The New “Facebook Files” Show Everything the First Amendment Was Designed to Prevent
by Matt Taibbi | Jul 28, 2023
House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio went Gonzo on Twitter yesterday, releasing a string of documents subpoenaed by Facebook:
The “Facebook Files” story Jordan went on to tell revealed a worst-case scenario for modern digital censorship, in which the White House not only strong-armed Facebook to remove content, but did so over exactly the kind of speech the Constitution was designed to protect, political satire. Not only that, but the White House’s demand had clear political motivation. A law professor would have a difficult time scripting an episode more directly offensive to the First Amendment.
The “Facebook Files” show the progression of a request to Facebook from the Biden White House’s Senior Advisor Andy Slavitt to remove a vaccine-critical meme, whose crime was that it was too popular — the “third ranked post in the data we sent him,” as Facebook President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg put it. The meme is a spoof of late-night TV ads by law firms looking for class-action plaintiffs, only this time the joke was about the Covid shot. The offending gag:
Internally, Facebook was in a panic about Slavitt’s request. An unnamed executive wrote to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, telling them “We are facing continued pressure from external stakeholders, including the White House” to “remove more Covid-19 vaccine discouraging content.” Clegg recounted that Slavitt was “outraged” Facebook had not taken down the De Caprio meme.
Clegg described how he told Slavitt that taking the meme down “would represent a significant incursion into traditional boundaries of free expression in the US,” but Slavitt was unimpressed. As Clegg explained, Slavitt “replied that the post was directly comparing Covid vaccines to asbestos poisoning in a way that demonstrably inhibits confidence amongst those the Biden administration is trying to reach,” adding “Andy’s assumption is that [YouTube] would never accept something like this”:
Slavitt, who suddenly quit his White House post that June of 2021, popped up more than once in Twitter Files research. In one email, a senior Twitter communications executive described concerns over the site’s failure to remove all of the so-called “disinformation dozen,” whose number included Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Noting that Biden just “expressed an interest in reviewing Section 230,” the exec wrote, “We’ve heard from administration-adjacent figures, like former WH COVID-19 advisor Andy Slavitt, that more work from us is needed”:
In the Facebook episode, the intransigent determination emanating from the White House over a meme led to panic inside the company, with VP of public policy Brian Rice saying “Andy’s challenge feels very much like a crossroads for us with the White House in these early days.” Another email adds context to an exhibit produced in the Missouri v. Biden case, in which Slavitt (and others) complained bitterly about a Tucker Carlson broadcast from April 13, 2021 called, “Two COVID vaccine questions that no one will answer.”
It’s already come out that Facebook’s top DC lobbyist conveyed to Clegg the administration’s displeasure at the lack of “progress” in removing Carlson’s video from that day, and that Clegg promised to “dig in” once he heard this. We also knew that when Slavitt was told Carlson’s video was deemed not violative, the White House went bananas, with official Rob Flaherty responding, “How was this not violative?”
In yesterday’s Facebook Files release, it came out that Facebook, in its desperation to cool down these White House apes, promised to reduce traffic to Carlson’s video by 50% while it was “in the queue to be fact-checked”!
Apart from the obvious, why was this insane? Because while the White House fumed and outlets like the Washington Post excoriated Carlson for a “just asking questions… shtick,” it turned out he was asking the right questions.
Why, if the vaccine worked, was Anthony Fauci telling people they shouldn’t “attend medium to large gatherings” or remove masks? “If vaccines work,” Carlson asked, “why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives?” Similarly: why was Justin Trudeau saying, “Vaccination on its own isn’t enough to keep us safe,” if the shot worked? Maybe, Carlson speculated, the vaccine doesn’t work?
These were obvious and appropriate questions, but officials and journalists alike killed Carlson for them anyway. YouTube is still packed with TUCKER DISINFO DERP videos that are, themselves, actually wrong:
The mania to clamp down on speech like this reflected the latest doublethink moral panic, in which tens of millions of people simultaneously believed with every righteous cell in their bodies that the vaccine worked, but also that bars, offices, schools, and the world should not be re-opened, that we should not even think about engaging in maskless contact, and that we should remain socially distanced, presumably even in our nuptial beds. This form of madness similar to the Russiagate lunacy drove the raw emotion and “outrage” behind the White House’s requests.
Though the fate of the De Caprio meme is unclear, Facebook ultimately caved and partnered with the Surgeon General’s office to come up with “discreet policy options” for expanding its definition of punishable offenses, for instance jacking up demotion levels to 85% or giving strikes or repeat offender status to posts that were only “partly false” or missing “context.”
This was happening in the summer 2021, just as the government began to concede that the vaccines were not “100% effective.” In other words, at the time Facebook was expanding its definition of misinformation, it was learning that the White House itself was among the country’s leading sources of disinformation, like Joe Biden’s July 21, 2021 statement, “You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.”
Clamping down on jokes that reduce “confidence” in policies gives any government authority to define anything as suppressible, using the syllogistic formula Our policies save lives, and your criticism reduces confidence in our policies: therefore, your jokes kill. This happened, in 2021. Joe Biden said on July 19, 2021, “They’re killing people!” In hindsight it could equally be argued Biden was killing people, by telling them they wouldn’t die if they got the shot, but nobody will point this out, for fear of being labeled misinformation agents. I don’t love doing it now, knowing the YouTube version of this article is likely to get dinged.
The authors of the Constitution understood that giving anyone the authority to decide questions of fact would create incentives for censorship, especially since government offices tend to be occupied by people with strong political beliefs. Slavitt for instance was and is a ferocious partisan. In the previous summer of 2020, he was already rolling out the argument that not supporting Joe Biden would cost lives:
The First Amendment protects jokes for a reason. Permitting the public to laugh at people in power allows us to remember that even our authorities are people, and therefore stupid and fallible, like Andy Slavitt. The system was designed to prevent this exact situation from the summer of 2021, when the authorities are simultaneously wrong and trying to ban criticism. It’s all laid out for everyone to see. How can anyone still defend this?
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