“Publicly, President Joe Biden accused the platforms of “killing people” by failing to suppress speech that discouraged vaccination against COVID-19. Murthy likewise said that failure was “costing people their lives.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declared that social media companies “have a responsibility related to the health and safety of all Americans to stop amplifying untrustworthy content, disinformation, and misinformation, especially related to COVID-19, vaccinations, and elections.” If they failed to meet that responsibility, Murthy said, “legal and regulatory measures” might be necessary. Psaki floated the possibility of new privacy regulations and threatened social media companies with “a robust anti-trust program.” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said the platforms “should be held accountable,” which she suggested could include reducing their legal protection against civil claims based on users’ posts.
Privately, administration officials pressed Facebook et al. to delete or downgrade specific posts and banish specific speakers, to take action against content even when it did not violate the platforms’ rules, and to expand those rules so that any speech federal officials viewed as dangerous to public health could be deemed a violation. Their “requests” were sometimes phrased as demands.”
“Flaherty emphasized that he was acting on the president’s behalf, that his concerns were “shared at the highest (and I mean highest) levels of the [White House].” White House officials invoked previous perceived failures at content moderation, which they said had been disastrous. “When Facebook did not take a prominent pundit’s ‘popular post’ down,” the 5th Circuit notes, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andrew Slavitt “asked ‘what good is’ the reporting system, and signed off with ‘last time we did this dance, it ended in an insurrection.'” In another exchange, Flaherty “demand[ed] ‘assurances’ that [Facebook] was taking action” and “likened the platform’s alleged inaction to the 2020 election, which it ‘helped increase skepticism in,'” adding that “an insurrection…was plotted, in large part, on your platform.'”
When social media companies failed to do what the administration wanted, White House officials reacted angrily. Flaherty noted that a flagged Facebook post was “still up,” asking, “How does something like that happen?” Facebook was “hiding the ball,” Flaherty complained. “Are you guys fucking serious?” he said in another email to Facebook. “I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today.” Because Facebook was “not trying to solve the problem,” Slavitt said, the White House was “considering our options on what to do about it.””
“By and large, especially after Biden and Murthy accused social media companies of killing people, the platforms did what the White House wanted. They were eager to appease the president, repeatedly asking how they could work together to address his concerns. In this context, the 5th Circuit says, it is likely that the pressure campaign amounted to “coercion” and that the White House unconstitutionally shaped moderation decisions.”
“President Joe Biden’s White House pushed Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to censor contrarian COVID-19 content, including speculation about the virus having escaped from a lab, vaccine skepticism, and even jokes.
“Can someone quickly remind me why we were removing—rather than demoting/labeling—claims that Covid is man made,” asked Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at the company, in a July 2021 email to his coworkers.
A content moderator replied, “We were under pressure from the administration and others to do more. We shouldn’t have done it.””
“”According to a trove of confidential documents obtained by Reason, health advisers at the CDC had significant input on pandemic-era social media policies at Facebook as well. They were consulted frequently, at times daily. They were actively involved in the affairs of content moderators, providing constant and ever-evolving guidance. They requested frequent updates about which topics were trending on the platforms, and they recommended what kinds of content should be deemed false or misleading. “Here are two issues we are seeing a great deal of misinfo on that we wanted to flag for you all,” reads one note from a CDC official. Another email with sample Facebook posts attached begins: “BOLO for a small but growing area of misinfo.”
” These Facebook Files show that the platform responded with incredible deference. Facebook routinely asked the government to vet specific claims, including whether the virus was “man-made” rather than zoonotic in origin. (The CDC responded that a man-made origin was “technically possible” but “extremely unlikely.”) In other emails, Facebook asked: “For each of the following claims, which we’ve recently identified on the platform, can you please tell us if: the claim is false; and, if believed, could this claim contribute to vaccine refusals?””
“These proposed rule changes aren’t just about making sure teachers discuss sexual orientation and gender identity only when it is appropriate. Evidence suggests that Florida officials are attempting to censor LGBT discussions in classrooms as much as they possibly can. The “Don’t Say Gay” label is becoming more and more apt as time goes by.”
“On Tuesday, Twitter announced that it had filed suit against the Indian government alleging that it interpreted a suite of 2021 laws too broadly when ordering the company to censor dissident users in the country. The lawsuit comes in response to increased pressure from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in recent weeks has ordered Twitter to block the posts and accounts of dissidents. According to CNN, a source familiar with the suit said that the company will attempt to show that the government’s orders “demonstrate excessive use of powers and are disproportionate.”
The 2021 regulations Twitter is now fighting gave India’s government the ability to demand that social media companies block certain posts or accounts in the country. Further, the Indian government has required social media companies to locate their compliance officers within the country so that they can be held criminally liable if the company fails to comply with government orders.
While Twitter has complied with orders, the suit marks a major act of resistance against the Indian government’s calls to censor dissident content. In 2021, WhatsApp filed a similar suit, attempting to prevent the government from forcing the company to make all messages “traceable” upon request. That order, according to the company, would “severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally[.]” WhatApp’s suit is still ongoing.”
“China has long been the number one feeder of international students to the U.S.; for the 2020–21 school year, more than 317,000 Chinese students were enrolled at American higher ed institutions. Hong Kong sends about 6,800 students overseas to
American universities each year. Thus, McLaughlin says, the question arose at the start of the pandemic when foreign nationals were temporarily expelled from the U.S.: “Is it safe for them to learn?”
American professors started “try[ing] to find the safest way to teach without censoring themselves,” McLaughlin says. They have taken certain discussion off of certain platforms; started using blind grading and allowing students to not submit papers under their own names; changed some conversations to be one-on-one instead of group discussions where another student could possibly record or disseminate the comments of a student living under Beijing’s thumb. Some professors, like Rory Truex at Princeton, issued warnings in their syllabuses, saying in essence that if a student was currently residing in China, they should wait to take a given class until they’re back on American soil.
Academics elsewhere have stooped to disturbing self-censorship to stave off Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors. A teaching assistant at the University of Toronto declared he’d been told not to talk about certain issues online because it could put some students at risk; a guest lecturer-journalist from the Hong Kong Free Press declined an already-agreed-to speaking opportunity at the University of Leeds because he had been instructed by hosts to avoid focusing on the Hong Kong protests out of concern for the safety of Chinese students attending the lecture remotely.”
“Professors in Hong Kong, and international students from Hong Kong who study in the U.S. (not to mention their mainland Chinese counterparts), already had to worry about what might happen if a student takes a phone out and films comments made during classes. With the widespread adoption of remote learning, that’s gotten exponentially worse, says McLaughlin. “Whether it’s the intent or not, the effect of forcing everything online makes it a lot easier to hunt down, censor, and punish speech that’s critical of the government.””