Documents show White House pressured Facebook to censor speech
Newly unearthed documents from Facebook have revealed that US President Joe Biden’s administration pressured the world’s largest social media platform to censor commentary by its users, potentially violating their constitutional right to free speech.
US House Judiciary Committee Chairman and Republican Jim Jordan obtained the documents amid his panel’s investigation of the administration’s alleged “weaponization” of government. The documents prove that Facebook and Instagram censored posts and changed their moderation policies because of “unconstitutional pressure from the Biden White House,” Jordan claimed on Thursday.
Among the evidence cited by the lawmaker was an April 2021 email from a Facebook employee to top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. “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 said. The message noted, for example, that the White House had pushed for the censoring of a humorous meme that suggested the jabs might be unsafe.
In another April 2021 email, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s president for global affairs, informed his team at Facebook that Andy Slavitt, a Senior Advisor to President Biden, was “outraged . . . that [Facebook] did not remove” a particular post. pic.twitter.com/5muflAQjcx— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) July 27, 2023
Around the same time period, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s president for global affairs, sent a message informing his colleagues that Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to Biden on Covid-19 policies, was “outraged” that the platform didn’t take down the anti-vaccine meme. Clegg said he countered that removing the content “would represent a significant incursion into traditional boundaries of free expression in the US,” but Slavitt disregarded that concern and argued that the meme would hinder 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.”
Another document showed that “talking points” were prepared for Clegg to help smooth over relations with the administration. One of the suggestions was that he point out the company’s handling of a Tucker Carlson video that angered the White House. Although the video didn’t violate the platform’s policies, Facebook throttled back its distribution by 50% while it was queued to be “fact-checked.”