Biden Administration Admits To Helping Control What You’re Allowed To Know

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made a startling revelation: major social media platforms take direction from the government in deciding what content to suppress, amplify, or remove.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki last week made a startling revelation from the White House press podium: that the major social media platforms take direction from the government in deciding what content to suppress, amplify, or remove.

On Thursday, Psaki casually made note of the fact that the White House was working in coordination with Facebook, flagging specific “problematic” posts for COVID-19 “misinformation.” She was joined by Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, whose office released a 22-page guidance urging platforms to “impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.” Facebook later confirmed it is involved in “private exchanges” with the Biden administration on how to manage COVID-19 information on the platform.

What could have potentially been defended as a well-meaning effort to work with major speech outlets to combat certain inaccuracies about the efficacy of vaccines, however, quickly progressed beyond that. By Friday, the White House was pressuring companies to work together to ban users across multiple platforms. Efforts to ban “misinformation” about the COVID-19 vaccine, meanwhile, had evolved into banning “the latest narratives dangerous to public health.”

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the definition of misinformation is constantly changing to meet the needs of the powerful—whether that is the political needs of the party in charge, or the political or financial self-interest of the platforms.

Narrative Control Is The Real Power

Psaki’s revelation, as startling as it was, is clarifying. It remains a contested point in the debate over Big Tech whether these companies constitute “private enterprise” or if they’ve reached the level of indispensable services. But the Biden administration’s flippant acknowledgement that control of what is said on Facebook is central to their policy goals points toward the true status of these companies as essential corridors of speech.

It was for the same reason that Michelle Obama, when she decided that Donald Trump should be banned from social media, didn’t go to Congress to make her case, nor write an op-ed arguing for that position in a national newspaper—she issued a statement to Silicon Valley. Likewise, when congressional Democrats want to silence the influence of right-leaning speech, they threaten the social media companies with regulatory action to urge them to do more.

When a handful of companies take over the public square and dictate who can speak and what they can say—and, by extension, what people can hear—it fundamentally changes the nature of free speech as America has always understood it. But when the government exerts itself upon that power, dictating to compliant companies who can speak, and what can be seen, heard, and said, that, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out recently, is the taproot of fascism.

That we have reached the point where the White House is proudly admitting to an effort to control who can speak and what can be said on the world’s biggest speech platforms should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention over the last year. The COVID-19 outbreak has provided something of a case study of all the ways in which government can outsource the censorship of speech it would otherwise be obligated to protect.

Chokepoints of Public Discourse 

In America, social media platforms have taken over the once-democratized public square. Posts on Facebook, information sorting on Google (and by extension, YouTube), apps filtered through Apple and Google, journalists sourcing stories and angles on Twitter, and documentaries and books sold and viewed through Amazon, largely shape the parameters of how Americans take in news, organize community gatherings, access the market, search for information, form opinions, and petition and hear from their government.

At the same time, the federal government has come to understand that co-opting these companies, which effectively control the national narrative, is where real power of modern governance resides. But this is hardly a new discovery.

Centuries ago, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, the chronicler of early America Alexis de Tocqueville, and dystopian novelist George Orwell all foresaw the imminent danger that arose from concentrated control of speech, thought, and opinion, whether through the government, housed in corporations, or enforced by a tyranny of a majority. Modern dictatorships have borne out their thesis. Control of capital, agencies, resources, and weapons is secondary to total control of a national narrative. The latter dictates where the former will go.