‘Facebook wants Trump to lose’
Sohrab Ahmari on the attempt to silence the ‘laptop from hell’ story.
The US votes for its next president today. One of the great scandals of the campaign was the New York Post’s Hunter Biden exposé. Even more scandalous than the allegations which came from the ‘laptop from hell’ was the attempt by the social-media giants to censor it. This latest furore raises important questions about Big Tech’s role in politics and its ability to silence opinions it doesn’t like – questions which will continue to be asked regardless of the outcome of the election.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor to the Catholic Herald and a writer for First Things. He joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
Brendan O’Neill: Your newspaper, the New York Post, was involved in a global controversy – the story of the ‘laptop from hell’, as Trump calls it. There was a report in the Post about possible findings on a laptop relating to Hunter and Joe Biden and their relationship with Ukraine. The most shocking part of this story was the response of Big Tech, which enacted probably the most direct form of censorship it has to date. People were prevented from sharing the story on the basis that it was false, had not been checked out, or had been obtained from hacked materials. What was it like to have that experience of being unable to share a story from your own newspaper, and what does it tell us about the role Big Tech is playing at the moment?
Sohrab Ahmari: About five hours after our story went up, I noticed a tweet by someone called Andy Stone, who works in the communications department of Facebook. He basically said the story needed to be fact-checked, and in the meantime Facebook had acted to reduce its circulation. Before joining Facebook, Andy Stone served as a staffer for a Democratic senator and worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Democratic organs. Someone who is part of the Democratic establishment has his hands on the levers of internet power.
About an hour after that, I tried to share the story on my Twitter account, and it would not let me. It said the story was blocked. I, an editor at the Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton, could not share this bombshell story.
Twitter even blocked users from sending the story in direct private messages. It said our Biden story was derived from hacked material. It was not – it was based on material recovered from a laptop, seemingly belonging to Hunter Biden. And this story has stood up. Neither Hunter nor Joe Biden has said the material is inauthentic. Neither of them has denied ownership or provenance of the laptop.
O’Neill: It is simply staggering that in the run-up to an election, a publication like the Post has been prevented from tweeting until it does what Silicon Valley wants. It is an extraordinary snapshot of the alarming power of these platforms. A very good point you make is that there have been so many stories about Trump that have either been discovered in questionable ways, or have contained highly questionable information or things proven to be factually wrong, and yet Twitter and Facebook have not taken similar action against those stories. Would you say we are witnessing simple, partisan authoritarianism by corporations trying to prevent people calling into question one side in the presidential election?
Ahmari: There are a number of factors in play. One is that these two firms are run by techno-libertarians. A Facebook insider who I spoke to said the rank-and-file of these firms are all ultra-woke white millennials and Generation X-ers. These people have enormous power, because they are the programmers, the testers, and the computer scientists that on a day-to-day basis oversee what is essentially our public square. This Facebook insider said that because most of these employees want Trump to lose, if they can rig the platforms against him, they will.
Another factor is that, bizarrely, Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was blamed partly on Facebook, because it was a place where people could freely post things, and people felt it had been abused by Russian intelligence services to post disinformation, and that is why Clinton lost. This is nonsense. It is true that Russian intelligence posted some stupid memes. But Hillary lost because she was an unattractive candidate, and voters were sick of the consensus that existed. But for a narrow but influential band of American thinkers, policymakers and pundits, it was easier to blame Facebook rather than accept that for many working- and middle-class people, things were not working.
O’Neill: We had a very similar experience in the UK in relation to Brexit. It was, crazily, blamed on social-media outlets and apparently shady organisations like Cambridge Analytica. It all speaks to the inability of the old technocratic establishment to understand why people turned against it. But you have been writing recently about the need for conservatives to get woke. I think you mean conservatives have got to start taking the culture wars more seriously, and to understand that a huge number of institutions, both political and corporate, are against them. Is that fair?
Ahmari: A woke conservative is one who is aware that many of the major institutions of the American establishment are not with them, and are not with our people. They are beholden to this woke, lefty ideology, which is also strangely corporate-friendly. Corporations have no problem not only promoting it, but accommodating all its demands. Business has become political because the businesses are staffed by this new, youngish elite that has been marinated in this ideology. But it is also for a deeper reason: it is to corporations’ benefit to have a world that is generally borderless, where capital, labour and services move freely.
A woke conservative recognises that our main constituency is working-class and middle-class people. True conservatism has to be anti-corporate now. In the US, when something like Big Tech censorship happens, people are obsessed with formal arguments – they say it is terrible but Facebook is privately owned so we can’t do anything about it. No – we have to do something about it. These platforms are acting politically, and therefore they should be subject to some greater political accountability, regardless of what free-market libertarians – who are increasingly irrelevant to the right – have to say about it.
O’Neill: The point you make about conservatives needing to confront corporations is really interesting, because one of the things that’s very striking about Trump is that he has proven himself willing to do that, especially in relation to the social-media oligarchies. He’s also found himself in conflict with traditional political institutions and even the security apparatus in the US. Trump sometimes seems more rebellious than the supposedly rebellious left. Do you think conservatives need to be more like Trump in terms of being willing to recognise the reality of our times and be more confrontational in relation to these institutions that are against their values and ideas?
Ahmari: Yes, I do. Trump’s shortcoming is that while he rose to power on a wave of a populist discontent, he has not delivered nearly as much as I would have hoped in this area. Conservatives should become more confrontational, but not for confrontation’s sake – rather, they should do it because the old consensus was not serving the common good of the American people. A narrow band of young, educated technocrats was doing really well, but vast swathes of American society were being left behind.
I hope that Trump wins. But if he doesn’t, I see other conservatives who understand this stuff, but who are, in a way, more sophisticated and articulate advocates for it: people like Senators Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio. There are analogues in Britain, too – Phillip Blond and Nick Timothy, for example. There are conservatives making the right arguments, whereas the left is utterly at peace with the corporate order, and only wants to rejig representation. It thinks Amazon can pay its workers so little, and offer them so few breaks that they have to urinate in water bottles, but it’s okay because the new corporate board is half transgender.
Sohrab Ahmari was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here: