As midterm elections crowd US headlines, all other stories have been understandably sidelined. But Americans—and the rest of the world—should not allow this upset in the newscycle to bury recent reports of collusion between US government agencies and social media executives. This collusion provides an opportunity for Republicans to return to their civil libertarian roots and regain legitimacy after their massive underperformance in the 2022 midterms.
On October 31, a jaw-dropping report from The Intercept revealed collusion between social media executives and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to police so-called ‘misinformation.’ This collusion presents a major threat to American civil liberties and our Constitutionally-protected right of freedom of speech. Republicans should oppose the efforts to police online speech and instead embrace a decoupling of the private and public sectors in regards to online speech that upholds private tech companies’ right to moderate content as they see fit, and prevents government encroachment in these decisions.
This report follows on the heels of the Biden administration’s dissolution of their highly controversial “Disinformation Governance Board,” which sought to police misinformation and disinformation on social media sites in a much more public manner than had previously been done. After weeks of public outcry, with major civil libertarian voices opposing the creation of this board as a threat to freedom of speech, the Biden administration quietly dissolved the board.
This apparent victory only served to mask the activities of the DHS, which according to this report, has spent years suppressing speech they consider to be “misinformation” or “disinformation” and attempting to shape public conversations by pressuring private companies. This has included speech related to Russian interference in American elections, COVID-19, racial politics, and Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. It would seem the Disinformation Governance Board was the least of our worries.
The damning investigation demonstrates how the US government has strong-armed private companies since the 2016 elections to shape their internal content moderation policies to benefit the current administration’s goals. This has included regular meetings with private company executives to influence these policies and direct takedown requests when objectionable posts appear.
Many on the right have taken this report as evidence that Republican lawmakers should be tightly regulating Big Tech companies.
Some conservative critics argue that these social media companies are “eager collaborators” in suppressing online speech, and that conservative policymakers have to combat both the federal government and private companies to protect freedom of speech. However, the relationship between the government and private tech companies is much more give-and-take, as the government encroaches on social media platforms’ content moderation decisions, and then private companies use this relationship to lobby for policies that benefit themselves.
Despite these claims from the right, social media companies are not necessarily “eager collaborators” just because they collude with the US government. Indeed, all of these suggested meetings and backdoors channels are initiated with the presumption of government force. The Cato Institute’s Will Duffield has outlined how the government uses “jawboning” to coerce private social media companies to regulate private speech. Government agencies may not be using explicit threats against companies’ private property, but there are documented cases of the US government bullying and pressuring these private platforms.
The first step for policymakers, then, is not to regulate private companies, but to regulate and enforce government accountability. Congressional legislation, such as the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act) of 2021, would curb such an abuse of power by federal agencies by requiring congressional approval for any major rule from executive agencies, including DHS.
Limiting government regulation would not only mitigate the abuse of federal agencies’ powers, but would also curb the unfair advantage of some of the larger tech corporations. While the government is certainly at fault for pressuring private companies to censor speech they consider to be “misinformation,” these companies also use their close contact with the government to push for regulations that favor them.
Meta (previously known as Facebook), for example, has run advertisements supporting additional content moderation regulation from Congress, describing it as an “update” to Section 230. Section 230 is a 1990s law that protects the editorial status of online platforms, preventing them from being held legally liable for the content that is published by users of their site. Proposed updates to the law would shift the editorial power from private companies to the federal government. Meta argues that these updates can protect safety, privacy, and prevent election meddling, but their support for these regulations may not be altogether altruistic as these regulatory changes would shift the playing field in their favor.
The motivation behind a major company like Meta supporting these regulations is simple enough: large incumbents like Meta can easily adapt to additional regulations, but their smaller competitors cannot.
These regulations would not meaningfully hurt “Big Tech,” but instead would give them more leverage over potential competitors that would provide better, less censorious, services to the public. Competitors like Rumble, Telegram, and President Trump’s Truth Social, are all protected by Section 230 to provide an alternative to these major players and create online spaces that promote freedom of speech. Replacing Section 230 with stricter regulations and increased government interference would only make it more difficult for these smaller companies to compete and counteract the censoriousness that concerns many on the right.
The US government has spent years suppressing private speech for their own political ends, violating the US Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech and American civil liberties.
Increasing regulations of social media companies is not the answer. Instead, we ought to reign in executive powers and provide more leeway for private companies to compete amongst themselves to determine the best content moderation strategy.