Biden’s Sneaky Censors: Behind the Scenes, Federal Officials Pressure Social Media Platforms to Remove Disadvantaged Speech, by Jacob Sullum
“Tech platforms are notoriously opaque,” the White House complained last week, saying Americans deserve to know more about how online forums decide “when and how to remove content from their Site (s”. Yet the Biden administration, which regularly pressures social media companies to remove speech it dislikes, is hardly a model of transparency in this area.
In a lawsuit they filed last May, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt argue that the administration’s “Orwellian” crusade against “misinformation” violates the First Amendment. They are trying to learn more about this “vast censorship enterprise” in a multitude of federal agencies, and the administration is fighting them every step of the way.
So far, Landry and Schmitt have identified 45 federal officials who “communicate with social media platforms” to reduce “misinformation.” Emails obtained in the discovery show that these platforms are desperate to comply with government demands on speech restrictions, including the removal of specific messages and accounts.
On July 16, 2021, President Joe Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” by not removing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. That same day, a senior executive at the platform’s parent company emailed Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a bid to assuage the president’s anger.
“Reaching out after what has happened over the past few days following the publication of the misinformation notice, and culminating today with the President’s remarks about us,” the Meta executive wrote. “I know our teams came together today to better understand the scope of what the White House expects of us on disinformation going forward.”
Murthy had just published an advisory calling for a “whole of society” effort, possibly including “legal and regulatory measures”, to address the “urgent threat to public health” posed by “misinformation about health “. Biden’s homicide charge came the next day, and Meta was keen to address the president’s concerns by cracking down on speeches that offended him.
Shortly after, Landry and Schmitt report, the same executive texted Murthy. “It’s not great to be accused of killing people,” he said, adding that he was “looking forward to finding a way to defuse and work together.”
And he did. “Thank you again for taking the time to meet with us earlier today,” the Meta executive said in a July 23, 2021 email to the Department of Health and Human Services. “I wanted to make sure you saw the steps we took last week to adjust policies on what we’re removing in terms of misinformation.”
The executive boasted that Meta had removed objectionable Instagram pages, groups and accounts, taken steps to make several pages and profiles “harder to find on our platform” and “expanded the pool of misrepresentations we delete”. Other posts show that Twitter was just as eager to line up.
Social media companies have the First Amendment right to exercise editorial discretion. But that’s not what really happens when their decisions are shaped by implicit or explicit threats from the government.
The White House mentioned a few of those threats last week: “antitrust laws,” privacy regulations, and “fundamental reforms” to the law that shields platforms from liability for user-posted content. Given the sweeping powers the federal government has to make life difficult for social media companies, the administration’s “demands” for stricter moderation amount to orders.
Federal officials expect obsequious compliance, and that’s what they get. This largely surreptitious exercise in proxy censorship, carried out by an administration that advocates transparency while practicing opacity, is particularly troubling because it targets not only patently false allegations but also statements that the government considers “misleading” or contrary. to the prevailing “consensus”.
Whether it’s the origins of COVID-19, the effectiveness of face masks, or Hunter Biden’s laptop news, that consensus often turns out to be wrong. Both publicly and behind the scenes, federal officials are reversing the free inquiry and open debate necessary to expose these errors.
Jacob Sullum is editor of Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. To learn more about Jacob Sullum and read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Foundry at Pixabay