The House Oversight Committee is fighting Twitter censorship the wrong way

The House Oversight Committee held a hearing Wednesday to “Protect Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias.” Given the disturbing and unprecedented steps taken by federal agencies like the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control to limit free expression on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, this would seem a legitimate subject for government surveillance.

Unfortunately, the House Republican majority’s approach — hauling tech executives before Congress and attacking them as victims of government pressure — is counterproductive to the goal of defending free speech on the Internet, as well as a terrible example of Republican members of Congress doing the very thing they claim to oppose. The Republican Party can hardly rebuke private company content moderators for deference to government authorities while demanding similar deference to Congress.

Meanwhile, Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–NY) have shown they still can’t figure out why Twitter is restricting New York PostThe story about Hunter Biden’s laptop was catastrophically wrong — and will pressure social media to further restrict content in the dubious name of fighting alleged misinformation. When it was her turn to speak, the AOC went on a bizarre rant about the propriety of the hearing and even suggested, wrongly, that there was a compelling factual basis to doubt the laptop’s authenticity. She said the laptop story was an example of right-wing political operatives injecting “explosive misinformation” into the discourse.

“[They] they couldn’t get away with it, and now they’re furious and want the ability to do it again,” she said.

This is completely incorrect. The laptop itself is not disinformation; The fact that right-wing political actors thought their content would be helpful to their cause is no justification for the mainstream media, intelligence community and social media platforms to engage in a campaign to suppress the story. Whether New York Post story undermined the case for Joe Biden’s presidency is a question best left to actual voters, but powerful elite interests prevented them from weighing that information.

In his opening remarks, Rep. James Comer (R–Ky.), the committee’s chairman, correctly noted that the decision to limit the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop was a colossal mistake, not one of Twitter’s own making.

“America has witnessed a coordinated campaign by the social media, mainstream news and intelligence communities to cover up and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop and its contents,” Comer said. “That morning, Twitter and other social networks took extraordinary steps to cover up the story.”

The Twitter files, a series of internal email releases ordered by new CEO Elon Musk and conducted by independent journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger and others, showed that content moderation decisions are not made in a vacuum: an intricate web of federal bureaucracy strongly pushed platforms to censor certain types of content. This practice, known as “jawboning,” isn’t just happening on Twitter; Facebook Files, research report by the author Reasonshowed that CDC employees maintained an ongoing dialogue with Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and often considered which claims about COVID-19 should be suppressed on social media platforms.

At Wednesday’s hearing were three former high-ranking Twitter content moderators: Vijaya Gadde, Yoel Roth and Jim Baker. All had a hand in the infamous decision to block the Hunter Biden laptop story; all later admitted that this was a profound mistake.

Congress can continue to question exactly what was going through the minds of Twitter employees as they doubled down on restricting the laptop story, or they can direct their intent at the government itself. Subsequent releases from Twitter’s files proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the platform’s poor decisions were largely motivated by malfeasance: The FBI, CDC, White House and other branches of the federal government routinely flagged content that allegedly violated various disinformation policies. These moderation requests were often inappropriate and often wrong—federal staffers flagged innocuous jokes as violations of election integrity and misidentified legitimate political discourse as Russian bot activity—but media pressure and the express threat of increased regulation steered the platforms toward eventually they comply.

That is a real scandal. If Congress wants to protect speech from government interference, it should invite representatives of the FBI, CDC, and other agencies to these hearings.

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