By Jeffery Tucker: Brownstone Institute

On May 5, 2021, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a mob-like warning to social-media companies and information distributors generally. They need to get with the program and start censoring critics of Covid policy. They need to amplify government propaganda. After all, it would be a shame if something would happen to these companies. 

These were her exact words:

The president’s view is that the major platforms have a responsibility related to the health and safety of all Americans to stop amplifying untrustworthy content, disinformation and misinformation, especially related to Covid-19 vaccinations and elections. And we’ve seen that over the past several months. Broadly speaking, I’m not placing any blame on any individual or group. We’ve seen it from a number of sources. He also supports better privacy protections and a robust antitrust program. So, his view is that there’s more that needs to be done to ensure that this type of misinformation, disinformation, damaging, sometimes life threatening information is not going out to the American public.

On the face of it, the antitrust action against Apple is about their secure communications network. The Justice Department wants the company to share their services with other networks. As with so many other antitrust actions in history, this is really about the government’s taking sides in competitive disputes between companies, in this case Samsung and other smartphone providers. They resent the way Apple products all work together. They want that changed. 

The very notion that the government is trying to protect consumers in this case is preposterous. Apple is a success not because they are exploitative but because they make products that users like, and they like them so much that they buy ever more. It’s not uncommon that a person gets an iPhone and then a Macbook, an iPad, and then AirPods. All play well together. 

The Justice Department calls this anticompetitive even though competing is exactly the source of Apple’s market strength. That has always been true. Yes, there is every reason to be annoyed at the company’s hammer-and-tongs enforcement of its intellectual property. But their IP is not the driving force of the company’s success. Its products and services are. 

Beyond that, there is a darker agenda here. It’s about bringing new media into the government propaganda fold, exactly as Psaki threatened. Apple is a main distributor of podcasts in the country and world, just behind Spotify (which is foreign controlled). There are 120 million podcast listeners in the US, far more than pay attention to regime media in total. 

If the ambition is to control the public mind, something must be done to get those under control. It’s not enough just to nationalize Facebook and Google. If the purpose is to end free speech as we know it, they have to go after podcasting too, using every tool that is available. 

Antitrust is one tool they have. The other is the implicit threat to take away Section 230 that grants legal liability to social networks that immunize them against what would otherwise be a torrent of litigation. These are the two main guns that government can hold to the head of these private communications companies. Apple is the target in order to make the company more compliant. 

All of which gets us to the issue of the First Amendment. There are many ways to violate laws on free speech. It’s not just about sending a direct note with a built-in threat. You can use third parties. You can invoke implicit threats. You can depend on the awareness that, after all, you are the government so it is hardly a level playing field. You can embed employees and pay their salaries (as was the case with Twitter). Or, in the case of Psaki above, you can deploy the mob tactic of reminding companies that bad things may or may not happen if they persist in non-compliance. 

Over the last 4 to 6 years, governments have used all these methods to violate free speech rights. We are sitting on tens of thousands of pages of proof of this. What seemed like spotty takedowns of true information has been revealed as a vast machinery now called the Censorship Industrial Complex involving dozens of agencies, nearly one hundred universities, and many foundations and nonprofit organizations directly or indirectly funded by government. 

You would have to be wilfully blind not to see the long-run ambition. The goal is a mass reversion to the past, a world like we had in the 1970s with three networks and limited information sources about anything going on in government. Back then, people did not know what they did not know. That’s how effective the system was. It came about not entirely because of active censorship but because of technological limitations. 

The information age is called that because it blew up the old system, offering hope of a new world of universal distribution of ever more information about everything, and promising to empower billions of users themselves to become distributors. That’s how the company YouTube got its name: everyone could be a TV producer. 

That dream was hatched in the 1980s, gained great progress in the 1990s and 2000s, and began fundamentally to upend government structures in the 2010s. Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 – two major events that were not supposed to happen – a deep establishment said that’s enough. They scapegoated the new systems of information for disrupting the plans of decades and reversing the planned course of history. 

The ambition to control every nook and cranny of the Internet sounds far-flung but what choice do they have? This is why this machinery of censorship has been constructed and why there is such a push to have artificial intelligence take over the job of content curation. In this case, machines alone do the job without human intervention, making litigation nearly impossible. 

The Supreme Court has the chance to do something to stop this but it’s not clear that many Justices even understand the scale of the problem or the Constitutional strictures against it. Some seem to think that this is only about the right of government officials to pick up the phone and complain to reporters about their coverage. That is absolutely not the issue: content curation affects hundreds of millions of people, not just those posting but those reading too. 

Still, if there is some concern about the supposed rights of government actors, there is a clear solution offered by David Friedman: post all information and exhortations about topics and content in a public forum. If the Biden or Trump administration has a preference for how social media should behave, it is free to file a ticket like everyone else and the recipient can and should make it and the response public. 

This is not an unreasonable suggestion, and it should certainly figure into any judgment made by the Supreme Court. The federal government has always put out press releases. That’s a normal part of functioning. Bombarding private companies with secret takedown notices and otherwise deploying a huge plethora of intimidation tactics should not even be permitted. 

Is there muscle behind the growing push for censorship? Certainly there is. This reality is underscored by the Justice Department’s antitrust actions against Apple. The mask of such official actions is now removed. 

Just as the FDA and CDC became marketing and enforcement arms of Pfizer and Moderna, so too the Justice Department is now revealed as a censor and industrial promoter of Samsung. This is how captured agencies with hegemonic ambitions operate, not in the public interest but in the private interest of some industries over others and always with the goal of reducing the freedom of the people. 

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Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.