters in Kingston, Pa., on Oct. 10. (Dave Scherbenco/AP)

What’s the biggest scandal of the week? Is it that: (a) U.S. spy agencies have warned that President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was promoting Russian disinformation to smear Joe Biden over his son’s business dealings in Ukraine? Or is it that: (b) Twitter and Facebook hesitated to act as a conduit for Giuliani’s wild charges? If you’re a partisan Republican, the answer is obviously (b). If you’re a normal, patriotic American, the answer should be (a).

Beginning Wednesday, the New York Post, a tabloid controlled by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, began publishing a series of stories reporting on the alleged contents of a laptop that Hunter Biden supposedly left with a Delaware computer repair shop — whose owner was said to have shared the contents with Giuliani.

Even if all the emails are true, they don’t establish a scandal. The very first line of the very first New York Post article was false: “Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.”

As TheWashington Post has repeatedly reported, the Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was not investigating Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. Joe Biden demanded, on behalf of the U.S. government, that Shokin be fired precisely because he was complicit in corruption. Both the Biden campaign and Hunter Biden’s lawyer also deny that the meeting described ever took place. But even in knocking down these lies, the mainstream press gives them visibility — which is what Trump wants.

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Note my copious use of “allegedly” and “supposed.” That’s because we have no idea whether the emails are legitimate. The Murdoch tabloid did not provide header information or metadata to allow other media organizations to verify them. Thus we have no way of knowing if these emails were hacked or whether they are genuine — or perhaps a mixture of fake and real.

Caution is particularly in order because Giuliani had been working to malign Biden with Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who has been described by Trump’s own Treasury Department as an “active Russian agent.” The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had been warned last year by the U.S. intelligence community “that Giuliani was being used to feed Russian misinformation to the president.” (Giuliani told The Washington Post he was not informed that Derkach was working with Russian intelligence.) Trump’s own national security adviser reportedly told him “that any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia.” NBC News reports the FBI is now investigating whether the emails hyped by the New York Post “are linked to a foreign intelligence operation.”

It would be the height of irresponsibility to simply broadcast these dubious allegations without first verifying their veracity and provenance. That’s what happened in 2016 when social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter became conduits for a massive Russian attack on the U.S. election. Kremlin operatives leaked hacked Democratic Party emails and set up bogus accounts online to help elect Trump.

It is entirely understandable and proper that Facebook and Twitter should exercise some caution this time around. Twitter initially banned links to the New York Post article because of its policy against distributing hacked emails and sharing private information. Facebook said it would reduce the article’s visibility in its news feed until it could be verified by fact-checkers. That did not, however, prevent the Hunter Biden emails from being widely shared on Facebook.

Yet Republicans screamed “censorship” and vowed to haul Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to Capitol Hill for a grilling. Trump on Friday even tweeted a link to an article, in all seriousness, from a satirical website claiming that Twitter took down the entire network on Thursday to stop the spread of negative news about Biden. Journalist Windsor Mann quipped: “If a satirical website can dupe the president, imagine what foreign intelligence agencies do to him.”

Under pressure, Twitter backtracked on Thursday night, saying it will remove content only if it’s posted directly by hackers. That is practically an invitation for Kremlin hackers to launder their dirty deeds through outlets such as the New York Post or WikiLeaks.

The right is simply wrong to claim it is the victim of “censorship” by social media companies — and the mainstream press should refrain from using that loaded and inaccurate term. The top nine links on Facebook on Thursday were all from right-wing sources — talk-radio host Dan Bongino, Fox “News,” Trump, Breitbart and Franklin Graham. But Facebook and Twitter are private-sector companies, and they have no obligation to pass along possible Russian disinformation. That’s not “censorship.” It’s editorial judgment, and it’s something we need more of online.

Former president Barack Obama was right to warn on Wednesday about the lack of “guardrails” within the “media ecosystem,” which leads to “insane conspiracy theories like QAnon seeping in to the mainstream of the Republican Party.” (He spoke before Trump on Thursday all but endorsed QAnon.) I’m all for free speech, but the First Amendment does not impose on companies a mandate to spread Russian — or Republican — disinformation. We need more pushback, not less.

Read more:

Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: An explainer

Greg Sargent: Trump’s fake new Biden scandal has a deeper purpose. Bannon revealed it.

Megan McArdle: How Twitter and Facebook’s attempt to squelch a dubious Biden story backfired

Karen Tumulty: Rudy Giuliani was once compared to Churchill. Now he acts like a shady Watergate goon.

Henry Olsen: Twitter’s double standard has become painfully clear

Lee C. Bollinger and Donald E. Graham: Trump’s assault on Twitter is an attack on the First Amendment