Thanks to the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk and the subsequent release of the Twitter Files, we’re increasingly finding out what many of us already knew in our bones to be true: the government has been pressuring social media companies to censor Americans—thus violating the free speech rights of countless individuals (not to mention of the companies themselves).
Some on the Left have tried to dismiss this overt violation of basic human rights, claiming that a government agency “suggesting” or “asking” for accounts to be censored is different than “forcing” them to be. That argument is utter hogwash. When an entity has the power to break up your company, fine or jail your owners, haul your employees in for investigations…their “suggestions” are implied threats. If you don’t do what they say, you know what comes next.
According to the Cato Institute’s Will Duffield this practice is known as “jawboning.”
He writes, “Government officials can use informal pressure — bullying, threatening, and cajoling — to sway the decisions of private platforms and limit the publication of disfavored speech. The use of this informal pressure, known as jawboning, is growing. Left unchecked, it threatens to become normalized as an extra-constitutional method of speech regulation.”
In a recent article, Duffield compiled over 60 examples of jawboning against social media companies, and while they’re all infuriating, we’ve pulled our nominees for the top 10 worst examples.
Let’s dig in.
10. Sen. Richard Blumenthal pushes for Facebook to protect Anthony Fauci
Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s name is a repeat offender in Cato’s research, but one incident makes him look particularly silly. After resident Trump administration shock jock, Steve Bannon said the following about COVID “expert” Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Chris Wray on Facebook…
“I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put their heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats, you either get with the program or you’re gone.”
…Blumenthal demanded Zuckerberg take action during a hearing a few days later. “How many times is Steve Bannon allowed to call for the murder of government officials before Facebook suspends him?” the senator demanded.
But, that didn’t happen. And two, Bannon—no matter how unhinged—still has a First Amendment right to say grotesque things online.
9. Sen. Diane Feinstein threatens Google and Facebook
On November 1, 2017, Sen. Diane Feinstein addressed attorneys for Google and Facebook at a congressional hearing and warned them the companies had better “do something” about their platforms being misused. If they didn’t, she promised the government would interfere.
“You have a huge problem on your hands, and the United States is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and others are going to follow, I’m sure, because you bear this responsibility. You’ve created these platforms and now they are being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.”
Last we checked, the First Amendment still covers the practice of allowing people to say untrue things on your property.
8. Rep. Lamar Smith asks Facebook to remove ‘bias’
At a hearing titled “Facebook, Google and Twitter: Examining the Content Filtering Practices of Social Media Giants, Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary,” Rep. Lamar Smith asked Facebook to promise it would remove “bias” on the platform.
“Mr. Chairman, I’d like to ask all of our panelists today one question that is pretty direct and I think can be answered yes or no. And the question is this: Would you pledge publicly today to make every effort to neutralize bias within your online platforms?” Smith said.
There’s so many problems there. One, how are we defining bias? That’s pretty broad. Two, bias is a tricky thing to remove as it is often subliminal even to those seeking to tackle it.
And three, bias is definitely allowed under the First Amendment.
7. Sen. Ted Cruz wants companies to report to the government
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological
Censorship and the Public Discourse” in April of 2019, Sen. Ted Cruz demanded an accounting of social media companies’ removal processes and wanted to know the ratio of conservative posts removed compared to liberal ones. Should they not, he hinted at measures like antitrust and Section 230 reform in retaliation.
These are his paraphrased remarks from Cato.
“What to do about anti-conservative bias is a thorny legal question. There are three potential legal remedies: 230 reform; antitrust; principles of fraud (users sign up under the false pretense that they will be able to speak without being targeted unfairly and silenced).”
“We want tech’s content moderation to become transparent rather than a black box so we can more effectively discern what is happening in respect to bias.”
“Google has failed to provide a witness of comparable seniority for today’s hearing so we will be holding a separate hearing at some point to hear from Google . . . about their policies and whether they consider themselves a neutral public forum.”
“Are you aware of a single Democratic politician whose posts have been pulled down by Facebook? Can you provide an accounting of whose posts have been removed and why?”
Someone needs to tell the senator that companies can moderate content however they wish, that’s their free speech right as well as an essential component for free market capitalism to operate. No one has to elevate your political views.
6. Donald Trump says he’ll shut down platforms that don’t moderate content as he wishes
No stalwart of free speech, not in the least, Donald Trump also enters this list more than a time or two. But on May 27th, 2020 he popped off on social media companies in an especially threatening way (given that he was the President at the time).
“Republicans feel that social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives’ voices,” Trump said. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that . . . happen again.”
5. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls for COVID-19 censorship
It seems we learn new information almost daily on the ways the federal government worked to suppress information on COVID-19 and protest their official narrative on the response to the disease. Now we have yet another example.
On June 16th, 2020 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “Google and Facebook have built their businesses to amplify the most inflammatory content, no matter how dangerous or false.”
“A reckoning is coming, as Congress, employees of these companies, advertisers and the public work as one to shine a bright light on the division and distribute this information proliferating online,” she continued. “And together, we must send a message to social media executives: You will be held accountable.”
“We need to send a message to social media executives that you will be held accountable,” Pelosi repeated.
4. Sen. Ed Markey wants election interference to go his way
In October 2020, Sen. Ed Markey demanded Facebook change its algorithms to censor content he deemed “Russian or Iranian disinformation.”
The senator said, “Mr. Zuckerberg, if President Trump shares Russian or Iranian disinformation, lying about the outcome of the election, can you commit that you will make sure your algorithms do not amplify that content and that you will immediately take that content down?”
The problem here is of course that the standard for what meets “disinformation” is marginal and the Left has of course often used claims of “Russian disinformation” to block content that was nothing of the sort. Additionally, private companies have no duty to block false information, nor should they be asked to put their fingers on the scales of elections either way.
3. Sen. Marsha Blackburn wants someone fired for being mean to her
Politicians are probably some of the most petty people you’ll ever meet and this exchange proves it. In a verbal tussle with representatives from Google, Sen. Marsha Blackburn took the opportunity to inquire about an employee she got crossways with.
Specifically, she asked about the employment status of Blake Lemoine and said, “Well, he has had very unkind things to say about me, and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there.”
A sitting senator attempting to hurt someone’s employment status because the person said “unkind” things about them?
It’s hard to think of a bigger violation of the First Amendment.
2. AOC wants something done about Parler’s lack of censorship
Parler sprang up as a competitor to the legacy social media companies in recent years, promising an open algorithm and more free speech. It largely failed to take off (in part thanks to some shenanigans that interfered with its servers in January of 2021).
Shortly before that though, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “What are @Apple and @GooglePlay doing about this?”
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 8, 2021
After Apple seemed to do just what she was asking for she tweeted, “Good to see this development from @Apple. @GooglePlay what are you going to do about apps being used to organize violence on your platform?”
1. Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Digital Strategy at The White House wants vaccine promotion
Rob Flaherty, the Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Digital Strategy at The White House under President Biden, indicated he wanted to see Facebook’s plan for removing anti-vaccine information when it didn’t necessarily conflict with the platform’s rules.
According to Duffield’s Cato report, “Mr. Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, pressed for more information on what the company would do about posts that promoted false information about vaccines but did not clearly violate the platform’s rules, such as widely shared videos that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccines.”