The conservative site College Fix has an account from a Cornell student that caught my eye today in light of the lawsuit yesterday against Twitter by Project Veritas for violating ill-defined “privacy rule.” Joseph Silverstein says that he was suspended after showing a widely available picture of Hunter Biden in his underwear — one of the pictures taken from his laptop. Twitter insists that the picture violates privacy rules despite being taken from an allegedly abandoned laptop, widely discussed in the public domain, and concerning a matter of public debate. It is also another example of Twitter’s strikingly conflicted censorship policies where images of Rudy Giuliani allegedly groping himself are permissible but a media confrontation in front of a home with a Facebook executive or a picture connected to the Biden laptop are not.
Silverstein recounts posting a tweet above the picture stating “Imagine if this was Don Jr. instead of Hunter Biden?” The picture has appeared widely in publications and on various sites.
Twitter however deleted the tweet, suspended the student, and notified him that he was blocked for “violating our rules against sharing privately produced/distributed intimate media of someone without their express consent.”
Notably, a recent study purportedly showing neutral censorship rules by Twitter admitted that the company does not share actual data and that any information is actually “inconclusive” on bias due to the refusal of the company.
The concern is that Twitter is taking to heart calls from Democratic members for increased censorship on the platform. CEO Jack Dorsey previously apologized for censoring the Hunter Biden story before the election. However, rather than addressing the dangers of such censoring of news accounts, Senator Chris Coons pressed Dorsey to expand the categories of censored material to prevent people from sharing any views that he considers “climate denialism.” Likewise, Senator Richard Blumenthal seemed to take the opposite meaning from Twitter, admitting that it was wrong to censor the Biden story. Blumenthal said that he was “concerned that both of your companies are, in fact, backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” Accordingly, he demanded an answer to this question:
“Will you commit to the same kind of robust content modification playbook in this coming election, including fact checking, labeling, reducing the spread of misinformation, and other steps, even for politicians in the runoff elections ahead?”
“Robust content modification” seems the new Orwellian rallying cry in our society.
What is interesting about the Twitter decision on this student is that this type of image would be the basis in torts of a claim of the public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. However, that tort has an exception for newsworthiness:
§ 652D Publicity Given to Private Life
One who gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the matter publicized is of a kind that
(a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
(b) is not of legitimate concern to the public.
The student was using a widely discussed image of the son of the President — one of many images that critics allege not only show his period of abusive drug use (while being paid by foreign companies) but also images that could have been used to influence or blackmail the family before they were disclosed through the laptop. It is part of a national news story despite the active effort of many in the media to avoid the story. It would by any measure satisfy the newsworthy exception as would the image of Giuliani.
There is no question that this is an embarrassing photo as are the other photos of drug use and sexual trysts. The question for Twitter is what standard it is applying to public figures and public officials in such stories.
It is particularly concerning to see Twitter (which is responsible for censoring the story before the election) continuing to block discussion and refusing to address the glaring contradiction with other images allowed on its platform. Indeed, that it is the point of the tweet that the lack of media attention is in striking contrast to the “anything goes” atmosphere for conservative figures like Donald Trump Jr.