Festivus in the House of Representatives
Even though it’s a month early, the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, chaired by Jim Jordan, will celebrate Festivus on Thursday. Expect the usual airing of Republican grievances about Democrats.
Technically, the Committee is meeting to commemorate the one year anniversary of the “first Twitter Files report.” Shortly after he purchased Twitter, Elon Musk released internal documents to some journalists he selected. Their reporting, beginning in December of 2022, tried to show that Twitter’s content moderation had an overwhelmingly left-leaning bias. Hunter Biden’s laptop made an appearance, as did the idea that conservative voices were “shadow banned” on Twitter and that Donald Trump was banned from Twitter as a result of bias. The report was billed as an expose of Twitter’s moderation decisions.
Trump said the report proved the election was rigged against him.
Despite the big push, the “Twitter Files” turned out to be less than the promised bombshell. For instance, Musk claimed there was proof of First Amendment violations. But the First Amendment does not apply to decisions made by a private company, like Twitter. And Twitter released sensitive personal information about users to journalists, which they in turn published. Numerous journalists and tech experts who reviewed the files were less than impressed and Twitter’s own lawyers said their internal documents didn’t support the claims that were being made. All hat, no cattle. Nonetheless, right wing figures, like über-conservative activist and president of Judicial Watch Tom Fitton, continue to this day to insist that the content was shocking, leading to tomorrow’s Festivus-style proceedings.
In tomorrow’s hearing, Jim Jordan’s subcommittee “will examine the federal government's involvement in social media censorship, as well as the recent attacks on independent journalism and free expression.” The witnesses (bios for them are linked) include:
Matt Taibbi, Twitter Files journalist and author
Michael Shellenberger, Twitter Files journalist and author, and environmentalist
Rupa Subramanya, Canada-based journalist for The Free Press
But it’s not just about what’s happening in the House tomorrow. In July of 2023, Republican Attorneys General in Louisiana and Missouri convinced a federal judge that the Biden Administration was coercing social media companies to remove social media posts by conservatives, particularly some relating to COVID. They argued that the interference was severe enough to constitute First Amendment violations because the government’s conduct was tantamount to restraining speech. Even though much of the conduct complained of occurred during the Trump Administration, the district judge granted a temporary injunction barring numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from contacting social media companies “for the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression or reduction of content containing protected free speech.” Under the order, the agencies could still notify companies about crimes, national security threats or foreign attempts to influence elections.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit narrowed the restrictions the government had to operate under, but agreed with the district court that the government likely “coerced or significantly encouraged social media platforms to moderate content” in violation of the First Amendment, as it tried to combat the spread of Covid-19 disinformation online. But it was a different story when the case hit the Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the government’s appeal. And it stayed the lower court’s order for as long as it takes them to decide the case, ending, at least for now, the ruling that prevented the government from communicating with social media companies about potentially dangerous or inaccurate content circulating on their sites.
The Supreme Court will rule on the case by the end of the current term, next June. But their agreement to hear the case doesn’t necessarily mean the government will ultimately win. Three Justices formally dissented from the decision to hear the case—they would have let the restrictions imposed by the lower courts stay in place—Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito. Justice Alito wrote "At this time in the history of our country, what the court has done, I fear, will be seen by some as giving the government a green light to use heavy-handed tactics to skew the presentation of views on the medium that increasingly dominates the dissemination of news. That is most unfortunate.” In other words, in an era of rapidly spreading disinformation on the internet, some of it with the potential to do great harm, at least one Justice was willing to go along with the same fake “weaponization of government” narrative we will hear House Republicans try to convince Americans of tomorrow. You can watch the hearing Thursday morning at 10 ET.
If you’re looking for a good way to counter-program tomorrow’s Festivus hearing, consider encouraging people to register to vote. We need elected representatives who are committed to working for us, not just showboating and trying to accumulate power for themselves. This hearing is a good reminder that our local elections, and those for members of Congress, can be just as important as picking a President. Tomorrow is a good day to encourage the people around you to prepare to vote in 2024.
We’re in this together,
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