House Oversight Committee Is Fighting Twitter Censorship the Wrong Way
Congress should set its sights on bad government actors who pressured social media companies.
The House Oversight Committee held a hearing Wednesday with the purpose of "Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias." Given the disturbing and unprecedented steps taken by federal agencies like the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control to limit free expression on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, this would appear to be a legitimate subject for government oversight.
Unfortunately, the approach taken by the Republican House majority—haul tech executives before Congress and attack them for being the victims of government pressure—is both counterproductive to the goal of defending free speech online, as well as a galling example of Republican members of Congress doing the very thing they claim to oppose. The Republican Party can hardly chide private companies' content moderators for being deferential to government authority while demanding similar deference to Congress.
Meanwhile, Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) demonstrated that they still fail to grasp why Twitter's restriction of The New York Post's Hunter Biden laptop story was catastrophically wrongheaded—and that they will pressure social media companies for further content restriction in the dubious name of fighting alleged misinformation. When it was her turn to speak, AOC launched into a bizarre rant about the appropriateness of the hearing and even suggested, wrongly, that there was a persuasive factual basis to doubt the laptop's authenticity in the first place. She said the laptop story was an example of rightwing political operatives injecting "explosive disinformation" into the discourse.
"[They] couldn't get away with it, and now they're livid, and they want the ability to do it again," she said.
So is @AOC so dumb she thinks the @nypost being censored by @twitter was justified because the story wasn't factual or is she just lying in Congress for the Biden's? This is what actual disinformation looks like: pic.twitter.com/kRoLPYD6ZS
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) February 8, 2023
This is entirely incorrect. The laptop itself is not disinformation; the fact that rightwing political actors thought its content would be helpful to their cause is not a justification for the mainstream media, the intelligence community, and social media platforms to engage in a campaign to suppress the story. Whether The New York Post story undermined the case for Joe Biden's presidency is a question best left to actual voters, but powerful elite interests prevented them from weighing that information.
In his opening remarks, Rep. James Comer (R–Ky.), the committee's chair, correctly noted that the decision to restrict the Hunter Biden laptop story was a colossal mistake and not one that Twitter made on its own.
"America witnessed a coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news, and the intelligence communities to suppress and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden's laptop and its contents," said Comer. "That morning Twitter and other social media companies took extraordinary steps to suppress that story."
The Twitter Files, a series of internal email releases ordered by new CEO Elon Musk and conducted by independent journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger, and others, have shown that content moderation decisions are not made in a vacuum: A tangled web of federal bureaucracies has vigorously pushed the platforms to censor certain kinds of content. This practice, known as "jawboning," is not just occurring on Twitter; the Facebook Files, an investigative report by Reason, showed that CDC employees maintained a constant dialogue with Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and frequently weighed in on which COVID-19 claims should be suppressed on social media platforms.
Wednesday's hearing featured three former high-ranking content moderators at Twitter: Vijaya Gadde, Yoel Roth, and Jim Baker. All had a hand in the infamous decision to block the Hunter Biden laptop story; all have subsequently admitted that this was a profound mistake.
Congress can continue to probe what exactly was going through Twitter employees' heads as they doubled down on restricting the laptop story, or they can direct their intention to the government itself. Subsequent releases from the Twitter Files have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the platform's bad decisions were substantially motivated by jawboning: The FBI, CDC, White House, and other arms of the federal government routinely flagged content that supposedly violated various misinformation policies. These requests for moderation were often improper and frequently misguided—federal employees flagged harmless jokes as violating election integrity and wrongly identified legitimate political discourse as Russian bot activity—but pressure from the media and the explicit threat of increased regulation steered platforms toward eventually complying.
That is the real scandal. If Congress wants to protect speech from government interference, it should summon representatives of the FBI, the CDC, and other agencies to these hearings.