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

(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…


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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 lawsuit that challenges more than 200,000 votes in Milwaukee and Dane counties.

A judge in Waukesha County issued a temporary injunction Monday that stops the governor from moving ahead with his planned coronavirus business-shame list, at least for now. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has been fighting for months to keep the governor from outing businesses that have seen a customer or a worker test positive. More than 1,000 businesses that had at least two employees who tested positive for COVID-19, or had two or more contact tracing investigations, were reportedly on the governor’s list.


Minneapolis residents have standing to sue the city over an alleged police staffing violation, Hennepin County District Court Judge Jamie Anderson has ruled. Anderson’s order rejected the city of Minneapolis’ attempt to throw out the lawsuit because the city said residents lacked standing to sue. Eight Minneapolis residents sued the City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey in August, arguing they violated the charter requirement to staff roughly 743 officers for the 425,000-person city. The lawsuit argues that the number of licensed police officers has dropped from 825 at the start of 2020 to about 634.

On Wednesday night, Gov. Tim Walz introduced sweeping four-week restrictions to combat COVID-19, sparking outcry from restaurant groups and Republicans warning of the inevitable economic fallout. The restrictions started at 11:59 p.m. Friday and stretch until Dec. 18. Among the restrictions are prohibitions on in-person social gatherings with anyone of another household; limiting restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery only; and shuttering gyms, fitness studios and event spaces.


The Sunshine State is one of seven in the U.S. that does not require remote retailers to collect and remit sales tax from online purchases. An effort to do so last spring failed in the Florida Legislature. Now facing a $2.7 billion budget shortfall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican state Rep. Chuck Clemons has reintroduced an “e-fairness” bill ahead of the 2021 legislative session. Clemons’ bill would remove the distinction between remote and on-site sales and places the burden for collecting sales taxes on the seller. Government watchdog Florida TaxWatch estimates an e-fairness bill would generate up to $700 million annually for the state.


A state audit released last week found the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction distributed $68 million in direct Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds without measuring the outcomes in programs the money went toward. The audit also found the department failed to establish a way to monitor spending of the relief funds, leaving around $76 million at risk for potential misuse. State Auditor Beth Wood said NCDPI initially said it did not gather the information because the state legislation behind the funding did not require it. In his response to the audit, NCDPI Superintendent Mark Johnson blamed some of the discrepancies on “fluid and evolving authoritative resources.”


A legislative committee appointed to review emergency powers of the executive branch in Tennessee adopted recommendations last week to limit the executive’s powers, and lawmakers will consider bills based on the committee’s recommendations when they return to Nashville on Jan. 12. Tennessee has been under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Bill Lee since March 12, and state law does not provide for the Legislature to end a state of emergency. Tennessee has no time limit for how long a state of emergency can last. Among the recommendations adopted was giving the Legislature power to end an executive state of emergency by adopting a resolution.


West Virginia is one of the few states to decrease overall state spending in fiscal year 2020, according to an annual report from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). According to NASBO’s 2020 State Expenditure Report, state spending partially declined because of cuts in response to economic uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Total state expenditures decreased from just under $17.95 billion in 2019 to just over $17.73 billion, which amounts to a 1.2% decrease. West Virginia saw a decrease in corrections expenditures from $363 million to about $293 million, which is more than a 19% reduction. It also saw a significant decrease in many of the miscellaneous categories, such as “all other expenditures” and “other capital expenditures,” which account for spending and projects that don’t fall into any major category. There were small cuts to transportation, as well.


As school districts across the state of Texas moved to remote learning only or a hybrid model, families are withdrawing their children from public school systems at historic levels, according to a report from Texas Home School Coalition. The number of students withdrawing from public school to home-school has averaged an annual growth rate of 6.5 percent between 1997 and 2019, but exploded after the state shut down in-person instruction in March. The coalition says it has helped 400 percent more families withdraw from public school over the past several months. The number of public school students who are receiving F grades during remote learning also has escalated. In Houston, for example, 42 percent of its students received at least one F grade in the first six weeks of school when only online learning was offered. That’s significantly higher than the 26 percent of students who received one or more F grades during the first nine weeks of in-person instruction last year.


More people applied for state unemployment benefits in Louisiana last week than the week before, though the increase was nothing like the recent spike that officials attributed to fraud. At the same time, thousands of Louisiana residents continue to request and collect federal unemployment benefits through programs set to expire before the end of the month without action from Congress. The U.S. Department of Labor reports 10,830 people in Louisiana made new state unemployment claims during the week ending Nov. 28, up 785 from the week before. The week before that, officials reported more than 40,000 new claims, later stating that many of those claims were under investigation for possible fraud.


Denver Mayor Michael Hancock boarded a plane last week to visit family for Thanksgiving, less than an hour after tweeting that residents should “avoid travel, if you can.” The mayor issued a quick apology, but not before being heavily criticized on social media and making headlines across the nation.

Denver is moving forward with a scheduled minimum wage increase to $14.77 per hour even as small businesses continue to struggle during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. City officials said the increase will provide “an economic stimulus by increasing their ability to spend.” Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs said the scheduled increase “will just exacerbate the problem.”


As New Mexico gets deeper into a second major shutdown, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is closing grocery stores, increasing the number of residents with food insecurity in the state. Derek Lin, policy analyst for New Mexico Voices for Children, told The Center Square that 34% of the state’s families will have experienced food insecurity this year. Food deserts, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as an area that combines a high percentage of low-income residents and a dearth of accessible food sources, also are increasing. “I think that the closing of grocery stores because of COVID outbreaks will continue to make food deserts worse – from my understanding that’s a big piece of it,” Lin said.


Proposition 208, Arizona’s most recently approved tax increase, could be voided if a pair of legal challenges succeed. Once Arizona’s voter-approved tax increase on higher wage earners was certified by state leaders as having succeeded on Nov. 3, two groups filed challenges. One lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Goldwater Institute representing House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, the nonprofit Arizona Free Enterprise Club, and others. Another, filed by the Rose Law Group, represents a local business owner and a former county judge. Both allege that the Invest in Education ballot initiative is an unconstitutional tax hike. “Arizona’s Constitution gives voters the power to pass initiatives, but it also imposes important limits on the initiative power,” said Timothy Sandefur, Goldwater Institute Vice President for Litigation.


The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday sided with two California church groups that are challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor religious services during the latest COVID-19 surge. “Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court provides great relief for churches and places of worship,” Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman Mat Staver said of the ruling. Liberty Counsel is representing Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry in their lawsuit against the state. “The handwriting is now on the wall,” Staver added. “The final days of Governor Gavin Newsom’s ‘color-coded executive edicts’ banning worship are numbered and coming to an end. It is past time to end these unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship.”


A small town in Washington is defying Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide shutdown. Mossyrock, Washington, passed an ordinance allowing businesses to stay open in opposition to the governor’s month-long limits on gatherings and ban on indoor dining, which Mayor Randall Sasse has characterized as an abuse of power.


Government restrictions during the pandemic led to tens of millions of job losses across the country. It also led to a significant increase in American families suffering from food insecurity. More than 50 million Americans will be food insecure in 2020, including 17 million children, Craig Gundersen, a Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics professor at the University of Illinois, says. And according to estimates published by researchers at Northwestern University, food insecurity has impacted as many as 23 percent of all U.S. households so far in 2020. Food insecurity in households includes those who are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their family members because they have insufficient money or other resources to purchase food. The most food insecure households are those with children headed by a single woman, followed by households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold.

Chris Krug is president of the Franklin News Foundation, a non-partisan 501(c)3 non-profit news organization, and publisher of The Center Square. Contact Chris at ckrug@franklinnews.org.

By Chris Krug | The Center Square
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