GOP Bill Seeks to Stop Alleged Social Media Censorship
WASHINGTON — House Republicans put more pressure on social media companies Thursday by introducing a bill that would block the Biden administration from trying to remove certain kinds of information from their websites.
Republicans who introduced the bill said they want to protect First Amendment rights.
A primary issue was an effort by President Joe Biden to compel Facebook and Spotify to prevent incorrect information about COVID-19 vaccines from being posted on public forums.
Biden and his colleagues said inaccurate postings warning of dire health consequences were costing Americans their lives as they avoided getting the vaccinations.
The social media companies complain they are unfairly caught in the middle of political disputes over free speech while they try to protect the integrity of messages from their users.
The bill introduced in Congress Thursday would prohibit “federal officials from using their official authority, influence or resources … to promote the censorship of lawful speech or advocate that a third party or private entity censor speech.”
It is called the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act. It was introduced by Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.
Violations of the bill’s prohibition could result in fines, job loss or pay reductions.
“The Biden administration has eroded Americans’ First Amendment rights by bullying social media companies to censor certain views and news on their platforms,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the Oversight and Accountability Committee. “From COVID-19 to the Biden family’s suspicious business schemes, Biden administration officials are quick to label inconvenient facts as disinformation and then pressure social media companies to suppress content on their platforms.”
The “business schemes” Comer mentioned refer primarily to business deals the president’s son, Hunter Biden, signed with Chinese and Ukrainian energy companies.
Some Republicans suspect the deals worth millions of dollars were supposed to include influence-peddling with the president. The Bidens deny any improprieties.
Republicans also accuse the president of trying to censor mention of Hunter Biden’s business deals on social media.
The bill introduced Thursday builds on revelations last week in a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and four private plaintiffs represented by the public policy foundation New Civil Liberties Alliance.
Emails produced during the discovery phase of the Missouri v. Biden case indicate White House Director of Digital Strategy Rob Flaherty was trying to coerce social media executives to censor information that might result in vaccine hesitancy. The lawsuit alleges violations of First Amendment free speech rights.
In one example, Flaherty sent an email to Facebook executives under the subject line “You are hiding the ball.” It included a link to a Washington Post article that referred to Facebook’s research into “the spread of ideas that contribute to vaccine hesitancy.”
A Facebook executive responded with an email to Flaherty saying, “I think there is a misunderstanding.”
On March 14, 2021, Flaherty answered with an email that said, “I don’t think this is a misunderstanding. We are gravely concerned that your service is one of the top drivers of vaccine hesitancy — period. … We want to know that you’re trying, we want to know how we can help, and we want to know that you’re not playing a shell game. … This would all be a lot easier if you would just be straight with us.”
A day later, Andy Slavitt, Biden’s former White House senior advisor for the COVID-19 response, emailed Facebook executives with a message saying, “We have urgency and don’t sense it from you all. 100% of the questions I asked have never been answered and weeks have gone by. Internally we have been considering our options on what to do about it.”
Since then, Facebook and parent company Meta Platforms Inc. have cut back on their political content in an apparent effort to avoid controversy and political pressure.
Additional backlash has fallen on Twitter Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. Last month, media reports accused him and his top executives of compiling a blacklist of conservative commentators.
Their tweets were reportedly disfavored from trending and the visibility of their accounts limited without informing them. They included critics of pandemic lockdowns and conservative television hosts.
Twitter officials said they were trying their best to respond to confusing government guidance on censorship.
Some of it was included in an FBI request in 2020 to examine accounts for violations of policies against ethnic hatred and speech that could incite violence.
Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @TomRamstack
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