Dan O’Donnell reports on the massive revelation that the Department of Homeland Security has been pressuring social media companies to suppress their users’ protected political speech.
Nov. 2, 2022
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
The most fundamental, essential concept of the American experiment is that the people retain the absolute right to express themselves freely, especially on matters concerning politics and government.
“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom,” Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”
So necessary is this freedom for self-governance that the framers of the Constitution enshrined it in the very first amendment ratified in the Bill of Rights. Without the ability to criticize government free from the fear of government reprisal, a people cannot ever really be free from government oppression.
Never in the digital age has political speech been so suppressed and, by extension, the American people so politically oppressed. On Monday, The Intercept published a bombshell report indicating that “behind closed doors, and through pressure on private platforms, the U.S. government has used its power to try to shape online discourse.”
This effort is so sophisticated and so blatantly unconstitutional that “there is a formalized process for government officials to directly flag content on Facebook or Instagram and request that it be throttled or suppressed through a special Facebook portal that requires a government or law enforcement email to use.”
The program, which first came to light in April when the Department of Homeland Security announced and then quickly disbanded a “Disinformation Governance Board,” seeks to “target inaccurate information on a wide range of topics, including the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”
What exactly constitutes “inaccurate information?” The Department of Homeland Security won’t say, which makes its actions particularly troubling, especially since the subjects it intends to police are so politically controversial. Will an opinion that contradicts the accepted narrative surrounding, say, the Black Lives Matter organization’s obvious tax fraud be suppressed?
Or, to use perhaps the most pertinent example, will government actors continue to censor completely true news stories that have the potential to cost Democrats elections like the New York Post’s Hunter Biden exposé in October 2020?
Two months ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that the platform suppressed the story after the FBI visited its top executives.
“Basically the background here is the FBI, I think basically came to us…and was like, ‘Hey, um, just so you know, like, you should be on high alert. We thought that there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election. We have it on notice that basically there’s about to be some kind of dump of that’s similar to that. So just be vigilant,’” Zuckerberg told a stunned Joe Rogan.
“When something like that turns out to be real, is there regret for not having it evenly distributed and for throttling the distribution of that story?” retorted Rogan.
“Yeah, yeah,” Zuckerberg answered. “It sucks. I mean, because it turned out after the fact, I mean the fact-checkers looked into it and no one was able to say it was false, right? So basically, it had this period where it was getting less distribution.”
Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much every other social media network on earth suppressing the story would have been awful enough, but the fact that they did so on orders from the FBI is one of the most significant and easily the most widespread violation of First Amendment rights in the social media era.
Anyone who posted a link to the story or even a photo from it instantly had their accounts suspended—a significant punishment for most—and private companies doling out said punishments for obviously protected speech on orders from government is flatly unconstitutional behavior.
On a deeper level, the concerted effort from the government to shape both public perception and the outcome of elections by exerting its power on both the gatekeepers of the flow of information and the people themselves so as to maintain a grip on power is a massive step toward autocracy.
Without freedom of speech, after all, there can be no public liberty.