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Censor or else: Democratic lawmakers warn Facebook not to ‘backslide’ on censorship

With the restoration of free speech protections on Twitter, panic has grown on the left that its control over social media could come to an end. Now, some of the greatest advocates of censorship in Congress are specifically warning Facebook not to follow Twitter in restoring free speech to its platform.

In a chilling letter from Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., André Carson, D-Ind., Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Facebook was given a not-so-subtle threat that reducing its infamous censorship system will invite congressional action. The letter to Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, is written on congressional stationery “as part of our ongoing oversight efforts.”

With House Republicans pledging to investigate social media censorship when they take control in January, these four Democratic members are trying to force Facebook to “recommit” to censoring opposing views and to make election censorship policies permanent. Otherwise, they suggest, they may be forced to exercise oversight into any move by Facebook to “alter or rollback certain misinformation policies.”

In addition to demanding that Facebook preserve its bans on figures like former President Donald Trump, they want Facebook to expand its censorship overall because “unlike other major social media platforms, Meta’s policies do not prohibit posts that make unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud.”

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Clegg is given Schiff’s telephone number to discuss Facebook’s compliance – an ironic contact point for a letter on censoring “disinformation.” After all, Schiff was one of the members of Congress who, before the 2020 presidential election, pushed the false claim that the Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation, and he has been criticized for pushing false narratives on Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election.

The letter to Clegg is reminiscent of another letter sent by several congressional Democrats to cable-TV carriers last year, demanding to know why they continue to carry Fox News. (For full disclosure, I appear as a legal analyst on Fox News.) As I later discussed in congressional testimony, it was an open effort by those Democrats to censor opposing views by proxy or by surrogate.

This is not the first time that some members of Congress have not so subtly warned social media companies to expand the censorship of political and scientific views which they consider to be wrong.

In a November 2020 Senate hearing, then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story. But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., warned that he and his Senate colleagues would not tolerate any “backsliding or retrenching” by “failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” 

Others, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have called on social media companies to use enlightened algorithms to “protect” people from their own “bad” choices. After all, as President Joe Biden asked, without censorship and wise editors, “How do people know the truth?”

Now, Democrats fear Facebook and other social media companies might “backslide” into free speech as Facebook, among others, is faced with declining revenues and ordering layoffs. Tellingly, these congressional Democrats specifically want assurances that those layoffs will not reduce the staff dedicated to censoring social media.

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It is not hard to see the cause for alarm. This hold-the-line warning is meant to stop a cascading failure in the once insurmountable wall of social-media censorship. If Facebook were to restore free-speech protections, the control over social media could evaporate.

Despite an effort by the left to boycott Twitter and cut off advertising revenues, users are signing up in record numbers, according to Twitter owner Elon Musk, and a recent poll shows a majority of Americans “support Elon Musk’s ongoing efforts to change Twitter to a more free and transparent platform.”

The pressure on Facebook is ironic, given the company’s previous effort to get the public to accept – even welcome – censorship. The company ran a creepy ad campaign about how young people should accept censorship (or “content modification,” in today’s Orwellian parlance) as part of their evolution with technology. It did not work; most people are not eager to buy into censorship. Instead, many of them apparently are buying into Twitter.

The public response has led censorship advocates to look abroad for allies. Figures like Hillary Clinton have called upon European countries to force the censorship of American citizens.

Censorship comes at a cost not only to free speech but, clearly, to these companies. Nevertheless, some members of Congress are demanding that Facebook and other companies offer the “last full measure of devotion” to the cause of censorship. Despite the clear preference of the public for more free speech, Facebook is being asked to turn its back on them (and its shareholders) and continue to exclude dissenting views on issues ranging from COVID to climate change.

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These members know that censorship only works if there are no alternatives. The problem is that there are alternatives. Fox News reportedly has more Democrats watching it than left-leaning rival CNN, which now faces its own massive cuts and plummeting ratings. 

For whatever reason, these companies face declining interest in what they offer. Yet, some Democrats are pushing them to double-down on the same course of effectively writing off half of the electorate and the audience market.

This type of pressure worked in the past because individual executives are loathe to be tagged personally in these campaigns. However, their companies are paying the price in carrying out these directives from Congress.

In the past, many companies willingly – if not eagerly, in the case of pre-Musk Twitter – carried out censorship as surrogates, as the internal Twitter documents released by Musk have indicated. Some public officials knew they could circumvent the First Amendment by getting these companies to block opposing views by proxy. However, the public and the marketplace may succeed where the Constitution could not – and that’s precisely what these officials fear, as they see the control of social media erode heading toward the 2024 election.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously told his company to “Move fast and break things.” When it comes to censorship, however, these members of Congress are warning “Not so fast!” if Facebook is considering a break in favor of free speech.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM JONATHAN TURLEY

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