Later this month, Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, will convene representatives from Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to discuss something that is far outside the bailiwick of the FEC and has absolutely nothing to do with her duties as a commissioner: “fighting the disinformation that risks further corroding our democracy.”
This sort of government meddling is very dangerous to free speech. If some of these companies decided on their own to limit political speech on their platforms, consumers could take their mouse clicks elsewhere. But if government agencies such as the FEC put the screws to all the biggest players in Silicon Valley — as Weintraub seems to be planning — political caprice could shape the entire industry.
Anyone who assumes the gathering will focus solely on stopping Russian trolls or neo-Nazis should think again. The symposium is cosponsored by PEN America, an organization the Washington Examiner characterizes as an “anti-Trump free speech advocacy group.”
Too many progressives believe any political opinion, information, or advocacy online that supports conservative policies and principles or President Trump is, by definition, “disinformation” that must be censored. Or, as Weintraub labels it in her invitation, “fraudulent news and propaganda.”
The 2018 election demonstrated that some social-media companies will not hesitate to remove from their platforms political speech and advocacy on the basis of very hazy standards. Only a few months before the 2018 midterms, Facebook took down hundreds of pages registered to American citizens for what the company termed “sensational political content.” Only days before the midterms, Twitter shut down several accounts after Democratic officials complained that they were attempting to discourage voter turnout.
We certainly want to encourage citizen turnout and participation in the election process. But some Americans disagree with that idea for various reasons (including as a protest against the system) — and they should be able to express those views without being censored by the holier-than-thou inquisitors of the tech world.
Yes, social-media corporations are private entities with private-property rights over their platforms. Unlike the government, they are not bound by the First Amendment. But companies such as Google hold themselves out as being “neutral” in the political realm when their actions — and in some cases whistleblowers — seem to indicate that this may not be true.
The campaign against domestic “disinformation,” trolls, and fake news is dangerous because these terms are moving targets. When does an op-ed that Weintraub or the mavens of Silicon Valley disagree with or don’t like become an impermissible effort to mislead? When does a provocative political view become “dangerous” hate speech?
Without clear guideposts, there is no way for writers, tweeters, politicians, and pundits to know when they are crossing whatever murky lines Weintraub, Facebook, Twitter, and Google will consider at their symposium. Indeed, many of the people “demonetized” or dispatched from popular social-media sites are not hate-spewing villains. Rather, they simply disagree with the prevailing political orthodoxy of liberals such as Weintraub.
The post-2016 battle against so-called “disinformation” was initially wrapped in Red Scare-era rhetoric. That veneer has now been dropped.
Many left-leaning political commentators, non-profits, and think tanks clearly view domestic political speech with at least the same degree of suspicion as that cast upon the Kremlin. Indeed, the Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo insinuates that online domestic speech might be more dangerous because it is “much easier to understand what’s happening — and influence what goes on — if you’re in Texas as opposed to St. Petersburg or Tehran.”
Liberal politicians are still slightly cagier about their intent to curtail the free speech of both Russian bots and American citizens, but their actions speak volumes. For instance, the Honest Ads Act — legislation proposed by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) — was billed as an effort to stop Russian meddling. However, the bill would do little to target Russian trolls and quite a lot to make it more difficult for American citizens to voice their own political opinions.
The Honest Ads Act is, in its essence, a bundle of speech limitations liberals have long supported repackaged as an anti-foreign-interference measure. Weintraub’s symposium, and any regulatory agenda that flows from it, will likely follow the same playbook. The rhetoric will likely focus on Russia, but the repercussions will surely affect Americans.
The FEC is the federal agency tasked with enforcing federal campaign-finance laws. It does not have the power (thank goodness!) to censor political speech. It does not have the authority to do anything about the subject of Weintraub’s symposium, and she has no business even convening such a symposium.
If the FEC, led by commissioners like Weintraub, were to take it upon itself to combat so-called “disinformation” and “fraudulent news and propaganda,” free speech would be in dire straits. Fear of being banned from Twitter or Facebook could have a chilling effect on political speech online. Many more citizens may shrink from the public square if an accusation of spreading disinformation or propaganda carries with it the risk of persecution by a federal agency.
It is difficult to deny that our politics today are highly polarized and hyperbolic. It is also hard to miss the role social media plays in enflaming passions and obscuring the truth. Real as these problems are, the danger posed by a government entity patrolling the Internet for what it deems to be fake news — or tech companies censoring political speech at the behest of bureaucrats like Weintraub — is far worse.
The temptation to use such an expansive and flexible writ of authority to silence political dissent would be overwhelming. Moreover, the real source of our political conflicts today is generally not a misunderstanding of the facts; it is rooted in fundamental disagreements over which facts matter most according to our differing values, principles, and interests. There is no objective way to mediate conflicts of this kind.
It is far safer to rely on the discernment of the public than the fair-mindedness of a body of government (or corporate) censors. We have much more confidence in the intelligence of the American people than Weintraub does.
The American public can be counted upon to glean what they need from the messy, noisy cacophony that is our democratic republic and, ultimately, cast their ballots in their best interests.
After all, they’ve been doing it successfully for over 200 years.
Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow and John York is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky served as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission in 2006 and 2007.