The Government Is Trying to Influence Speech on Social Media — But How?

It’s pretty simple: our social media content is protected by the First Amendment. This protection exists whether we’re posting about work, sounding off about politics, or tweeting footage of a protest. That’s why the ACLU is concerned that the federal government — in the name of counterterrorism — is pressuring social media companies to limit content on platforms that hundreds of millions of people use every day.

What’s more, this is all taking place behind closed doors and without judicial oversight. So today the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with various government agencies seeking records related to policies and communications with social media companies regarding user-generated content. The public deserves to know more about this pressure and whether it amounts to de facto censorship.

It is not the government’s place to determine the course of the political and social conversations that are happening on services like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Nor can the government do an end-run around the First Amendment’s strong protections for online speech by seeking to influence it through other means.

But that’s the disturbing pattern that seems to be emerging. The government has held multiple closed door meetings with social media executives and has suggested that services take steps to create government-friendly content, monitor activity, and even tweak algorithms to change the availability of certain posts and users. As we wrote earlier this year, social media companies should decline such invitations to join the national security state.

At the same time, the social media companies provide little to no transparency about how often they take down content for violations of the rules in their own terms of service, which are prone to enforcement errors and abuse. Such rules typically restrict speech on the platforms in ways that go beyond what the government can restrict under the First Amendment. That raises questions about whether the government may be using the rules to pressure companies to take down content that the government itself could not.

Here’s a summary of what our FOIA request (available here) seeks:

  • Records related to relevant government programs for monitoring content on social networks and contracts with vendors who provide monitoring software;
  • Communications with social networks, including any requests to remove information for violations of terms of service;
  • Details about closed-door meetings held between federal officials and social media executives; and
  • Guidelines and training materials related to social media monitoring.

The public deserves to know whether, and to what extent, the government is seeking to influence online speech and exploit social media companies’ rules for its own ends. And companies should take additional steps to include additional information in their transparency reports about the demands they receive from government agencies to remove content.

After all, these are the services we rely on to communicate with loved ones, debate political issues, and discuss important issues of the day. We look forward to additional transparency from the government and the companies themselves.

View comments (11)
Read the Terms of Use

Nathaniel Suchy

Are you willing to share the full request? I'm interested in reading it word for word.

Anonymous

Any law, including the supreme law of the land, is totally meaningless without risk of penalty for law breakers.

When government officials risk real penalties for being disloyal to their oath of office, which includes following the Bill of Rights, that will create a deterrent against constitutional crimes.

In the age of electronic blacklisting and police stalking, we need stiffer penalties for disloyal government officials - that's how laws of any kind function.

Bill S.

What is the ACLU's position on government Facebook pages (e.g. a Congressman's office Facebook page) deleting comments on their posts purely because they disagree with what the commentator is saying? Would that violate the 1st Amendment?

Anonymous

I Am with you ACLU, but just always remember our Veterans and thier Sacrifices .

Anonymous

Massachusetts has had Facebook shut mine down twice due to my reporting their abuses. I had to place some of them there because they were blocking my complaints from being seen at the DOJ and AG. I believe they are going to do it to my 3rd Facebook. They erroneously report it as Spam which it is not. facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009584360350

Anonymous

It's interesting the security people I talk to . Immediately getting on the defensive and how it's in our best interest ,that they have at heart that they watch over us . Creepy

We are Anonymou...

42 democrats in the house signed a bill ( SH - 216 )to repeal the 1st amendment. They believe it should only be used for political debate. The gov will say "oh it's only for certain orgs" this particular Administration is the biggest bunch of liars and criminals to ever hold the office in the history of the U.S
They all should sent to the Hague. If a bill like this should ever pass into law, THAT's when there should be an ALL OUT
civil uprising. this government has all but wiped out our constitution and our bill of rights. Personally, I doubt Americans will EVER get our freedom back, our civil liberties back and our privacy back. Social media sites just hands over whatever the gov wants.

Anonymous

Darren Chaker appeal about criminalizing defamation, bloggers rights supported by the ACLU, EFF, and Cato Institute, eff.org/deeplinks/2015/12/internet-free-speech-people-supervised-release-prison

Argument was just heard in the Ninth Circuit, and should be an important case about Blogger's Rights.

Anonymous

My representative in the US House blocked me on twitter. Is this an infringement of my first amendment rights?

Anonymous

The government is doing these things to protect us from being threatened online or such. It is supposed to be helping the world become a place with less hatred.

Pages

Stay Informed