When Big Tech companies suppress news stories or censor conservative viewpoints, people are rightly frustrated and angry.
Some websites are worse offenders than others, and Twitter stands out as among the worst. It permanently banned Former U.S. President Donald Trump from its platform and blocked the New York Post’s bombshell story on Hunter Biden’s emails as well as locked the press outlet of its account.
Now, evidence is emerging that this social media giant silenced coronavirus vaccine skeptics at the direction of the Biden Administration.
Social media companies are private entities and can enforce the rules they set for their platforms as they please, though, they do themselves (and society) no favors when their enforcement is biased and partisan.
However, an argument can be made that they cross the line between private and public when they serve as a tool of the state to carry out suppression and persecution of those the government views as adversaries to their agenda.
Case in point: Alex Berenson.
Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, had his account restored by Twitter last week after the platform banned him at the demand of the Biden Administration for questioning the vaccine.
In a recent substack, he provided evidence of internal conversations among Twitter staff:
Andrew Slavitt, senior advisor to President Biden’s Covid response team, complained specifically about me, according to a Twitter employee in another Slack conversation discussing the White House meeting.
“They really wanted to know about Alex Berenson,” the employee wrote. “Andy Slavitt suggested they had seen data viz [visualization] that had showed he was the epicenter of disinfo that radiated outwards to the persuadable public.”
The Twitter staff allegedly felt pressured by the federal government to prove that they were acting on the administration’s insistence that “misinformation” be suppressed.
For Berenson, the most significant pressure came from the president’s bully pulpit:
On July 16, 2021, President Biden complained publicly that social media companies were “killing people” by encouraging vaccine hesitancy. A few hours after Biden’s comment, Twitter suspended my account for the first time.
Yet Twitter employees didn’t believe that he had violated any rules:
“I’ve taken a pretty close look at his account and I don’t think any of it’s violative,” an employee wrote on the Slack conversation a few minutes after the “really tough question about why Alex Berenson hasn’t been kicked off.”
The Biden Administration’s suppression campaign
Berenson is not alone. As a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Vivek Ramaswamy and Jed Rubenfeld today explains, during a White House press briefing in mid-July 2021, the administration flagged the “Disinformation Dozen” of individuals they claimed were responsible for problematic posts. Publicly and privately they pressured social-media companies to purge users accounts and posts:
At the same briefing, Dr. [Vivek] Murthy called on social-media companies to purge more Covid posts: “We’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation superspreaders on their platforms.” At a briefing the next day, again possibly referring to Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Psaki said that if you post misinformation, “you shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others.”
Recent Freedom of Information Act disclosures show that a week later, on July 23, 2021, Nick Clegg—a former U.K. deputy prime minister and now Facebook parent Meta’s president for global affairs—emailed Dr. Murthy to thank him for meeting with Facebook and to report on “the steps we took just this past week” to “further address the ‘disinfo dozen’: we removed 17 additional Pages, Groups, and Instagram accounts tied to the ‘disinfo dozen’ . . . resulting in every member . . . having had at least one such entity removed.”
It’s despicable and disturbing that these platforms would readily remove vaccine skeptic content and users, but turn a blind eye to the violent terrorists that can still spew their anti-western hate.
As PBS reports, terrorists actively exploit gaps in content moderation to spread their dangerous messages. Yet, our government is concerned with those who question the government’s response to Covid or present opposing views on other issues.
This vaccine disinformation campaign could very well be a constitutional free speech issue. The First Amendment does not apply to private companies infringing on citizens’ speech, only to government suppression. However, if carrying out the directives of the state, an argument could be made that these private companies are serving as an extension of the government.
The question is what the policy response should be. Those on the right who view antitrust reform, such as some of the bills floating around the Senate, as a panacea should be cautious. As the WSJ opinion writers note:
In April this year Ms. Psaki, who was still the White House press secretary, said: “We engage regularly with all social media platforms about steps that can be taken . . . and I’m sure that will continue. But there are also reforms we think Congress could take and we would support taking, including reforming Section 230 [and] enacting antitrust reforms.” The unexplained pivot to “antitrust reform” here is telling: Censor the “problematic” posts and people we identify, Ms. Psaki implies, or we may break you up under the antitrust laws.
In this case, the administration and the left view antitrust reform as a coercive measure to keep Big Tech at the end of their leash and doing their bidding. In other words, it would encourage more censorship, rather than make social media more open to free speech as conservatives desire.
In addition, antitrust regulation is intended to protect consumers against higher prices arising from anti-competitive behavior, not to be a tool of suppression by the ruling party.
Does this mean we are doomed to simply have our ideas sidelined in the social media public square? No, there is a reason for hope and optimism that the tide may turn back in favor of open discourse and fairly applied rules. The judiciary may take up this issue and this evidence gives them plenty of constitutional fodder to consider.
More centrally, exposure of the White House’s sinister behind-the-scenes and before-the-cameras pressure tactics will encourage public pushback and build support for fairly applied rules, or other platforms, where all views are treated fairly.