Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Intelligence Committee chairman targets private companies.
Mark Warner isn’t just any US Senator. He’s chairman of the “immensely powerful” Select Committee on Intelligence. The purpose of that committee is to ensure that various arms of the US intelligence community, including the CIA, don’t run amok.
Intelligence gathering is a component of 18 different US government agencies. Ensuring that all those bodies follow the rules sounds like a full time job.
But last week Warner (who sits on four other senate committees) sent an outrageous, four-page letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Apparently, Warner thinks his real remit is threatening private companies until they agree to wipe free speech off the face of the Internet.
Facebook also owns Instagram, the photo-sharing online platform. Warner’s letter expresses concern that these entities are amplifying “harmful misinformation” about COVID-19 and its vaccines. As the pandemic endures, it says, “the importance of promoting reliable health information only grows.”
But Facebook and Instagram aren’t in the business of promoting reliable health information. They’re the public square. They’re places in which ordinary people talk to each other.
Whenever members of the public discuss matters amongst themselves, be it at a trade show, a Rotary Club meeting, or an agricultural fair, it’s inevitable that a range of views will be aired.
Some people will be well informed concerning topic A, but not topic B. Some will make provocative or sarcastic remarks for the fun of it. Some, embittered by personal experience, will stubbornly dismiss anything that anyone in authority says.
Free speech is an essential component of the public square. But Warner thinks these platforms should cease being the public square, and become places where only government-approved opinions are permitted.
He accuses Facebook and Instagram of turning a blind eye to disinformation, misinformation, violent extremist content, political misinformation, hate speech, and other harmful content. Does he bother to define these highly subjective terms? Nope.
Does he even once, in four pages, mention free speech? No. Does he acknowledge that US citizens are entitled to exercise their free speech rights whether or not the chairman of a Senate committee approves of what they’re saying? No.
Does he recognize that, on platforms in which millions of people post multiple messages each day, identifying and squelching every instance of wrongspeak simply isn’t possible without silencing loads of innocuous commentary by mistake? No.
In America, governments can’t censor people. Nor can they pressure third parties into doing so on their behalf (see here and here). In other words, Warner is totally off side. He has no legal or constitutional leg to stand on.
But like all bullies, he’s full of bluster. He warns that misinformation on Facebook poses “a serious threat” that could “result in lives lost.” He says it’s “critical that Facebook take seriously its influence on users’ health decisions.”
He then gives Zuckerberg a month to respond to 10 questions. Here’s odious #9: “Please provide my office with Facebook’s policies for informing users that they were exposed to misinformation and how Facebook plans to remedy those harms” (my italics).
This goes well beyond annihilating free speech. I await, with bated breath, Warner’s similar letter to the World Health Organization demanding to know how it plans to remedy the harm associated with the false information it disseminated to billions in the early days of the pandemic (see here, here, and here).
Warner clearly doesn’t view the average Facebook user as an adult who encounters misleading advertising every day of the week – both offline and online. Apparently, we’re all infants. Apparently Facebook is morally obliged to inform us whenever we’re exposed to misinformation.
But it’s question #10 that wins the ‘Extortion of the Month’ prize:
10. Combatting health misinformation amplified by large social media platforms puts an additional strain on the time, resources, and budgets of public health agencies – often requiring them to spend on online ads on the very platforms amplifying and propelling misinformation they must counter. Will you commit to provide free advertising for state and local public health authorities working to combat health misinformation?
This is a shakedown, pure and simple. Because members of the public, in conversation with one another in the public square, say non-government-approved things about vaccines, Warner thinks private companies should provide public health authorities with free advertising. Featured as they are on daily newscasts, those authorities don’t have a sufficiently large megaphone already.
That free advertising is, essentially, a fine. One that Zuckerberg is being invited to voluntarily pay in the hopes that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee will stop harassing private entities and get back to his day job – policing the CIA.
This press release, issued by Warner, includes the full text of the letter sent to Zuckerberg.
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