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The Sunday Read: Twitter blocks dozens of legitimate news stories, and isn’t saying why

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(The Center Square) – Twitter is an incredibly powerful platform, because journalists around the world have made it so.

As Twitter itself professes, “Twitter is what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about.”

That’s true – except when Twitter arbitrarily determines that it doesn’t want you to talk about something.

The team at The Center Square learned as much over the past 10 days, a period of time in which Twitter banned the inclusion of dozens of our original, straight news stories from across the country.

Our crime? Well, we’re not sure. But signs point to The Center Square having the audacity to break news.

Greg Bishop in our Illinois bureau, who has covered state government in Springfield for more than a decade, was the first journalist in the country to report that the state-sanctioned committee looking into the bribery scandal for which energy producer ComEd has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and agreed to pay a $200 million fine had released new documents pertinent to the investigation.

The documents, which included not-so-cryptic references from a close confidant of Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, were dumped by the committee near the end of the business day on the eve of Thanksgiving. It’s a classic governmental move, and one that journalists regularly anticipate ruining their Friday nights, weekends and holidays.

Within moments after the story was posted at TheCenterSquare.com, our team shared the story on Twitter. A moment later, the link was blocked by Twitter.

But here’s the grip: There was no problem with Bishop’s story. It was timely, again he was the first to report, and it was factual. He had done one hell of a job to grit out the story and to source it directly with comments from committee members Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside) and Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon).

He beat the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The Associated Press, the (Springfield) State Journal-Register, the Illinois Press Association’s Capitol News Illinois reporting, and all of the state’s television and radio stations to publication. It was a huge win on a huge story that brought new light to perhaps Illinois’ biggest political news of the year.

And Twitter killed it.

In the 10 days that followed Bishop’s story, Twitter blocked dozens of stories from The Center Square. On some days, it blocked everything. On others, Twitter selectively blocked our reporting from across the country.

Why? You’ll have to ask Twitter why. I simply don’t know why, and couldn’t begin to guess why.

It’s not as if we didn’t ask Twitter what mortal journalistic sin we had committed in our attempt to fairly, accurately and swiftly report the news. Twitter hasn’t yet taken the time to explain it to us. I am not holding my breath that they will, and frankly don’t care why.

The arbitrary and capricious manner in which Twitter handles the news is inexplicable and routinely darts across the line into the realm of censorship.

Twitter operates like the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain, far removed from transparency.

The optics of this, as you might imagine, are not terrific for a newswire service. A blocked link suggests there is a problem with the story. And in this age of disinformation, there are plenty of problematic stories floating around in pixels. But it raises the point of who is and who should be the arbiter of the news. In that vein, blocking news in this country is shameful.

My perspective on this: Nobody, and certainly not Twitter, Facebook, Google or any of the so-called fact-checking operations that are out there trying to save the general public from whatever it is they are trying to save them from should be blocking the news. They shouldn’t be throttling down elected officials. They shouldn’t be posting warning signs across stories that indicate that a story is true or false. They shouldn’t be meddling in the free flow of news. Leave that to the banana republics that simply and swiftly shut off their broadband when they don’t like the news.

But under no circumstance should Twitter determine what Americans should and should not see or read, and their ability to manage truth is an onerous burden that they have readily and foolishly accepted.

Bad stories are bad stories. People have shared bad stories for generations. The marketplace of ideas sorts this out. Purveyors of bad business put themselves out of business. They don’t typically need any help. And the community policing of news on the platform, while sadly partisan, is already plenty active in the quests for amplification of their truths.

Twitter isn’t journalism. Twitter is a platform. It’s white space that journalists and plenty of other people with something to say populate with whatever might be interesting to them, newsworthy or may otherwise be on their minds.

What occurred with our story remains unclear. And here’s why: Twitter doesn’t have to answer to The Center Square, or to you, or to anyone.

We are willing participants of the platform. The next time you and your lawyer have nothing to do for a few weeks, I welcome you to read Twitter’s terms of service. If you put your house counsel on the clock, it may cost you a few hundred thousand dollars to sort it all out, but that’s the price of poker. Oh, and Twitter updated its terms of service in June. So if you spent the money to learn the rules this spring, you can start that exercise all over again so you can get clear.

Let me summarize these terms and save you some time and money: You don’t own Twitter. You don’t rent Twitter. Twitter monetizes the content that you post on its platform. In exchange, you may see some additional traffic to your website. And perhaps that photo that you took of your cat falling out of a Christmas tree will go viral and your cat will be famous. Or not.

So post if you want, or don’t.

Twitter owes you nothing, and reminds us all of this in times such as these.

Twitter offered no explanation for why it temporarily blocked The Center Square. We queried the technology platform twice over the past week and were sent form-letter email replies that explained nothing. We haven’t heard from Twitter, nor do I expect that we will.

Again, Twitter doesn’t answer to you. And who are you to even ask, really?

* * * *

Elsewhere in America…

ILLINOIS

All four defendants pleaded not guilty to bribery charges in the ComEd bribery scandal while Illinois House Republicans predicted more revelations in the scheme. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, hasn’t been charged with a crime and maintains he’s done nothing wrong. But he’s implicated in the nearly decade-long scheme where the utility said it tried to influence the speaker. Last month, two other former ComEd officials were charged, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and lobbyist John Hooker. Two known Madigan associates, Michael McClain and Jay Doherty, were also charged in the case. Corruption and fraud expert and Saint Xavier University Professor David Parker said despite the not guilty pleas, there could still be deals made.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said reductions in state spending are happening behind the scenes, but he didn’t provide any specific examples. He also said he needs the legislature to reconvene in order to make significant reductions in the state’s spending plans. The governor said he’s fighting two budget battles at once – one with COVID-19 and the other with the state’s structural deficit. “We’re continuing to look at the ways that we can cut government. I don’t want to cut services,” he said. “I want to cut the cost of government for people … You may think that that hasn’t already occurred, that we haven’t already make cuts, but actually we are doing it within the agencies even now.”

MICHIGAN

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she will not budge on relaxing recent shutdown orders mandated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Those orders were enacted two weeks ago by MDHHS Director Robert Gordon for a duration of three weeks. The governor said her administration has yet to determine if it will extend beyond next week the “pause” in reopening the state’s restaurants, bowling alleys and cinemas. At a news conference, Whitmer emphasized the MDHHS shutdown orders carry the authority of state law as a warning to businesses agitating to reopen throughout the state, including one movement spearheaded by the Andiamo restaurants in Southeast Michigan.

OHIO

In an effort that Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof said was the most sweeping regulatory reform in modern state history, the Ohio Senate voted to trim government regulations to help businesses across the state.

The Ohio House of Representatives made voices on the state’s college campus a little louder this week, if Gov. Mike DeWine approves. The House passed the “Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act,” which would prevent colleges and universities from limiting political speech on campuses or moving that speech into “free speech zones.” Fourteen other states have passed similar legislation.

PENNSYLVANIA

The 2019-20 biennial session of the Pennsylvania Legislature, which ended Nov. 30, will likely be remembered both for significant legislative accomplishments and for partisan clashes. Among the high points was a bipartisan push for criminal justice reform that led to the passage of the Clean Slate Act, making Pennsylvania the first state in the U.S. to make it nearly automatic to expunge long-ago criminal records for those who committed nonviolent offenses and have since been fully rehabilitated.

School choice and election reform, however, will likely be sore spots for those who recall the two-year term. A bill to dramatically increase the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit was vetoed by the governor, and Act 77 of 2019, which enjoyed wide bipartisan backing when it passed, has become the centerpiece of election drama as 2020 comes to a close. The legislation expanded mail-in voting as an option to all Pennsylvanians, and now many Republican lawmakers who voted for it are calling for its repeal amid allegations that votes were manipulated to ensure victory by Joe Biden in the presidential race.

NEW YORK

A Republican state lawmaker is leading a push to protect low-income New Yorkers from a significant hike in the cost of tolls on the state’s Thruway system. State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, told The Center Square that while the state’s finances are hurting, raising costs for the poorest people in the state was an inappropriate solution. “We’re not going to solve the deficit problem by charging the lowest income people,” Tedisco told The Center Square. “It’s shameful. They can try to develop all the excuses they want to, but it makes no sense for low-income individuals who live below the poverty line.” With the advent of the Thruway’s new booth-free E-ZPass system, drivers who don’t pay for an E-ZPass transponder will have to pay 30% higher tolls. Tedisco noted that the increase was likely to disproportionately affect those with lower incomes. “My colleagues cannot get rid of a $15 billion deficit on the backs of people below the poverty level,” Tedisco said. “They can’t put a whole bunch of money on an E-ZPass account and then not be able to afford bringing their kids to doctors or hospitals – that’s not going to work.”

NEW HAMPSHIRE

As travel restrictions between states tighten, particularly in New Hampshire’s neighboring state of Massachusetts, businesses once again are among the most concerned. New Hampshire allows free flow between New England states including Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but requires a 14-day quarantine or 7-day quarantine with a negative test at the end before travelers from any other states are allowed to mingle, according to Safer at Home New Hampshire.

WISCONSIN

Three of the four conservative justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court say the decision to send President Donald Trump’s first election lawsuit to a lower court is endangering future elections in the state. In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear the president’s