Should the internet be a place for the free exchange of information or a tool to amplify government-approved messages?
According to a Congressional hearing last week, many government officials are working to make the Internet an echo-chamber rather than a place for free discussion.
Journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Schellenberger appeared before The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government on March 9 to present evidence that government officials from several different agencies partnered with private Tech companies behind the scenes to limit Americans’ freedom to communicate in the digital sphere. Their investigative work, known as “The Twitter Files,” has presented compelling evidence that government actors along with academic institutions and non-governmental agencies are working together to censor and control American’s speech.
As Taibbi explained in his testimony, the government is playing a “central role” in wielding the internet as a tool for censorship:
We learned Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other companies developed a formal system for taking in moderation “requests” from every corner of government: the FBI, DHS, HHS, DOD, the Global Engagement Center at State, even the CIA. For every government agency scanning Twitter, there were perhaps 20 quasi-private entities doing the same, including Stanford’s Election Integrity Project, Newsguard, the Global Disinformation Index, and others, many taxpayer-funded. A focus of this growing network is making lists of people whose opinions, beliefs, associations, or sympathies are deemed to be misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation. The latter term is just a euphemism for “true but inconvenient.”
Plain and simple, the making of such lists is a form of digital McCarthyism.
Ordinary Americans are not just being reported to Twitter for “deamplification” or de-platforming, but to firms like PayPal, digital advertisers like Xandr, and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. These companies can and do refuse service to law-abiding people and businesses whose only crime is falling afoul of a faceless, unaccountable, algorithmic judge.
The coordinated effort to censor and punish people for disfavored views, which Taibbi and Schellenberger dubbed the “Censorship Industrial Complex,” uses taxpayer funds to strip Americans of their core freedoms. And while private tech companies are not legally bound by the First Amendment, government officials certainly are. Government officials are breaking the law when they use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to silence views they don’t like and elevate views they approve.
Censoring and de-amplifying means that people who turn to the internet for discussions will find that views favored by the government dominate while other views are censored. When the government chooses winners and losers through censorship—either directly or indirectly—that violates citizens’ ability to freely form and express their own opinions.
As Schellenberger observed, the deamplifying of certain views is “part of the influence operation aimed at discrediting factual information.” This amounts to an undemocratic use of power instead of persuasion:
It is important to understand how these groups function. They are not publicly engaging with their opponents in an open exchange of ideas. They aren’t asking for a national debate over the limits of the First Amendment. Rather, they are creating blacklists of disfavored people and then pressuring, cajoling, and demanding that social media platforms censor, deamplify, and even ban the people on these blacklists.
Taibbi put a fine point on it when he said, “you can’t have a state-sponsored system targeting ‘disinformation’ without striking at the essence of the right to free speech.” The government does not have a right to impose its own views on the minds and hearts of its citizens. Free speech is not a privilege of those favored by the government—it’s a God-given right, protected by the First Amendment.
Social media companies like Meta and Twitter can take a first step towards respecting the free speech rights of people on their platforms by responding to the survey portion of the Viewpoint Diversity Score Business Index. These companies should publicly disclose any request or recommendation made by governments or non-governmental organizations to restrict content, along with the rationale for the request and the company’s response. They should also eliminate “speech codes” — policies that contain vague and imprecise terms that threaten free speech.
A free society should not be silencing its citizens. Social media companies should do their part to ensure that everyone has the freedom to voice their opinion.
Read Taibbi’s Congressional testimony here and Schellenberger’s testimony here.