Two and a half years ago, when Alex Jones of Infowars was kicked off a series of tech platforms in a clearly coordinated decision, I knew this was not going to be an isolated thing.
Given that people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy were saying the ouster of Jones was just a “good first step,” it seemed obvious the tactic was not going to be confined to a few actors. But corporate media critics insisted the precedent would not be applied more broadly.
“I don't think we are going to be seeing big tech take action against Fox News… any time soon,” commented CNN’s Oliver Darcy.
Darcy was wrong. Just a few years later, calls to ban Fox are not only common, they’re intensifying, with media voices from Brian Stelter on CNN to MSNBC analyst Anand Giridharadas to former Media Matters critic Eric Boehlert to Washington Post columnists Max Boot and Margaret Sullivan all on board.
The movement crested this week with a letter from California House Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, written to the CEOs of cable providers like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, and Dish. They demanded to know if those providers are “planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN… beyond any contract renewal date” and “if so, why?”
The news comes in advance of Wednesday’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “traditional media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism.”
This sequence of events is ominous because a similar matched set of hearings and interrogations back in 2017 — when Senators like Mazie Hirono at a Judiciary Committee hearing demanded that platforms like Google and Facebook come up with a “mission statement” to prevent the “foment of discord” — accelerated the “content moderation” movement that now sees those same platforms regularly act as de facto political censors.
Sequences like this — government “requests” of speech reduction, made to companies subject to federal regulation — make the content moderation decisions of private firms a serious First Amendment issue. Censorship advocates may think this is purely a private affair, in which the only speech rights that matter are those of companies like Twitter and Google, but any honest person should be able to see this for what it is.
In the last go-around, Virginia Senator Mark Warner prepared a lengthy white paper called “Potential Policy Proposals for Regulation of Social Media and Technology Firms,” that among other things considered making the tech giants more susceptible to tort claims, as well as beefing up FTC authority over the firms. This was the sword raised over the head of Silicon Valley as it considered whether or not it had a duty to implement those Senatorial demands for plans to prevent the “foment of discord.”
The line to potential government action isn’t quite as direct this time, but it’s notable that Blair Levin, the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. under Bill Clinton, said that this week’s hearings could serve as a first step to what the New York Times called “meaningful action.”
“You have to establish a factual record,” Levin said of this week’s hearings, “and then try to figure out: What are the appropriate roles for the government in changing that dynamic?”
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