The Biden administration’s decision to transform his presidential bully pulpit into a weapon used against companies like Facebook and Twitter should raise a red flag for every American who values free speech. Over the long days of the COVID era, the president’s appointees and staff repeatedly sought to tamper with social media companies’ content moderation decisions in an attempt to stamp out “disinformation.”
The temptation for Washington to concentrate power over the information economy is substantial. In a world where knowledge is sometimes more valuable than fiat currency (especially under today’s inflationary conditions), it is a pragmatic way to retain power and relevance. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to insert Big Government into the world of Big Tech, attempting to convince the public that they, rather than the American people, are the ones who should wield such power.
At times, they found private-sector employees willing to comply with their unconstitutional demands. This practice of using overt or covert political pressure to get a company to comply with the whims of elected officials is referred to as jawboning. When it comes to social media, jawboning can be something akin to speech laundering, with politicians attempting to co-opt the speech of private citizens’ on digital properties.
From a purely Machievellian vantage point, it’s certainly understandable why President Biden and other politicians want more control over the internet. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Amy Klobuchar, as well as House members like Katie Porter, have expressed keen interest in wedging themselves between Americans and their tech platforms of choice in the name of protecting us from these burgeoning corporations.
Thankfully, there has been some movement to hold politicians accountable for their meddling in the private sector’s moderation decisions. Reps. James Comer, Cathy McMorris Rogers, and Jim Jordan recently introduced the Protecting Speech From Government Interference Act. This bill would “prohibit Federal employees from advocating for censorship of viewpoints in their official capacity, and for other purposes.”
The bill rightly places the onus on government employees to stay out of private content-moderation decisions. Punishments for meddling include removal from office, disbarment from federal employment, and civil-penalty fines up to $10,000. In order for this solution to work, the bill sponsors’ congressional colleagues must curb their own appetite for power and exert a willingness to honor the limits of their office.
Another potential remedy, proposed by Will Duffield of Cato Institute, is for a revision to congressional rules, prohibiting its members from jawboning. Although this would be more limited in both scope and punishment than the Protecting Speech From Government Interference Act, it might be more feasible than a piece of legislation, because the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause shields lawmakers from arrest, except in the case of treason, felony, or breach of peace. Congressional rules are a way for members of Congress to hold their colleagues accountable.
The recent release of the Twitter Files, which exposed just how grotesquely cozy politicians and social media employees have been when making content-moderation decisions should serve as a red flag as big as the federal debt that we need greater distance between Big Government and Big Tech. For all of the present challenges and hoops someone who has been deplatformed or censored online must go through to get back on their preferred platform, inserting the government in the process will make it infinitely more vulnerable to corruption and pay-to-play politics and could usher in an era of speech policing we’ve not previously seen.
The men and women in Washington possess neither the capability nor constitutional authority to centrally manage a global information ecosystem of such variance and variety as the internet. The Internet of Things (IoT), which is the way we have integrated the online world into our everyday life, from Smart TVs and Alexa to our Nest thermostats and AirPods, generates 5 quintillion bytes of data a day. By contrast, one of the few things Washington seems to reliably generate are trillions of dollars of debt and dubious sound bytes.
None of this is to deny the problems social-media tycoons have created for themselves by partially and unevenly applying their content-moderation policies in ways that raise legitimate concerns. They have earned the public’s ire on many occasions, and those who use their platforms should hold them accountable by voting with their data.
Social media companies will need to earn back trust among large swaths of their user base, but Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter might very well be the first case study of how to do that. Musk has given us a peek behind the curtain, revealing just how challenging running and reforming a platform can be. For a platform to be successful, some content moderation is necessary. If users don’t enjoy using a platform, selling advertising to companies becomes a much heavier lift, which makes financial solvency precarious.
Due to the politicization of virtually everything, threats from government actors against one of the United States’ most promising and lucrative sectors stands to cause real economic harm and distrust among voters. The government is often loathe to give up power once it has obtained it. If we hope to keep the internet a place where information can flow free from bureaucratic red tape and the whims of Washington, we must demand better from our elected officials and insist they keep Big Government out of Big Tech.
Brooke Medina is the Vice President of the Communications at the John Locke Foundation. She is also a contributor to the upcoming book, The Digital Public Square, which will be released in February 2023.