Posted on July 7, 2023

Ruling Puts Social Media at Crossroads of Disinformation and Free Speech

Michael D. Shear and David McCabe, New York Times, July 5, 2023

Two months after President Biden took office, his top digital adviser emailed officials at Facebook urging them to do more to limit the spread of “vaccine hesitancy” on the social media platform.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials held “weekly sync” meetings with Facebook, once emailing the company 16 “misinformation” posts. And in the summer of 2021, the surgeon general’s top aide repeatedly urged Google, Facebook and Twitter to do more to combat disinformation.

The examples are among dozens of interactions described in a 155-page ruling by a federal judge in Louisiana, who on Tuesday imposed temporary but far-reaching limits on how members of Mr. Biden’s administration can engage with social media companies. The government appealed the ruling on Wednesday.

The case is a flashpoint in the broader effort by conservatives to document what they contend is a liberal conspiracy by Democrats and tech company executives to silence their views. {snip}

The final outcome could shape the future of First Amendment law in a rapidly changing media environment and alter how far the government can go in trying to prevent the spread of potentially dangerous information, particularly in an election or during emergencies like a pandemic.


The case was brought by two Republican attorneys general and five individuals who campaigned against masks, argued that vaccines did not work, opposed lockdowns and pushed drugs that medical experts denounced as ineffective, like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

And it is being overseen by Judge Terry A. Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump {snip}


The judge’s preliminary injunction is already having an impact. A previously scheduled meeting on threat identification on Thursday between State Department officials and social media executives was abruptly canceled by officials, according to two people familiar with the decision, which was reported earlier by The Washington Post.


It allows the government to continue to notify the platforms about certain content, including posts concerning criminal activity, threats to national security and foreign election interference. But a subset of that content may also be protected by the First Amendment, the type of speech the judge’s order says the administration cannot discuss with the companies.


In his order, Judge Doughty described what he called a campaign by officials in the White House and at government agencies to pressure social media companies.

In one instance, the judge wrote that aides to Jill Biden, the first lady, repeatedly cajoled Twitter executives to remove a video that was edited to make her seem profane toward a group of children. Twitter took the video down.

In another case, Judge Doughty wrote that a top Biden official requested that Twitter remove a parody account linked to Finnegan Biden, Hunter Biden’s daughter and President Biden’s granddaughter. He wrote that 45 minutes after the request, Twitter suspended the account.

After Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, urged social media companies to “take action against misinformation superspreaders” in July 2021, the companies took down information posted by 17 accounts linked to the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of people who frequently distributed false anti-vaccination claims.

Judge Doughty said the decision by the social media companies came after multiple emails, calls and meetings over weeks between Mr. Murthy’s top aides and senior executives at several of the social media companies.

“The public and private pressure from the White House apparently had its intended effect,” the judge wrote. “All 12 members of the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ were censored, and pages, groups and accounts linked to the Disinformation Dozen were removed.”

He also described regular meetings between the companies and the F.B.I.’s San Francisco field office, where he wrote that as many as eight agents were responsible for forwarding concerns about social media posts to seven tech companies several times a month.


The judge said that pressure went beyond aggressively encouraging the platforms to take down posts — which, he said, would itself violate the First Amendment — and amounted to coercion of some of the biggest companies in America by the “most powerful office in the world.”