Facebook and YouTube, two of the highest institutions of the big tech establishment, decided to take action against the Trump administration by removing all posts which spread the dox of the alleged whistleblower behind the Ukraine impeachment inquiry. As the companies face potential lawsuits on the grounds of press censorship, the false debate between public transparency and whistleblower privacy protections rages on.
In a recent report from BuzzFeed News, it was revealed that the administration had issued dozens of paid advertisements making baseless speculations as to the whistleblower’s identity, relying on a report about the person’s general description and the fact the name has been raised by Republicans during impeachment proceedings. The target, reportedly both a former Obama administration staffer and current CIA officer, has been the subject of such conservative outrage since early 2017, yet it wasn’t until recent months that the name was spread across media gossip rags and click hunters, from the partisan niche likes of Breitbart to the more mainstream Real Clear Investigations.
The decision to remove posts spreading the rumors follows comments from prominent Republican political figures, specifically Sen. Rand Paul (R-KT) and Donald Trump, Jr., who publicized the name all over social media and called on journalists to do the president’s bidding in reprinting it. In response, the whistleblower’s lawyers issued a counter statement that “identifying any suspected name for the whistleblower will place that individual and their family at risk of serious harm. We will not confirm or deny any name that is published or promoted by supporters of the president.”
Whether [REDACTED] is actually the whistleblower is largely irrelevant. For those who raise arguments of big tech removing press freedom and public transparency against state actors — a position which makes me a political radical — it’s also important to acknowledge the dangerous context surrounding the whistleblower. This isn’t some civil democracy where a staffer and the president can engage in a polite battle of ideas. On numerous occasions, the president has made obstructive comments indicating the whistleblower is a “spy”, committed “treason” and suggested they be executed like “what we used to do in the old days when we were smart”.
In releasing this information at the wrong time without the right protections, the government can simply pick their target (without evidence), potentially remove them from their post and seek to throw them in jail as a declared traitor to be hung in the public square. This raises not only concerns of individual privacy being squashed by authoritarian rulers, but it also places public transparency in danger. When it comes to the release of government secrets and the naming of the whistleblowers and journalists who exposed their behavior, these sides are not mutually exclusive. There’s just a time and a place for such cautious information. And remember, “information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”
In this proper context, Facebook and YouTube confirmed to CNN their sites would remove content that mentioned the alleged whistleblower’s name in titles, descriptions, texts, and videos. “Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant, or activist.’ We are removing any and all mentions of the potential whistleblower’s name and will revisit this decision should their name be widely published in the media or used by public figures in debate,” a Facebook spokesperson said. The companies also indicate their decisions weren’t made based on there being a violation of their terms of services.
While this should concern us on the basis of TOS being not a charter to live by, but rather a convenient stick to beat users whenever they’re so inclined. the use here isn’t without merit. Even if they’re unaccountable in their own ivory towers, decisions to hold the powerful to account should be acknowledged for what it is. Some unjust actions can lead to just outcomes for just reasons. This doesn’t make the issues go away, of course, but it does give some perspective that is too easily glossed over. A perfect example is Tim Pool, an alleged journalist, who complained all over social media about being unable to spread the government’s designated dox. “Welcome to the dystopian nightmare,” he wrote, “where big tech is colluding to censor newsworthy and public information.”
To say this framing is in bad faith would be an understatement. This isn’t a grand conspiracy where the press and the tech industry are in a smoke-filled backroom running a shadow, deep state, impeachment coup. There’s certainly issues with their relationships, as I’ve reported multiple times, but we’re seeing an observable effort by the president, his fellow party members, and their partisan outlets to scapegoat their wrongdoings onto the original accuser. For those inclined to search, it’s perfectly fair to do your own research and come to own conclusions about their record, but this harmful dystopian nightmare isn’t just online obstruction of justice, it’s kicking and screaming from the White House.
Thank you for reading. This article was published for TrigTent, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary. Bailey Steen is a journalist, editor, and designer from Australia. You can read their work on Medium and previous publications such as Janks Reviews and Newslogue.
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