This afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend a press briefing at Donald Trump’s future residence, the White House. There, if I’m not mistaken, the current Press Secretary advised me to sue Twitter.
I wanted to find out if the Obama administration had a view on Twitter and Facebook’s recent abandonment of their old commitments to free speech. In terms of beating the competition, Silicon Valley still represents an American success story, and I thought the President might be concerned to hear that they’re abandoning American values — you know, little things like freedom of speech and assembly.
Obama may be a Democrat and a scoundrel (I repeat myself), but he’s no fool. He knows which way the wind is blowing on college campuses, which is why he’s sternly rebuked left-wing student activists for their determination to censor competing points of view. It stands to reason that the administration would adopt a similar line against left-wing censorship at Twitter and Facebook, the platforms home to such innovations as “disagreement with my opinion is online harassment” and “aggressive” retweets.
As is so often the case, I was right. Press Secretary Josh Earnest sent social media companies an unequivocal message: hold true to your founding values, or doom yourselves. Being a wonk, he didn’t put it quite so dramatically, instead saying that the success of social media was “predicated on the important protection of First Amendment rights to self-expression.” Nonetheless, the message was clear: for Facebook and Twitter, it’s free speech or bust.
I was surprised by Earnest’s follow-up comment though. Responding to my question about what the government can do to encourage social media companies to stay true to their original free-speech principles, Earnest suggested that private citizens who feel discriminated against should appeal to the third branch of the U.S government, and hit social media companies in their wallets — with lawsuits.
Here’s what he said, in his own words:
I’m not sure exactly what sort of government policy decision could have any impact on that. There is though a third branch of government, our courts. They’re supposed to be insulated from politics, they’re supposed to be in a position to resolve those kinds of questions. So if there are private citizens who believe their constitutional rights are being violated in some way, they do have an opportunity to address that before a judge in a court of law…
He isn’t the first person to suggest I sue Twitter over their bizarre, unexplained decision to de-verify my account. But he’s certainly the first senior White House official to do so. Silicon Valley should be very afraid if the White House is advising private citizens to take them to court over their free speech violations.
I can certainly see the appeal of Earnest’s suggestion. Besides my un-verification, Twitter is known for pernicious and arbitrary account suspensions that follow an opaque and byzantine logic, the Gulag-like permanent banning of top conservative accounts, and “shadowbanning,” a practice so insidious I can only assume it’s the work of a James Bond villain hired by Twitter for cultural diversity.
Facebook, meanwhile, is currently being sued in Germany for not censoring enough content on its platform. Two lawyers are currently taking Mark Zuckerberg to court, alleging that content posted on his platform violates the European nation’s stringent laws on hate speech and glorifying Nazism.
But whose free speech laws should Facebook (and Twitter) bow to? Germany’s, or the United States? I think the answer is obvious. For all the faults of the federal government, the U.S constitution still represents an ever-dismaying bulwark against left-wing efforts to curb free speech.
Aaron Swartz once warned that censorship on sites like Facebook and Twitter is more worrying than government censorship, as those companies aren’t bound by the first amendment. Perhaps it’s time for that to change. If these companies want to Make Social Media Great Again, the answer is simple: stick with America, the beacon of free speech for the entire world.