Social media censorship is a potent threat to freedom of speech

On Thursday of last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki revealed that the Biden Administration is actively monitoring Facebook to flag “problematic” posts related to the coronavirus for censorship.

“In terms of actions […] that we have taken or we’re working to take, I should say, from the federal government. We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the Surgeon General’s Office. We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” said Ms. Psaki. 

The following day, the press secretary elaborated on the White House’s position, saying that users who post “misinformation” should be banned on every social media platform. When asked by a reporter, President Biden even went as far as to accuse Facebook and other social media platforms of “killing people.”

This coordinated attempt by the White House to dictate and coerce private companies into what can and cannot be published on their platforms is a blatant violation of freedom of speech. No matter where one stands on the subject of COVID-19 vaccinations or the pandemic, this merging of government and corporate power is undemocratic.

What makes this even more insidious is that de-platforming individuals on social media have proven to be highly effective in halting the spread of ideas in the public sphere. In a research paper published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, J.M Berger found that all available data points toward the effectiveness of suspensions and suppression for limiting the recruitment and propaganda reach of violent extremist organizations like ISIS.

Similar effects can be observed when de-platforming is targeted against far-right groups. A study found that Reddit’s decision in 2015 to ban various hate groups led to less hate speech on the site. It was found that users who participated in the banned subreddits left the site, while those who remained dramatically reduced their hate speech usage.

Deplatforming is certainly an effective tool when it comes to countering terrorist and like-minded extremist groups online. But the fact that this tactic is being used against individuals and organizations that do not fit these categories is a terrifying abuse of power.

Such a tactic has proven to be just as effective in manipulating mainstream electoral campaigns. One of the most egregious examples of this was when Facebook and Twitter censored the New York Post over the paper’s exposés about Hunter Biden’s emails and corruption. In other words, social media platforms baselessly characterized the Post’s investigative journalism as “misinformation” and blocked it.

This type of censorship significantly affected the 2020 presidential election. A news report from the Media Research Center shows that 17 percent of Biden voters would not have voted for the Biden-Harris presidential ticket if they knew at least one of the eight news stories that were suppressed by big tech and mainstream media outlets.

The danger lies in the fact that Psaki has yet to explain what the White House identifies as “misinformation” regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. This is especially pertinent, considering how Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have made repeated statements undermining vaccine confidence during the campaign. The fact is that neither the White House nor Facebook has shown any desire to protect freedom of speech as an inalienable right.

“Free speech is not an absolute human right,” said Helle Thorning Schmidt, member of Facebook’s Oversight Board and former Prime Minister of Denmark, at a Politico Europe event. “It has to be balanced with other human rights.”

Throughout the world, authoritarian regimes have repeatedly restricted access to the internet to control their citizens’ lives. The most recent example is Cuba, where the government shutdown of the web has made it harder for Cubans to organize against communist rule. With social media effectively becoming the new public square, state-sanctioned de-platforming by the Biden Administration must be viewed as a dangerously effective means of government coercion.

• Bradley Martin is the Executive Director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @ByBradleyMartin

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