Media Worry That Conservatives Can Post Freely on Social Media

July 7, 2023

When a federal judge ruled that the Biden administration couldn't coordinate with social media companies to have content removed, some saw it as a victory for free speech.

Journalists, meanwhile, expressed dismay that the injunction would make it harder for the government to censor conservatives.

New York Times, "Ruling Puts Social Media at Crossroads of Disinformation and Free Speech":

The case is a flashpoint in the broader effort by conservatives to document what they contend is a liberal conspiracy by Democrats and tech company executives to silence their views. It taps into fury on the right about how social media companies have treated stories about the origins of COVID, the 2020 election, and Hunter Biden, the president's son.

The final outcome could shape the future of First Amendment law in a rapidly changing media environment and alter how far the government can go in trying to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous information, particularly in an election or during emergencies like a pandemic.

The government's actions at the heart of the case were intended largely as public health measures. But Tuesday's order instead viewed the issue through the filter of partisan culture wars—asking whether the government violated the First Amendment by unlawfully threatening the social media companies to censor speech that Mr. Biden's administration found distasteful and potentially harmful to the public. …

The judge's preliminary injunction is already having an impact. A previously scheduled meeting on threat identification on Thursday between State Department officials and social media executives was abruptly canceled by officials, according to two people familiar with the decision, which was reported earlier by The Washington Post.

NPR, "U.S. is barred from combating disinformation on social media. Here's what it means":

The government's ability to fight disinformation online has suffered a legal setback that experts say will have a chilling effect on communications between federal agencies and social media companies.

A Tuesday ruling by a federal district judge in Louisiana could have far-reaching consequences for the government's ability to work with Facebook and other social media giants to address false and misleading claims about COVID, vaccines, voting, and other issues that could undermine public health and erode confidence in election results. …

The case, brought by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, addresses what has become a highly contested subject: the demands by some conservatives for "free speech" on social media platforms, versus the desire to rein in misinformation and disinformation that could lead to real-world harm. …

Social media companies have a wide range of relationships with governments, she says, from informal conversations to formalized reporting mechanisms to regular private meetings. These interactions accelerated after the 2016 election, reflecting criticism that tech platforms had not done enough to combat Russian efforts to interfere in the presidential race, and again during the pandemic, when officials worried that false and misleading social media posts could erode confidence in vaccines and advice from public health experts.

CNN, "What to know about the order blocking the Biden administration from communicating with social media companies":

Legal experts say that the order is overly broad and scholars on online misinformation warned that it could have a chilling effect on the government's efforts to curtail lies about public health emergencies and elections. …

And in an extraordinary comparison to George Orwell's novel "1984," Doughty invoked the book when he said "the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario." …

The federal government has coordinated over the years with social media companies to help combat crime, but the coordination evolved in recent years as the government sought to rid the internet of misinformation and disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and elections. …

Ethan Porter, an expert on online misinformation, said the ruling's effects may be felt in future years, as opposed to an immediate impact.

"Over the longer term, you can imagine future administrations being somewhat more hesitant to engage with social media companies when the next pandemic emerges, as it inevitably will," Porter said. "And that's troubling, because I think there's good reason to suspect that people’s responses to COVID-19 are in some way shaped by misinformation."

Associated Press, "Judge's order limits government contact with social media operators, raises disinformation questions":

The injunction—and Doughty's accompanying reasons saying the administration "seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth'"—were hailed by conservatives as a victory for free speech and a blow to censorship.

Legal experts, however, expressed surprise at the breadth of the order, and questioned whether it puts too many limits on a presidential administration.

"When we were in the midst of the pandemic, but even now, the government has significantly important public health expertise," James Speta, a law professor and expert on internet regulation at Northwestern University, said Wednesday. "The scope of the injunction limits the ability of the government to share public health expertise."

The implications go beyond public health.

Disinformation researchers and social media watchdogs said the ruling could make social media companies less accountable to label and remove election falsehoods.

PBS, "Biden administration blocked from working with social media firms about 'protected speech'":

Administration lawyers said the government left it up to social media companies to decide what constituted misinformation and how to combat it. In one brief, they likened the lawsuit to an attempt to put a legal gag order on the federal government and "suppress the speech of federal government officials under the guise of protecting the speech rights of others."

"Plaintiffs' proposed injunction would significantly hinder the federal government's ability to combat foreign malign influence campaigns, prosecute crimes, protect the national security, and provide accurate information to the public on matters of grave public concern such as health care and election integrity," the administration says in a May 3 court filing.

The Hill, "Court ruling prompts fears of 'Wild West of disinformation'":

The ruling left experts concerned about a "chilling effect" on attempts to moderate false information online.

"If we end up with basically no meaningful content moderation, then it is going to be a Wild West of disinformation," said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation. …

Alice Marwick, principal researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, said the ruling perpetuates a narrative that cracking down on disinformation—false information meant to mislead—is code for government suppression. …

In the years that have followed the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 presidential election—events during which misinformation and disinformation exploded online—social media companies have already begun taking less stringent approaches to moderating content on their platforms.

Absent from these reports—any mention of the fact that the ruling comes after Biden administration officials repeatedly pressured social media companies to remove posts critical of the White House, its allies, and the Biden family:

The media haven't always been so defensive of government pressures on social media companies: