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It now looks like there’s a battle brewing over the ability of the federal government to work closely with social media companies to limit or curtail content appearing on their platforms. Earlier this summer, a U.S. federal judge in Louisiana ruled that the Biden Administration could no longer communicate directly with social media companies in order to clamp down on certain content. Doing so, the judge said, violated 1st amendment free speech rights. However, on July 14, a federal appeals court overturned that decision, setting up a big legal showdown.
What’s at stake in these court decisions
The original ruling is in response to a 2022 lawsuit brought by Attorneys General in Missouri and Louisiana, who accused the Biden Administration of unconstitutionally clamping down on protected free speech. This ruling pertained to departments of the U.S. government (such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department), federal agencies (such as the CDC and the FBI), and key individuals within the administration, including the U.S. Surgeon General and even the White House press secretary.
The basis for the lawsuit started with the COVID pandemic, when anyone questioning the government’s approach to the pandemic was systematically shut down on social media. And it has continued with a backlash against any political conservatives daring to speak out against the popular media narrative. In other words, if you dare to question the White House, someone within the government could place a phone call to a top Silicon Valley executive, asking them to scrub the platform for certain content.
While the original court decision to ban direct communication between the Biden White House and Silicon Valley tech companies might strike some as going too far, it did leave open the opportunity for the government to communicate directly with social media companies under two clear pretexts: (1) some form of illegal activity has taken place or (2) there is a direct threat to national security. This makes sense. If someone is making terrorist threats on social media, for example, the FBI should have the right to pick up a hotline to Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.
An inconvenient truth about social media
If you only listen to the big social media companies, you’re going to get a very distorted view of reality. You’re going to be told that they do everything in their power to promote free speech, and that their platforms are wonderful “public squares” for discussing and debating the thorniest issues facing society. But that’s not really the way things work.
Instead, social media companies at times censor content, based on input from the government. Of course, they use fancy language like “violating our terms of service” or something like that, but the final takeaway is always the same: if you run counter to the public narrative in the media, you risk blowback from the government.
Even if you’re a supporter of the Biden White House, you have to admit that this idea of the government getting directly involved in what can and can’t be said online is distinctly anti-American. It goes against the very basis of American democracy and our free speech ideals. And, quite frankly, we’ve been on a slippery slope as a society ever since the COVID pandemic hit. Questioning the efficacy of a certain drug or treatment should always be a protected right. The true measure of a democracy, after all, is the willingness to hear opinions that differ from yours.
What’s next for the Biden Administration?
So, the big question remains: Will the Biden Administration back off on its communication with Silicon Valley? Certainly, one can expect compliance from highly-visible public figures, such as the U.S. Surgeon General. But the problem is that agencies and departments within the federal government might use the “illegal activity” and “national security threat” clauses in, well, creative ways. For example, maybe a gun-owning Republican is a “national security threat” if they have a link to January 6? That might be why it’s becoming increasingly commonplace to hear about certain groups as being “domestic terrorists” these days.
Anyway, free speech is certainly an issue to keep an eye on, especially as we head deeper into the 2024 election cycle. The last thing that we want as a society is for the government to alter what can and can’t be said on social media during an election.