On Wednesday, Musk’s “Twitter Files” will take center stage in a Capitol Hill hearing where GOP leaders will try to advance their campaign to turn Twitter’s decision to briefly block sharing a story about the president’s son into evidence of a broad conspiracy. Conservatives have long argued that Silicon Valley favors Democrats by systematically suppressing right-wing viewpoints on social media. These allegations have evolved in nearly a half-decade of warnings, as politicians in Washington and beyond fixate on the industry’s communications with Democratic leaders, seeking to cast the opposing party as against free speech.
The Twitter Files show no evidence of such a plot. Conservative influencers and stories from conservative platforms regularly draw a massive audience on social media. But Wednesday’s hearing, which will feature former Twitter executives as witnesses, is the latest effort to advance an increasingly popular Republican argument.
As House Republicans throw their political weight behind the narrative that Democrats colluded with social media companies, they have formed a new House panel to probe perceived government abuses against conservatives, including allegations of social media bias. Meanwhile, two Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Biden administration is circumventing the First Amendment to censor social media.
Taken collectively, these actions represent the next phase of a GOP strategy, which contributed to the distrust among some conservatives that seeded “the “big lie,” the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. The early warnings that liberal employees inside tech companies tilt the playing field in favor of Democrats have ballooned into accusations that government officials actively collude with the platforms to influence public discourse.
Paul M. Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said the increased pressure from Republicans have resulted in tech companies “bending over backward” to accommodate content from right-wing accounts for fear of political reprisal.
“The fact that … people are continuing to bang this drum that there’s anti-conservative bias is really unfortunate. It’s really confusing, and it’s just not true,” Barrett said in an interview.
Top Republican leaders have made alleged tech censorship one of their first priorities in the House, scheduling hearings and demanding reams of documents in a multipronged pressure campaign.
House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), along with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Jordan, in January introduced a bill called the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, which would penalize federal employees if they’re found to be asking social media companies to take down posts. The House Judiciary Committee has formed a special subcommittee focused on the “weaponization of the federal government,” designed in part to examine the interactions between the Biden administration and major tech companies.
Jordan sent letters in December to five large tech companies, demanding that they detail their “collusion with the Biden administration.”
“Big Tech is out to get conservatives, and is increasingly willing to undermine First Amendment values by complying with the Biden administration’s directives that suppress freedom of speech online,” Jordan wrote in the letters, which were sent to the executives of Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). The accusations threaten to unravel nearly a decade of investment in people and policies intended to root out violence and falsehoods online — a powerful partisan attack on Silicon Valley, even as President Biden calls for unity to take on Big Tech.
An evolution of a years-long strategy
For more than half a decade, accusations of anti-conservative bias have plagued Silicon Valley, fueled by a high-profile mishap at Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election. Anonymous former Facebook employees told the tech news website Gizmodo that the social media giant often passed over conservative media outlets when choosing stories to curate for its “trending” news feature.
Though stories with a conservative slant regularly outperform those from moderate or liberal-leaning outlets, tensions escalated under President Donald Trump. As tech companies scrambled to shore up defenses against misinformation in the wake of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election, they created policy on-the-fly for the then president’s often false and racist tweets. Under political pressure, Facebook tilted to the right in policies, personnel and public gestures, according to a Post investigation.
Top Republicans and right-wing influencers routinely accuse the companies of secretly tampering with their follower counts or “shadowbanning” their posts, even as their online audiences have grown. For many influencers, promoting how deeply they’ve been suppressed has become a marketing tool, especially after a number of them were invited by Trump to a White House “social media summit” on censorship in 2019. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., that year solicited preorders for his book on Twitter by calling it “the book the leftist elites don’t want you to read.”
Once fringe calls in Congress to overhaul social media laws reached the Oval Office, Trump signed an executive order that sought to change Section 230, a decades-old legal shield that spares tech companies from being sued over the posts, photos and videos that people share on their platforms. The growing anger reached an inflection point in 2021, when social media companies made the unprecedented decision to ban a sitting president from their services in the wake of the 2020 election.
Trump’s ban ignited a new legislative strategy in Republican-led statehouses. Florida and Texas forged ahead with new laws aimed at prohibiting the companies from banning politicians and censoring political views. States and the tech industry have called on the Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the laws, after federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings. The Supreme Court recently asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether states can bar social media companies from removing political speech.
From the early days of his deal to buy Twitter, Musk signaled that he shares Republicans’ concerns that tech companies are suppressing their views. Before closing the deal, he boosted criticism of the Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, who will testify on Wednesday, and was involved in politically controversial content moderation decisions, including the company’s call to ban Trump.
Since the deal closed, House Republicans have called on Musk to hand over any records related to the company’s handling of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden. After a group of handpicked journalists in December began tweeting screenshots about the company’s handling of the laptop story from the Twitter Files, they immediately teased congressional action.
“We’re very serious about this. We’re very concerned about this,” Comer said in a December interview on Fox News, teasing the hearing with former top Twitter leaders.
On Capitol Hill, Comer described the hearing as the beginning of a “narrow investigation” into “influence-peddling by the Biden administration.” House Republicans have mounted a sprawling campaign spanning multiple congressional committees to scrutinize communications between tech companies and Democratic leaders, blanketing platforms and public officials with demands for documents and internal emails.
“I think Musk should be applauded because he’s been very transparent,” Comer said. “He’s putting stuff out there.”
Yet Democrats in the House Oversight Committee’s minority signal that they plan to use the hearing to probe the former top Twitter leaders on concerns about violence and misinformation.
“Elon Musk has made it clear that he is going to be completely with the right-wing propaganda program,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview with The Post on Thursday.
Raskin said that the controversy over whether the government alerted Twitter that the Hunter Biden story could be foreign propaganda was a nonissue, and that GOP bills seeking to ban such interactions would only serve to benefit foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think it should be completely within the power of government to alert private media entities about the existence of foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns,” he said. “So that legislation … looks like it’s going to be very good news for Vladimir Putin.”
Meanwhile, discovery continues in the Missouri and Louisiana case. Government lawyers have attempted to dismiss the case, arguing that it contains no plausible evidence of coercion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has been skeptical of the states’ arguments in the case, urging a lower court to consider the federal government’s argument that it has already produced an extensive number of documents during discovery and so far shown no First Amendment violation.
State attorneys general leading the suit said in a recent statement that the litigation is part of a broader strategy to defend constitutional rights.
“This case is about the Biden administration’s blatant disregard for the First Amendment and its collusion with Big Tech social media companies to suppress speech it disagrees with,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said.
Bailey’s office has promoted emails between the White House and Facebook, in which a White House official flags posts related to coronavirus vaccinations that he finds concerning to the company. In one message, the official says that “the top post about vaccines today is tucker Carlson saying they don’t work.” The White House and President Biden previously publicly called on social media companies to address coronavirus misinformation.
Barrett, the NYU professor, said political leaders and government officials have been communicating with companies for years, citing the dinner that Trump had while he was president with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Often, communication between government is not nefarious, and it can be fairly routine with the intention of getting out information about how to vote, or critical information about public health.
“We don’t want there to be some kind of impenetrable wall between these companies and the government,” Barrett said.
There is a need for Silicon Valley to be more transparent about its policies for interacting with governments and legal enforcers, he added, and congressional hearings could be a venue for politicians from both parties to ask “fair and substantive” questions about companies’ efforts to promote authoritative information.
But Barrett is not expecting that at Wednesday’s hearing, which he said has “all the earmarks of a purely partisan mudslinging exercise.”