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‘Fighting Disinformation’ or Censoring Dissenting Voices? The White House and Social Media

«Combatir la desinformación» o censurar las voces disidentes: ¿qué hace la administración Biden controlando el contenido en redes sociales?

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“Disinformation” is the new favorite word of politicians, progressive media and also the White House. They use this controversial term to routinely debunk what they call “conspiracies,” as they once did with the plausible lab leak theory. While “fighting disinformation” on paper may sound laudable to some, for conservatives it is somewhat worrisome, as one can start by eliminating publications with misinformation on health issues, such as COVID-19 or virus vaccines, but one can also use the tool to censor dissenting voices.

Why is the administration monitoring content on social networks?

On Friday, July 16, the controversy was installed: Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said that the government is working hand in hand with Facebook to combat misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation. We’re working with doctors and medical experts who are popular with their audience with accurate information. So, we’re helping get trusted content out there,” Psaki said, after explaining the administration’s concern about misinformation about vaccines.

According to the Democratic administration, most of the misinformation on the social network comes from 12 people. In fact, President Joe Biden, after criticizing Facebook for the problematic posts circulating on its platform, accusing the company of “killing people,” had to backtrack and say “Facebook isn’t killing people, these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information.”

“My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine,” the president added.

While he doesn’t consider them an act of censorship per se, Bob Jarvis, a lawyer and law professor at Nova Southeastern University, told Forbes that he was “surprised that the White House called out Facebook by its name.”

“I think it would have been more appropriate if the White House simply had reminded Americans that there is a lot of misinformation on the web and that everyone, as always, should approach the web with a good deal of skepticism and be very careful as to what they believe, even if information appears on a social media platform that they like and regularly use,” Jarvis said.

Psaki also commented that users who spread misinformation on one social network should be removed from all platforms equally, in a sort of blacklist for misinforming users.

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Press Secretary, Jen Psaki. (Image: EFE)

The President and Press Secretary’s words provoked much outrage. However, this is not new.

In June of this year, Politico revealed that the Biden administration has a team dedicated to combating disinformation. The focus of the article was positive, highlighting the initiative of the White House and other private groups dedicated to restricting publications deemed problematic.

According to the report written by journalist Natasha Korecki, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Combating Disinformation Program, the taxpayer-funded White House Office of Digital Strategy, and the private group Building Back Together took on “different roles in monitoring and determining what content is consumed on social media.”

The article revealed that the Biden administration has a couple dozen employees working against “misinformation” in addition to outsourcing.

“Combating misinformation (falsehoods) and disinformation (intentional falsehoods) can be a massive undertaking that requires intense and meticulous social media tracking. It also means confronting social media platforms, which can create First Amendment issues for the White House, if it is viewed as trying to restrict content.”

Beyond COVID-19

While the White House insists that, for the time being, they are taking care to review information regarding COVID-19 and vaccines, the Politico article notes that there are also efforts to identify other content.

“Building Back Together, an advocacy group closely aligned with Biden, has assumed the role of battling social media outfits, including Facebook, on behalf of the White House, in an ongoing effort to keep false election narratives off the platform. The DNC has taken on more of the hand-to-hand combat in defense of Biden and other Democrats, as well as keeping track of emerging themes it has identified as building momentum on the right.”

The issue of voter fraud is not the only item Building Back Together (BBT) is studying. Critical Race Theory and the participation of trans people within women’s sports, according to Politico, are other “emerging” issues from the right that they are studying:

“One of the focal points is critical race theory. The academic concept of civil rights scholars was barely a blip on social media in 2020. But since January, there have been 25 million interactions involving critical race theory on Facebook, according to a DNC analysis. Discussions about transgender sports, too, have dominated conservative sites, said Durigan, aimed at stoking fears that an executive order Biden signed protecting transgender people from discrimination would ‘destroy women’s sports.'”

According to Politico, this private group “is monitoring social media companies and recently called on Facebook to launch a comprehensive review of the role its platform played in the run-up to the deadly January 6.”

Also, “a BBT senior adviser described the group’s role as holding platforms like Facebook accountable as Democrats move into the midterms and 2024. That has meant discussing Facebook’s response to its complaints that it isn’t moving quickly enough to take down false information.”

In short, the White House is pushing for a fight against what they consider disinformation, and they are doing it in two ways: by pressuring social networks to regulate content or by disseminating “truthful” information to counterbalance “disinformation.”

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President of the United States, Joe Biden. (Image: EFE)

Concerns with White House initiatives

Conservatives are concerned that the White House may be pressuring (or suggesting) social networks to censor content potentially damaging to the administration. The risk of government meddling, in some way, in restricting content could mean crossing the First Amendment boundary.

“White House press secretary Jen Psaki casually confirmed on Thursday what skeptical conservatives and some civil libertarians have been suspecting for years: that the world’s biggest speech platforms take direction from the government in choosing what content to suppress, amplify, or remove.” Rachel Bovard, senior policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute and senior technology columnist for The Federalist, wrote in the New York Post.

“The White House is motivated by a real problem: overtly wrong information about the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of the posts are factually inaccurate, and some of it misrepresents the fact that vaccines, in general, do work… But the administration’s solution — to control what can be said and who can use the world’s biggest speech platforms — is deeply unsettling and, frankly, undemocratic.”

Columnist Joe Concha, also published in The Hill an opinion on the matter: “if the White House can define what is misinformation and what isn’t, and do so with Facebook, which clearly served at the pleasure of the Biden campaign in 2020, what’s to stop the White House from recommending censorship of certain stories?”

“To buy Psaki’s argument,” Concha continued, “one also has to believe that: (A) Facebook isn’t biased (it is) (B) Facebook is acting in good faith (it’s not) C) Facebook’s faceless fact-checking unit has an exemplary track record (it does not). Because remember: Until about one month ago, Facebook censored posts about COVID possibly originating in a lab in Wuhan, China. Many in the media and in the Democratic Party called it a reckless conspiracy theory. Now suddenly it’s a real possibility, as even some Democrats are conceding.”

The conservative columnist charged that, “Until about a month ago, Facebook censored posts about COVID possibly originating from a lab in Wuhan, China. Many in the media and in the Democratic Party called it a reckless conspiracy theory. Now, suddenly, it is a real possibility, as even some Democrats acknowledge.”

There are other situations of concern. For example, before the November 2020 election, where Joe Biden prevailed over former President Donald Trump, the New York Post published an exclusive on Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings. The publication of that first major story, which involved then-candidate Joe Biden, was limited on both Twitter and Facebook for allegedly violating the internal rules of both media outlets and being unverified information.

Despite the Post being censored by Big Tech, months after the election Hunter Biden agreed that the laptop the information came from could be his and the FBI admitted that Biden’s son is under federal investigation for money laundering.

Censorship against conservatives by Big Tech has been the subject of complaints for quite some time. Even the heads of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were questioned in the Senate vehemently by both Republicans and Democrats, but for different reasons.

Republicans accuse the tech giants of limiting conservative speech and going against the First Amendment, while Democrats push for the platforms to censor or limit content deemed dangerous. That the White House today admits it is working with Facebook to restrict “disinformation” only further fuels fears of a possible coalition between the government and Big Tech to censor dissent.

At least this is what Joe Biden’s political opponents, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who called the work of Facebook and the White House “collusion” and declared that “Joe Biden is using #BigTech to censor views he disagrees with.”

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

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