Attorney General William Tong issued a press release on Wednesday (Aug. 2) announcing the formation of a coalition that is challenging a recent court ruling — issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana — that prevents federal officials and agencies from contacting social media companies and taking actions to suppress or delete content on their platforms.
More than 20 attorney generals filed an amicus brief with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals urging them to reverse the lower court’s ruling in Missouri et al v. Biden this past Independence Day.
The case revolves around allegations that the defendants, which include high-ranking government officials and agencies, coerced or significantly encouraged social media companies to suppress or delete content expressing certain viewpoints, such as criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, pandemic lockdowns, and questioning the 2020 election results. The plaintiffs, consisting of states and individual citizens, argue that such actions constitute a violation of the First Amendment.
In the brief, the coalition opposes the court’s temporary injunction that prevents the defendants, from contacting social media companies to police speech for the “purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring or inducing in any manner, the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech on social media platforms.”
The coalition argues that the district court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent that jeopardizes the ability of the federal, state and local authorities to “keep Americans safe and secure online.”
In the press release Attorney General Tong believes that “it is not only appropriate, it is imperative that social media companies and government officials communicate to address the spread of false and misleading information” and that the “district order unreasonably blocks these important channels of communication and must be overturned.”
Highlighting past instances of the government and social media successfully collaborating, the coalition fails to acknowledge the potential for abuse in such partnerships. When the lines between government and corporations are blurred, it becomes challenging to hold either accountable for their actions. This lack of transparency can lead to biased content moderation policies that favor specific political or corporate interests, further compromising the integrity of public discourse.
While Attorney General Tong and his coalition emphasize the potential threat posed by dangerous online content, they also fail to consider the broader implications of their actions. By advocating for increased collaboration between the government and social media companies, they risk infringing upon individuals’ right to free expression and privacy on the internet.
This isn’t the first time the State of Connecticut intervened with social media and it’s users. In October 2022, the Secretary of the State’s office hired a full-time security analyst to monitor and combat election misinformation. The analyst is currently paid $150,000 a year to work with federal law enforcement and social media platforms to find and remove what they deem to be election misinformation.
Attorney General Tong has prior experience in participating in censorship coalitions. In March 2021, he joined forces with others in writing a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, urging the social media giants to address the actions of the “Disinformation Dozen,” a prominent group of “anti-vaxxers” allegedly spreading false information about COVID-19 vaccines. Among those named were Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and physician Joseph Mercola.
Spreading false or misleading information is indeed a matter of concern. However, solutions that involve the government being in cahoots with social media platforms are not the answer. Such Orwellian, slippery slope measures can open the door to censorship, surveillance and violations of privacy.
The government must avoid engaging with social media companies to censor citizens. Such collaboration raises significant red flags about potential infringements on an individual’s freedom of speech and hinder the democratic exchange of ideas.
On the flip side, entrusting social media companies with the power to censor citizens poses serious questions about transparency and accountability. These private entities might not be subject to the same level of oversight and scrutiny as governmental institutions, potentially allowing for arbitrary or biased content removal.
Depending on social media companies for censorship could exert an undesirable level of control over public conversations. Corporations might prioritize their own interests, influencing the information available to the public based on their agendas.
Instead, the government should focus on protecting its citizens’ right to free speech, as well as promoting digital literacy and critical thinking among citizens. Encouraging people to be more critical of information, allows them to decide for themselves how to handle misinformation and harmful content without resorting to outright censorship.
Attorney General Tong’s efforts to defend the government’s ability to deal with dangerous online content raises legitimate concerns about the implications on free speech and privacy rights. It is crucial to explore alternative approaches that prioritize online safety without undermining fundamental liberties. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considers the arguments presented in the amicus brief, we must remain vigilant in ensuring our rights in the digital age. Balancing the need for security with the protection of civil liberties is no easy task, but it is essential to preserve the democratic principles that underpin our society.
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