SULLUM: Biden is making an attempt to impose on-line censorship by proxy
Jacob Sullum is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and Senior Editor for Reason Magazine.
President Joe Biden wants to suppress speech that prevents Americans from getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Since the First Amendment does not allow him to do this, he asks Facebook and other social media companies to do it for him.
At least that is how the White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki describes the demands of the Biden government for language restrictions, “our requests,” the situation. But given the power of the federal government to make life difficult for Facebook and others, the line between a request and an order is blurred, as is the line between private content moderation and state censorship.
The background to this dispute is an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook that was dismissed last month but can possibly be re-filed by the Federal Trade Commission. It also includes Biden’s rejection of federal law protecting online platforms from liability for user-posted content that he believes should be made “revocable,” a pathetically misguided idea that is nonetheless bipartisan.
Last week, General Surgeon Vivek Murthy issued a recommendation calling for a “societal” effort to address the “urgent public health threat” posed by “misinformation”. His recommendations included “appropriate legal and regulatory measures that address health misinformation while protecting user privacy and freedom of expression,” which is a contradicting phrase as it is difficult to imagine how such measures could be compatible with the First Amendment .
Biden investigated the threat of government-imposed language controls by accusing social media companies of “killing people” by allowing anti-vaccine messages to be spread. He changed those charges on Monday, saying platforms like Facebook were merely an accessory to the homicide.
“Facebook doesn’t kill people,” Biden told reporters. “Those 12 people out there giving misinformation – anyone who hears them will be hurt by it. It kills people. “
Biden believes that these “12 people” should be banned from social media for playing an oversized role in promoting anti-vaccine arguments. The White House also wants platforms to take action more quickly against other users who post “misinformation”. Automatically block users whose accounts have been blocked on other platforms; and make anti-vaccine content less noticeable by changing the algorithms they use to recommend posts.
“We’re not taking anything off,” said Psaki last week. “We’re not blocking anything.” Rather, “the administration only reports problematic posts” and suggests “additional steps” that Facebook et al. against “information that leads to people not taking the vaccine” should receive, because “people die as a result”.
Psaki’s assurances are difficult to take seriously, given the public pressure the Biden government is exerting on its ability to initiate litigation and support laws that harm social media companies, as well as threats of “legal and regulatory action”. If these companies do what the president wants by cracking down on speech he doesn’t like, they will act as agents of the government.
This proxy censorship is particularly worrying as the “misinformation” offending Biden and Murthy is not limited to proven false statements about COVID-19 vaccines, such as claims that they cause infertility or alter human DNA. It also contains accurate but “misleading” messages that could mean discouraging vaccinations by emphasizing small risks, advising that vaccines are not fully effective, or raising questions about the methodology of vaccine studies.
The “misinformation” targeted by the Biden government is not limited to statements about vaccines. Murthy is also concerned about messages that might encourage people to “oppose public health measures such as masking and physical distancing,” which would even include a bona fide skepticism about the effectiveness of these protections.
In fact, the “health misinformation” denounced by Murthy includes any statement about COVID-19 that he considers to be “misleading” given the “best available evidence” that is interpretable and “may change over time”. If the Biden government expects social media platforms to enforce this hopelessly subjective standard, it is calling for unprecedented regulation of online language that is impossible to reconcile with its avowed respect for freedom of expression.