She sure has had a lot to say over the past 48 hours about how private tech companies should be running their businesses.
Yesterday the White House began its big push against vaccine misinformation, part of which involves calling on Big Tech to enforce its policies more rigorously against people spreading conspiracy theories about the vaccines. “In terms of actions we are taking or that we’re working to take, I should say, from the federal government, we’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the surgeon general’s office. We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” Psaki told the White House press corps on Thursday. “Flagging problematic posts”? Was the federal government now leaning on Facebook to remove certain user content?
Conveniently, that’s Trump’s core argument in his new lawsuit alleging that Facebook should be treated as a state actor for First Amendment purposes, that it’s operating in some respects as an agent of Uncle Sam.
There’s a range of action that might plausibly be described as “flagging problematic posts” with some actions more sinister and some less so. The most sinister version would be if Psaki or some other White House apparatchik dialed up Facebook and threatened them with regulatory consequences if they didn’t deplatform critics whom the White House found objectionable. The least sinister is if they called Facebook’s attention to posts that were violating the company’s own terms of service and reminded them that disinformation on the site is discouraging people from getting their shots. I’d want to know three things specifically about how Biden’s people interacted with Zuckerberg’s. Were any threats made, express or implied? Were they asking for users to be kicked off the site entirely or just specific false content removed? Were they targeting factual misinformation or criticism of the Biden administration?
Politicians call up journalists and bitch them out for “unfair” coverage all the time, after all. If Ron DeSantis called up the president of CBS and unloaded him for the hit piece “60 Minutes” ran on his vaccination effort in Florida, I’d be fine with that. But if DeSantis threatened to retaliate against some financial interest that CBS or its parent company had in Florida, I’d be less fine. And if he started demanding that the network fire people, I’d be less fine still. And if he tried strong-arming them not over a segment that misrepresented the truth but about some commentator’s accurate but unflattering criticism of him, that would also be less than fine.
What did the White House do with Facebook? If they didn’t overtly threaten them, did they implicitly threaten them? Relatedly, does every “request” from a government official implicitly carry a threat if you refuse to comply? In my DeSantis/CBS hypothetical, would it be improper for the governor to yell at the network exec even if he didn’t threaten him because a threat might be reasonably inferred under the circumstances?
The subject of the White House colluding with Facebook came up at today’s press briefing when Peter Doocy of Fox pressed the White House on why they were “spying” on Facebook users. Psaki didn’t care for the characterization:
.@pdoocy: "For how long has the administration been spying on people's Facebook profiles looking for vaccine misinformation?"
.@PressSec Jen Psaki: "That was quite a loaded and inaccurate question…"
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 16, 2021
“Spying” is an odd word to describe reading through publicly available Facebook posts. Doocy seemed under the impression that it was the White House that identified the 12 Facebook users responsible for so many anti-vax falsehoods on the platform — a government blacklist — and then handed it off to Facebook, but it wasn’t. I linked the source in a post yesterday. It comes from a report published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate in May of this year:
The only name there that I recognize is RFK Jr but he is indeed one of the country’s most notorious anti-vaccine propagandists. Doocy then asked Psaki whether the White House might also seek to have old videos of Fauci advocating against masks early in the pandemic removed from Facebook, but the fact that they haven’t done that strengthens Psaki’s position. We’re not asking Facebook to police outdated science, she said, stuff that was once valid but no longer is due to new data. We’re asking them to police stuff that was never true to begin with, out-and-out lies.
And yet she’s awfully glib about the propriety of all this in an ends-justifies-the-means way. You should be worried about Americans being fed anti-vax propaganda, not whether the government is leaning on tremendously powerful information hubs to suppress that propaganda, she says.
Better idea, Jen: Let’s worry about both.
Later in the briefing she laid out what the feds would like to see from Big Tech in reducing misinformation online, including — if I understand her correctly — comprehensive cross-platform bans of anyone caught pushing misinformation:
WH Press Sec. Jen Psaki says the administration wants “transparency” from social media platforms, and says “you shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others,” for sharing misinformation. pic.twitter.com/Nu5AjYm8cd
— The Recount (@therecount) July 16, 2021
She doesn’t just want false content removed or the author of it banned from the site where it’s posted. She seems to want them completely silenced online. “Moderation is a platform decision, not a White House decision,” tweeted David French in response. “Trying to force more moderation is as constitutionally problematic as trying to force less moderation.” I can’t tell if she’s suggesting a new regulation that would require platforms to enforce a ban imposed by another, which would be grossly unconstitutional, or if she’s just thinking out loud in a wouldn’t-it-be-nice kind of way, but the more Big Tech platforms collude to suppress a particular person’s speech, the stronger the case for using regulation to rein in their power becomes. The core argument against deeming any one platform a monopoly is that there are others you can use if you’re banned by any one. What happens if being banned by one means being banned by all?
It’ll be ironic if Trump/MAGA agitation to crack down on Big Tech ends up providing Democrats with political cover to start regulating (or trying to regulate) disinformation favored by righty populists on Facebook, but maybe that’s where we’re headed. And maybe there’s a lesson in it. When the president’s framing the stakes this way, how can they not try to crack down?
Reporter: "What's your message to platforms like Facebook?"
President Biden: "They're killing people." pic.twitter.com/jrAvQpG7i0
— The Hill (@thehill) July 16, 2021