Documents show White House pressured Facebook to censor speech

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According to newly discovered Facebook documents, US President Joe Biden’s administration pressed the world’s largest social media site to suppress user input, potentially breaching their constitutional right to free expression.

Republican Jim Jordan, Chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee, received the materials as part of his panel’s inquiry into the administration’s alleged “weaponization” of government. The documents show that Facebook and Instagram deleted posts and changed moderation policies in response to “unconstitutional pressure from the Biden White House,” Jordan alleged on Thursday.

The legislator referenced an April 2021 email from a Facebook employee to top leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg as evidence. “We are facing continued pressure from external stakeholders, including the White House and the press, to remove more Covid-19 vaccine-discouraging content,” the sender stated. The letter, for example, stated that the White House had lobbied for the censorship of a hilarious meme implying that the jabs were potentially dangerous.

Around the same time, Facebook’s president for global affairs, Nick Clegg, sent a message to his colleagues warning them that Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to Biden on Covid-19 policies, was “outraged” that the platform didn’t remove the anti-vaccine post. Clegg said that removing the item “would represent a significant incursion into traditional boundaries of free expression in the US,” but Slavitt dismissed that worry, arguing that the meme would impede the government’s vaccine-rollout effort.

Social media platforms themselves can legally choose how to restrict their content, but government intervention to influence those decisions could infringe on free-speech rights. After a report last October showed that the administration had set up a portal through which federal officials could make content-moderation requests to Big Tech, the American Civil Liberties Union said, “The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false – online or anywhere. Our government can’t use private pressure to get around our constitutional rights.”

Jordan warned earlier this week that his committee would vote to hold Zuckerberg in contempt of Congress unless Facebook provided the documents it had subpoenaed on government interventions into content moderation. He claimed that the committee had seen enough evidence to believe that Facebook was holding back on turning over evidence that would show it faced the same sort of government pressure that was previously revealed by Twitter.

Facebook executives feared repercussions if they didn’t appease the White House, Jordan said. Three months after Biden took office, Facebook’s vice president for public policy, Brian Rice, wrote in an April 2021 email that Slavitt’s pushback felt “very much like a crossroads for us with the White House in these early days.” He added, “Given what is at stake here, it would also be a good idea if we could regroup and take stock of where we are in our relations with the White House and our internal methods, too.”