The New York Post grabbed media attention recently. They purport to have acquired Hunter Biden’s laptop containing emails damning to Joe Biden. This story has also been suppressed on Facebook and Twitter because of issues with its sourcing and general credibility. This matter raises an array of important issues relevant to philosophy. As always, I will present my principles and arguments while also noting possible objections and counters to my views. I am aware this is largely pointless from a practical standpoint; but it is a matter of ethics and professionalism.
The first point of concern is the matter of profiting from family connections to people holding public office. I do agree with the obvious fact: Hunter Biden profited from being the son of Joe Biden because there was no other reason for the deal he received. Even if Joe Biden did not actively aid his son and even if this deal did not influence him, allowing this sort of exploitation of connections is morally problematic because it opens the door wide to corruption. I have also consistently argued that there should be robust laws with meaningful punishments to deter such corruption. If Biden was actively involved in this matter, then this would be one more moral mark against him to add to the stack. If he was not actively involved, then this would not be a mark against him personally—after all, a person is not morally accountable for a relative exploiting their fame or position without their cooperation.
The second point of concern is the credibility of the story. While the truth of a claim is independent of the source of the claim (to think otherwise would be to fall for an ad hominem or genetic fallacy) it is sensible to consider the source when assessing credibility. If a source is biased, this does not mean the claim made by that source is false. But bias does lower credibility since a biased source is more likely to engage in making untrue claims than an objective source. The Hunter Biden story has been linked to Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon and suspected Russian agents. Giuliani and Bannon raise credibility issues on at least two counts. The first is that the are obviously biased in favor of Trump against Joe Biden. The second is that the two men are prone to lying or at least making claims that are not true. Politifact’s page on Rudy lays out some of his untrue claims. Steve Bannon was recently arrested for fraud, which impacts his credibility. I want to stress, once more, that these credibility issues do not disprove the claims about Hunter Biden—to think otherwise would be to fall into fallacious reasoning. But they do raise reasonable concerns about the credibility of the claims being made. As such, if you are believing the claims by appealing to the credibility of the source, this would be a very weak (perhaps even fallacious) argument. As a practical matter, people will tend to believe or reject the claims based on their own ideological/party affiliation and dismiss by any means any reasons offered that go against their established views. This is one of the many problems with having a two-party system: with two sides people tend to psychologically support their side and reject the other based primarily (or solely) on their feelings about the sides. While a meaningful third party would not solve this problem, it would at least offer a third alternative for people to consider.
But let it be supposed that the story is completely accurate. If this is the case, this would be another mark against Joe Biden, and he would have done wrong. But, as I have said many times in recent posts, the election is not whether Biden is bad or not but whether Biden is worse than Trump. As I have argued repeatedly, we only have two viable choices: Biden or Trump will be president and it comes down to deciding which is worse. So, let us accept that a political leader is acting wrongly if they use their office to provide a special and undeserved benefit to a relative. If Joe did this for Hunter, he would be wrong. But since this is an election of Biden versus Trump, Trump must also be assessed.
While Trump and his family have been accused of profiting from his position as President, some of the claims are not entirely accurate. But the claims that are accurate are matters of serious concern because they show how Trump and his family benefit unfairly from his being President. However, what is undeniable is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband occupy positions of considerable power and influence because of their relationship to the President. While one might counter that Ivanka is not paid for her work, it would be impossible to deny that her position grants her incredible influence. And that Trump is seemingly in violation of the 1967 anti-nepotism law, Section 3110 of Title 5, U.S. Code. What trump is doing exceeds what Biden is accused of doing to help his son. As such, if we accept that this sort of nepotism is bad, then Biden is bad, but Trump is worse. Once again, I am not saying Biden is great, just that by the standard that nepotism is bad, then Trump is worse for the most obvious of reasons. That is, Ivanka and her husband.
The third point of concern is that Twitter and Facebook have suppressed the story. As would be expected, people tend to react to this based on their political party rather than in accord with a consistent principle about censorship by corporations. To illustrate, conservatives tend to profess a free-market, de-regulated approach towards business. They also tend to favor giving businesses an extensive right to limit worker free speech. But in the case of this story, many become very concerned about regulating Twitter and Facebook and suddenly favor protecting free speech from businesses’ usual right to limit it as they see fit. Folks on the left tend to favor free speech, but might be fine with restricting this story.
Thanks to business-friendly laws and the fact that the 1st Amendment does not apply to businesses, Facebook and Twitter currently have the legal right to censor tweets and posts. This is, crudely put, in line with the right a business has to keep Antifa employees from hanging up “Anarchy Now!” posters at the office and to keep Marxist employees from giving speeches to the customers at McDonalds about freeing themselves from the chains of capitalism. Consistently requires that if McDonalds can forbid Marxist employees from pitching the revolution while serving up Big Macs, then Facebook and Twitter can suppress any post or tweet they wish. That is capitalism, baby. But there is the moral question of whether Facebook and Twitter should be doing this.
As an appeal to intuition, I will rely on my hope that you probably value the 1st Amendment because it protects the right to free speech from the state. I will also rely on my hope that you probably think that the right to free speech extends beyond the legal right and is also a moral right that should be broadly protected by moral norms if not by law. This is not to say that such a right is limitless—as Mill argued, rights do require limits to exist. To illustrate, for you to exercise your free speech others must be limited in their right to silence you. Because of this, I hold that the moral right to free speech should be broadly protected while being limited by the classic principle of harm.
There are also matters such as professionalism and (honest and uncoerced) contractual agreements. For example, I accept that I do not have the right to spend my class time trying to convert my students into D&D playing distance runners—they have the reasonable expectation that I will be there to teach the class in a professional manner and not advance my gamer-runner agenda. There is also a just expectation that I will not use my position to harm, intimidate or lie to my students and that I will show up wearing clothing. That is, there are reasonable limits on what I can do because of my professional situation.
Social media companies do present an interesting situation. They are private businesses and can thus set the rules of their games. But they also hold considerable dominance over communication. Facebook, Twitter, and Google could work together and very effectively silence someone who lacks the funds or fame to access the traditional media. As such, their degree of control over speech would seem to entail that they should be restricted in how they can restrict speech. As such, I am concerned when they exercise their control to suppress or silence.
That said, I recognized (above) the obvious fact that there are moral limits to what speech should be allowed and tolerated. For example, while I should not silence students who disagree with a philosopher I agree with, I would be right to cut off a student who started advocating genocide or who started screaming insults and threats at other students. Likewise, for social media—they have a moral responsibility to keep people from weaponizing their platforms. They are doing the moral equivalent of handing out knifes and explosives: while these have good uses (surgery and road construction) they can also be misused. And saying “hey, we just handed out knifes and explosives…what people do with them is on them” is not morally acceptable. Neither is “hey, we just give people a massive platform, what harm they do with it is on them.”
The obvious moral challenge is working out principles guiding when social media companies should suppress posts. This is a massive challenge, especially because of the current state of shared moral values in the United States—there is a tolerance for advantageous lies that benefit one side, and the very concept of truth has been corrupted. Good faith is called for in this matter, but this seems to be in short supply. But, one hopes, it is not exhausted. I cannot, obviously, lay out these principles in this short post—but I am thinking about them. Given the questions about the credibility of the story, these companies would seem to be in right for putting the brakes on it. But one could argue that they acted wrongly in restricting free speech rights—but an argument would be needed and not just rhetorical expressions of outrage.