Saying one thing while doing another is a practice most would seek to avoid. However, for social media giants like Meta, Google, and others it is simply business as usual, particularly when it comes to free speech. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently published its decision in Missouri v Biden. The case was brought by the states of Missouri and Louisiana, as well as four individuals and a news website, against the Biden Administration for infringement upon their freedom of speech. In the decision, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that the U.S. government, in connection with social media platforms, violated First Amendment rights by censoring posts about COVID-19, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and fraud in the 2020 election, all of which were deemed to be “misinformation.”
They should not be getting a pass … for pretending to defend free speech while purging viewpoints opposing those of the Biden Administration.
Free expression is ostensibly a key value of every major social media and content creation platform. For example, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, claims that one of its corporate values is “Giv[ing] People a Voice,” including when that entails “defending the right of people we disagree with.” YouTube includes “Freedom of Expression” and “Freedom of Information” as key corporate values. Furthermore, its mission statement says “[o]ur mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world.” These companies, and others such as X and TikTok, would not be under fire were they living up to these claims. Similarly, if these companies instead made it clear they would regulate what kinds of opinions and content could be posted, no one would be complaining about duplicity. (RELATED: Trump’s Truth Social Gets Lifeline)
As Missouri v. Biden has revealed, however, these companies actively worked with the government to undermine free speech on their platforms. The court stated,
officials — hailing from the White House, the CDC, the FBI, and a few other agencies — urged the platforms to remove disfavored content and accounts from their sites. And, the platforms seemingly complied. They gave the officials access to an expedited reporting system, downgraded or removed flagged posts, and deplatformed users. The platforms also changed their internal policies to capture more flagged content and sent steady reports on their moderation activities to the officials.
While the government heavily pressured these organizations to carry out the aims of the administration by censoring conservative opinions, the social media platforms involved were by no means unwilling partners. The court notes “[f]rom the beginning, the platforms cooperated with the [Biden] White House.” It also stated that “platforms responded with total compliance” when pressured by the administration to carry out certain actions such as deplatforming users or changing internal policies. The administration received no pushback from these companies regarding the actions it was directing them to take. The duration of this behavior was significant; according to the court “[t]hat [cooperation] went on through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 congressional election, and continues to this day.”
Evidently, social media companies were perfectly happy throwing values out the window to demonstrate just how compliant they could be when asked to silence those who don’t adhere to a left-wing philosophy. Of course, this is not surprising to many conservatives, given social media’s history of politically motivated content moderation. However, this case is more egregious, and demonstrates just how far platforms are willing to go to censor opposing viewpoints, particularly when the government is directly asking them to do so. (READ MORE: Meta’s Epidemic of Chinese ‘Spamouflage’ Propaganda)
Whether social media companies change their behavior for the better has yet to be seen. The government has filed a request for the Supreme Court to block the Fifth Circuit’s decision, so litigation on the issue may not be finished. So long as the Fifth Circuit’s injunction on “coerc[ing] or significantly encourag[ing]” content moderation on platforms stands, the administration cannot engage in any new collusion with social media to silence speech. Nonetheless, the internal policies of these companies, which were used to crush free expression over the past several years, do not seem to have changed. If the companies will not commit to it of their own accord, users should demand transparent updates to rules regarding content moderation. (READ MORE: Elon Musk’s ‘X’ Is More Than Just Company Rebranding)
None of the above should be misconstrued as excusing or downplaying the government’s decision to strongarm platforms into following their edicts. The Biden Administration played a crucial and troubling role in censoring political opposition. With that said, social media went along to get along, and they should not be excused for their deplorable behavior. Platforms masquerading as champions of free speech while simultaneously complying with every request from the administration to squelch it, ought not do so with impunity. They must either uphold the values they claim to champion, or they must admit they do not truly support free speech. The former may result in legal trouble with an oppressive federal regime, but the latter — the crushing of free expression on the government’s command — is a betrayal of the people. They should not be getting a pass from anyone for pretending to defend free speech while purging viewpoints opposing those of the Biden Administration. That is nothing short of pure deceitfulness.
Benjamin Whearty is a research associate at Landmark Legal Foundation in Leesburg, Virginia.