When I licked or dragged myself as a small child, my mother said: “You have two choices: you can do it happily or I can make you.” Even as a preschooler, I realized that it wasn’t a choice at all, just a warning about how unpleasant things could be for me if I didn’t comply.
Employees of Twitter—and Facebook—happily chose to censor, suppress, and undermine diverse viewpoints. But they were always faced with a false choice. The public has now had the opportunity to take a peek at thousands of communications between government officials of various kinds and Twitter employees (the so-called Twitter files), released by Elon Musk after buying the social network. The messages reveal the ways in which the boundaries between public and private have been deliberately eroded during the era of COVID-19 in an attempt to stamp out “disinformation,” much of which turned out to be true and all of which was speech protected by the First Amendment.
The danger of this state of affairs is that eventually even friends of free association and free speech begin to question whether the “private company” label still applies to Facebook or Twitter when the tendrils of federal bureaucracy are so intimately entangled in the company’s inner workings. But this temptation should be resisted. Government intrusion into what should be purely private corporate decision-making does not abrogate the rights of private entities, no matter how outrageous the outcome.
Moreover, this line of argument creates dangerous incentives. In a scenario where private companies lose protection for their own speech and the speech of their customers from government censors precisely because the feds are meddling in their affairs, it gives the feds every reason to meddle even more and the companies to throw out their hands. This behind-the-scenes nationalization quickly leads to the uncomfortable state of affairs already found in so many authoritarian countries, where citizens realize that their private activities are fully exposed to the eyes of state actors and subject to their control, and simply behave accordingly – watch what they say and who do they say that to?
This also creates a self-perpetuating cycle, where the only people willing to work at social media companies in soft censor roles will be people who are already aligned with the powerful – or flexible enough not to mind bending.
However, neither the employees nor the companies themselves are the villains in this story. It would be an extraordinary act of courage, and perhaps foolishness, to defy the repeated demands of the state with the implicit threat that those demands carry. The villains are state actors, who – knowing full well the limits of their power – sought solutions that violated the spirit of the law, and perhaps its letter.
The phenomenon is bipartisan. Once one side presents a new technique for exerting control, the other side cannot help but seize the opportunity when the opportunity presents itself. So former President Donald Trump’s chief technology officer asked Twitter about cracking down on “misinformation” about the “grocery rush”—in an era of grocery rushes. And President Joe Biden’s FBI flagged accounts that made jokes about the election, resulting in “disinformation” bans.
In our cover story, Reason reveals what you might call the Facebook files: secret internal communications that contain proof of what you’d be a fool not to suspect—that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government bureaucrats flagged, alerted, and searched vast numbers of Facebook posts, too. There are no direct threats here, as in the Twitter files, but an undercurrent runs through even the most pleasant and collegial exchanges. In every conversation with a government official there is the same warning: you can be happy or we will make you.