Even though social media platforms are run by private companies, the First Amendment should apply to them in some fashion, suggests one congresswoman.
In the April 26 committee hearing on “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms,” House Representative Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., spoke out about her own personal experience with conservative censorship on social media.
“Last October, Twitter blocked my campaign launch video from its ads platform due to my pro-life message,” the congresswoman told the committee. “This ban threatened the fundamental freedom to engage in political speech.”
Blackburn was referring to her experience in 2017 when Twitter blocked one of her political ads, calling it “inflammatory” and arguing that it could have “evoked a strong negative reaction.” In the hearing on April 26, Blackburn retaliated that political speech is protected on other private platforms such as broadcasting, and made the point that “we must protect its [political speech] access to an important platform.”
She also questioned why the social media platforms’ mistakes were generally made against right-wing content. Blackburn said:
“Twitter reversed its decision in my case but the bans keep coming. Just a few days ago, Google banned a large Lutheran denomination from its ads platform. YouTube banned the entire channel of Spikes Tactical, a well-known firearms manufacturer. When bans get reversed, we are told, well, mistakes are made. But why is it that the mistakes nearly always seem to run in one direction?”
The representative further argued that in this new age of technology, social media platforms are the new public square, and their owners are the new governors. The problem with this concept, according to Blackburn, was that “these governments do not have a First Amendment.”
“Free speech, as a value, is endangered even here in America and is non-existent in most of the world,” she said. “We need to recognize that the global reach of these companies creates overwhelming pressure against free speech.”
The hearing also had famous YouTube conservatives and Trump supporters Diamond and Silk testify. Representatives from Google, Twitter, and Facebook declined the invitation to show at the hearing.
Blackburn's full speech is below. Click "expand" to read more:
Blackburn: Thank you Mr. Chairman, and Mr. Nadler, and to my colleagues on the committee thank you for inviting me to testify at this hearing. I am honored to be here and talk about online censorship. There are growing concerns about how and why big tech companies are making decisions to ban, de-prioritize, or otherwise filter completely legal speech online. When Mark Zuckerberg testified earlier this month, every time someone asked about censoring conservatives, he said that Facebook takes down bad content like terrorism. When he gave me that answer I responded that Diamond and Silk are not terrorism. But this problem is more far-reaching than Diamond and Silk. Last October, Twitter blocked my campaign launch video from it’s ads platform due to my pro-life message. This ban threatened the fundamental freedom to engage in political speech.
For example, broadcasters are forbidden under section 315 of the communications act from censoring the ad of a political candidate even if it has disturbing content or language. Like social media platforms, broadcasters clearly are private entities with their own first amendment rights. But even so, we recognize that some speech is so important that we must protect its access to an important platform.
Twitter reversed its decision in my case but the bans keep coming. Just a few days ago, Google banned a large Lutheran denomination from its ads platform. YouTube banned the entire channel of Spikes Tactical, a well-known firearms manufacturer. When bans get reversed, we are told, well, mistakes are made. But why is it that the mistakes nearly always seem to run in one direction?
To make matters worse, many of these decisions are made within the black box of an algorithm. Facebook recently tweaked its algorithm to prioritize content that is, and I’m quoting, “trustworthy, informative, and local.” No one knows exactly what that means but we do know that since then there has been a significant reduction in traffic from Facebook to some of the most prominent conservative sites.
As chair of the communications and technology subcommittee, we held a hearing in November on algorithms. Our findings show that big tech platforms are the new public square, and their executives, as the gatekeepers, are the new governors. But these governments do not have a first amendment. Free speech, as a value, is endangered even here in America and is non-existent in most of the world. We need to recognize that the global reach of these companies creates overwhelming pressure against free speech, and we need to do a better job of counteracting that pressure. But section 230 of the communications act gives online platforms broad immunity for liability for user-generated content. Except for a responsibility to take down certain things, like child-sex trafficking, theft of intellectual property, or terrorism, this should translate into more freedom, not less, for their users. But instead, we are seeing more and more content censored by these new governors on some very flimsy pretenses.
As such, perhaps it is time to review some of our fundamental assumptions. I had the ability to fight back. Diamond and Silk had the ability to fight back. But what about the thousands of others being thrown out of our new public squares for no good definable reason? We are here today to speak up for them and we are here today to speak up for free speech. I thank the committee for your attention to the issue, and I look forward to the discussion.