Newly released documents show that the White House played a major role in censoring social media. Jenin Younes and Aaron Kheriaty in the Wall Street Journal have more.
Email exchanges between Rob Flaherty, the White House’s Director of Digital Media, and social-media executives prove the companies put Covid censorship policies in place in response to relentless, coercive pressure from the White House – not voluntarily. The emails emerged January 6th in the discovery phase of Missouri v. Biden, a free-speech case brought by the Attorneys General of Missouri and Louisiana and four private plaintiffs represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance.
On March 14th 2021, Mr. Flaherty emailed a Facebook executive (whose name we’ve redacted as a courtesy) with the subject line “You are hiding the ball” and a link to a Washington Post article about Facebook’s own research into “the spread of ideas that contribute to vaccine hesitancy”, as the paper put it. “I think there is a misunderstanding,” the executive wrote back. “I don’t think this is a misunderstanding,” Mr. Flaherty replied. “We are gravely concerned that your service is one of the top drivers of vaccine hesitancy – period… We want to know that you’re trying, we want to know how we can help, and we want to know that you’re not playing a shell game…This would all be a lot easier if you would just be straight with us.”
On March 21st, after failing to placate Mr. Flaherty, the Facebook executive sent an email detailing the company’s planned policy changes. They included “removing vaccine misinformation” and “reducing the virality of content discouraging vaccines that does not contain actionable misinformation”. Facebook characterised this material as “often-true content” that “can be framed as sensation, alarmist, or shocking”. Facebook pledged to “remove these Groups, Pages, and Accounts when they are disproportionately promoting this sensationalised content”.
In that exchange, Mr. Flaherty demanded to know what Facebook was doing to “limit the spread of viral content” on WhatsApp, a private message app, especially “given its reach in immigrant communities and communities of colour”. The company responded three weeks later with a lengthy list of promises.
On April 9th, Mr. Flaherty asked “what actions and changes you’re making to ensure… you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse”. He faulted the company for insufficient zeal in earlier efforts to control political speech: “In the electoral context, you tested and deployed an algorithmic shift that promoted quality news and information about the election… You only did this, however, after an election that you helped increase scepticism in, and an insurrection which was plotted, in large part, by your platform. And then you turned it back off. I want some assurances, based in data, that you are not doing the same thing again here.” The executive’s response: “Understood.”
On April 14th, Mr. Flaherty pressed the executive about why “the top post about vaccines today” is Tucker Carlson “saying they don’t work”: “I want to know what ‘Reduction’ actually looks like,” he said. The exec responded: “Running this down now.”
Read More: The White House Covid Censorship Machine