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White House Pressured Tech Firms to Censor Speech, House Republican Report Details

The Biden administration successfully pressured social media companies and tech platforms into censoring the speech of their customers, “distorting public debate” about the origins of the Covid-19 virus and the effectiveness of vaccines, according to a new report from House Republicans.

The lengthy interim report published last week by the House Select Subcommittee on Weaponization presents dozens of internal emails between White House officials and employees at Facebook, Amazon, and YouTube demonstrating how the Biden administration pushed the platforms into adopting new censorship policies for social media posts and books.

Congressional investigators generated the report based on tens of thousands of documents relevant to the subcommittee’s investigation of online censorship, according to the report. The documents include key communications by company executives and were obtained after the subcommittee issued numerous subpoenas.

“By the end of 2021, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon changed their content moderation policies in ways that were directly responsive to criticism from the Biden Administration,” the report asserts.

“While the Biden White House’s pressure campaign largely succeeded, its effects were devastating. By suppressing free speech and intentionally distorting public debate in the modern town square, ideas and policies were no longer fairly tested and debated on their merits.”

The tech platforms were pushed to censor a broad array of content that covered true information, comedy, opinions, and personal experiences shared online, the report says. Amazon, the world’s largest online bookstore, applied its censorship guidelines to books disfavored by the Biden administration, according to the report.

All of the tech platforms complied with the government’s demands because the White House had leverage due to the companies’ other policy priorities unrelated to content moderation, the report asserts.

The Biden administration’s coordination with the tech platforms began shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. Only weeks later, Facebook began removing social media posts promoting the theory that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese lab because of demands from the Biden administration.

In February 2021, when Facebook announced its plan to suppress information about a possible lab leak, the platform notified the White House that it would soon expand its effort to remove information about the coronavirus and the coronavirus vaccines.

Internal emails between Facebook executives in May and June 2021 made clear that the guidelines surrounding lab leak content were instituted because of pressure from the Biden administration, according to the report.

A Facebook executive said in a June 2021 email to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the lab leak policy took place after “tense conversations with the new Administration” and conceded “this is ultimately a bad outcome” to remove lab leak posts.

“This seems like a good reminder that when we compromise our standards due to pressure from an administration in either direction, we’ll often regret it later,” Zuckerberg replied.

In July 2021, a question from Facebook executive Nick Clegg about why the platform removed lab leak content drew an even more blunt response from Clegg’s colleague.

“Because we were under pressure from the administration and others to do more,” the Facebook employee said. “We shouldn’t have done it.”

At the time, the White House was renewing its pressure on the platform to change its content moderation guidelines. Facebook later succumbed to the pressure, which included public criticism from Biden.

An internal memo in July 2021 reflected the gulf between the amount of censorship being demanded by the White House and what Facebook believed the platform should do to combat perceived falsehoods.

“There is likely a significant gap between what the WH would like us to remove and what we are comfortable removing,” a Facebook employee noted.

The following month, Facebook bowed to the Biden administration’s relentless pressure campaign and created new content moderation policies to satisfy “continued criticism” from the Biden administration. Facebook continued to update the Biden administration on its censorship actions at least through 2022, the report says.

YouTube had similar experiences with White House officials shortly after Biden took office. Rob Flaherty, a then-White House staffer, emailed Google, YouTube’s parent company, in April 2021 inquiring about YouTube’s work to “combat vaccine hesitancy” and “crack down on vaccine misinformation,” the report shows.

YouTube employees recalled Flaherty focusing on “borderline content” during a meeting preceding his email. Later in the month, Flaherty met with YouTube staffers again and requested data on how the platform handled “borderline content,” making sure to emphasize that anti-vaccine content “is a concern that is shared at the highest (and I mean highest) levels” of the Biden administration.

The Biden administration “is very interested in our work on borderline content” on vaccines, the YouTube public policy team told the product team the following day. YouTube employees sought to brief the White House “to prevent anything from potentially spiraling out of control.”

Over the next few weeks, communications between the White House and YouTube continued, and the video platform appeared to be more cooperative than Facebook in its interactions. YouTube’s cooperation with Flaherty did not stop the White House from amping up its push for YouTube to restrict certain content.

Flaherty emailed YouTube in July 2021 expressing alarm over a tweet from left-wing CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale who claimed the platform’s algorithm was “feeding” him anti-vaccine content after watching videos on Arizona’s election “audit.” Dale tweeted an image with videos including analysis of a congressional hearing and a debate featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr, the prominent anti-vaccine advocate now running for president.

A back-and-forth ensued over the extent YouTube was keeping anti-vaccine content out of its recommendations. As Flaherty continued demanding more information, YouTube pushed back and told him the videos were “not in violation of our community guidelines.”

In September, YouTube adopted new guidelines to remove potentially misleading content on vaccine efficacy. They sought to meet with Flaherty to discuss the policy proposal and receive feedback. But Flaherty did not reply until the policy was announced publicly, and he then celebrated the “great step” taken by YouTube’s team. Afterwards, YouTube and the Biden administration appeared to collaborate on rolling out the coronavirus vaccine to children.

Beyond the vaccine content, Biden officials corresponded with YouTube on “misinformation” connected to a variety of issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to abortion following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, the report notes. It’s unclear if YouTube was pressured into taking any action during those discussions to alter its content moderation policies.

“We apply our policies independently, transparently, and consistently, regardless of the source of the original inquiry,” Google spokesperson Jose Castañeda told National Review.

Meta and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

Amazon began hearing from the White House in March 2021 when top Covid advisor Andy Slavitt emailed an executive to begin discussing “misinformation” and “disinformation” available at the company’s bookstore. An Amazon executive informed the White House of its existing measures, much to the dissatisfaction of Biden officials. The two sides eventually set up a meeting as Amazon internally deliberated about how it should approach the situation.

“We believe that retailers are different than social media communities which means we review the content we make available, where we make it available in our store, and how we address content that customers found disappointing,” reads one bullet point Amazon staffers discussed internally.

Not long after, the company created a “Do Not Promote” category for anti-vaccine books. The “Do Not Promote” class of books was a “high priority” because of “negative feedback we’re getting from the Whitehouse’s [sic] Coronavirus Taskforce,” an Amazon employee said in a March 4, 2021 email.

“The impetus for this request is criticism from the Biden Administration about sensitive books we’re giving prominent placement to,” another Amazon official said bluntly.

An Amazon executive testified to the subcommittee that the public policy team urged the books team to “accelerate” the development of the “Do Not Promote” policy so it could be finalized in time for a follow-up meeting with the Biden White House, according to the subcommittee report.

By March 8, 2021, Amazon began implementing its “Do Not Promote” tag for books related to the Covid vaccine. The following day, dozens of books were added to the newly created “Do Not Promote” class of books, just in time for the White House meeting.

The ability of government officials to coordinate with tech companies and nonprofits is the subject of Murthy v. Missouri, a Supreme Court case set to be decided later this year.

Documents disclosed during the litigation showed similar efforts by Biden White House officials to push social media companies into making certain content moderation decisions. Before that, a group of independent journalists released internal Twitter documents known as the “Twitter Files” which gave a deep look inside the coordination between Twitter, numerous government agencies, and third party “disinformation” organizations on what was allowed to be posted on the platform.

Conservatives have long observed the partisan nature of the content moderation efforts and the possibility that techniques used to suppress fringe opinions will eventually stifle significant news, like the Hunter Biden laptop story or the lab leak theory of coronavirus origins.

Flaherty and Slavitt testified before the subcommittee last week and defended their actions on the Biden administration’s behalf by arguing social media companies ultimately possess editorial discretion. Both of them sounded the alarm about the prolific spread of false information online, especially during the covid pandemic.


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