COMPASS: Social Media as Surrogates for State Censorship

August 29th, 2022

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill. Both the House and Senate are still out of session, which means the city is quiet as we all soak up the waning days of summer.

D.C. is sleepy, but the news cycle is not. Mark Zuckerberg made news last week, confirming that Facebook suppressed circulation of the New York Post’s story detailing corruption by Hunter Biden weeks before the 2020 election due to an FBI warning about “misinformation.”

While Zuckerberg has discussed this before, including in front of Congress, his admission is seen in a new light after the incompetence and corruption continue to emanate from the FBI. The agency has repeatedly shown evidence of a political agenda, which apparently extends to covering up for Hunter Biden by pulling law enforcement punches and influencing how information is shared on social media.

Zuckerberg’s comments also confirm what many of us have long suspected: the federal government routinely works with social media companies to suppress or amplify what is said on their platforms, and in many cases, the platforms happily comply. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • America First Legal revealed a trove of emails demonstrating direct engagement between the CDC and Twitter, including the CDC providing Twitter a list of tweets it considered misinformation, and the CDC directly editing Google’s products related to vaccines.
  • Emails FOIA-ed by Judicial Watch expose the government of California directly engaging with YouTube and Twitter, flagging specific content related to elections and as well as specific users for bans.
  • Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the White House flagged specific accounts to Facebook which were spreading “misinformation,” while the U.S. surgeon general released guidance urging platforms to “impose clear consequences” for social media users who discussed COVID-19 in the “wrong” way.
  • A new lawsuit documents the “regular chats” that took place between the CDC’s chief of digital media and Twitter’s senior manager for public policy to censor “unapproved opinions.”

The constant rebuttal to the “social media censorship” argument is that private companies, by definition, cannot censor because they are not the government, so individual First Amendment rights are moot. Private companies can do whatever they want. But what private companies cannot do is become vehicles for state censorship. In other words, the state cannot compel private companies to become surrogate agents of speech or viewpoint suppression.

But that appears to be exactly what has happened over the last several years, as the employees of social media companies find common cause with left-leaning ideologues in government. I’ve been writing for several years now about the growing problem of state power colluding with corporate power to impose the most successful censorship campaign in our history. We’ve arrived at the point where this is no longer a probable threat – it is a real one.

There have been many promises of oversight and investigations into the back channels and moving parts of the government-to-social-media hand in glove censorship campaign. But oversight is not enough. Thanks to the work of America First Legal, Judicial Watch, and other nonprofits, we have the emails between government agencies and Big Tech. We know how it’s being done, and we know who is doing it.

What we don’t have are remedies. And that is where conservatives must focus. I’ve long argued that conservatives should embrace a robust, forward-looking agenda of antitrust enforcement to prevent concentrated corporate control over key speech venues and the flow of information. As I testified to the House Antitrust Subcommittee in 2020, in many ways speech suppression is downstream of concentrated power.

Conservatives must also examine whether these platforms – particularly Facebook, Google, and Twitter – have reached the point of becoming common carriers akin to the airlines, the telephones, or companies like FedEx. Common carriers must admit all comers and treat information and users the same, subject to a strict set of legal parameters (which would still allow the true smut and violence to be banned from the platforms).

It should now be abundantly clear that the Big Tech companies aren’t “private companies” in the same way a local hair salon is a private company. Rather, they are the biggest speech, communications, and advertising platforms the world has ever witnessed. That innovation has benefited us immensely, but it must also be governed by the rules we set for it – not the other way around.

Free societies cannot thrive when information is manipulated and contorted at mass scale at the whim of unaccountable private actors, influenced and at times directed by the state. Taming this multi-headed hydra of censorship and outright efforts at thought control should be a singular legislative goal for anyone wishing to preserve open discourse, critical thought, and free inquiry in the modern public square.

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One More Thing…

One of the biggest criticisms of the Biden administration’s $10,000 student loan bailout is that it is a giant wealth transfer from the working class to the laptop class; from blue collar plumbers, truckers, nannies, and homemakers to the highly educated white collar elite. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than a new report from the American Accountability Foundation, which investigated how the Biden political team at the Department of Education will personally benefit from this federally orchestrated windfall. These well compensated, influential political staff will see over half a million dollars in debt and interest payments evaporate. More from AAF here.