The page has only just been turned on 2023 and already the narrative that much policing of online speech will be vital for 2024, an election year, has already stirred.
The legacy media outlet The Guardian, in its piece about Kate Starbird, has already complained that there may be less censorship ahead of the 2024 elections, and claimed that Rep. Jim Jordan’s committee’s reports on Big Tech-government censorship collusion are based on “outlandish claims.” This is ignoring the fact that an injunction was successfully placed on the Biden administration for its censorship pressure on Big Tech, a case that will be ruled on by The Supreme Court this year.
In an era where the policing of online speech is increasingly contentious, Kate Starbird’s role in combating what she terms election misinformation has placed her squarely in the midst of a heated debate. As a leading figure at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, Starbird has actively engaged in documenting what she and her team perceive as misinformation during the 2020 elections, particularly focusing on claims of voter fraud.
However, Starbird’s approach and her team’s actions have not been without controversy. Critics argue that their efforts amount to a form of censorship, infringing upon free speech. This criticism extends beyond Starbird’s team to a broader national trend, where researchers engaged in similar work face accusations of partisanship and censorship, challenging the principles of free expression.
Jim Jordan, chair of the House judiciary committee, has emerged as a key figure in opposing what he views as the overreach of these researchers. He has focused on investigating groups and individuals involved in counteracting misinformation, especially in the context of elections and Covid-19. Central to the controversy is the practice of working with government entities and flagging content to social media platforms, which some argue leads to undue censorship and violates First Amendment rights.
The debate over the role of anti-misinformation efforts has escalated beyond Congress, evidenced by lawsuits from the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and from the state of Texas, along with two rightwing media companies. These legal actions challenge the alleged collaboration between the Biden administration, the Global Engagement Center, and social media companies, showing it as a constitutional breach.
Critics of Starbird’s and similar researchers’ work argue that labeling right-wing entities as primary purveyors of election lies is a biased approach that neglects the complexity of online discourse. They contend that such claims of misinformation often serve to silence dissenting voices rather than foster a balanced and open dialogue.
According to The Guardian piece, Starbird’s shift in terminology from “misinformation” to “rumors” could be seen by some as a strategic move to distance her work from the increasingly politicized nature of the term but one that could be even more contentions. The idea that rumors should be policed isn’t likely to go over well with those that are already tired of online censorship.
In a similar vein to The Guardian piece, in a New Year’s Eve episode of “Face The Nation,” CBS’s Senior Business and Technology Correspondent Jo-Ling Kent took her time to criticize Elon Musk’s X for allowing free speech. Kent notably highlighted the limitations placed on censorship due to the “arguments and protections of free speech.”
Kent criticized X for enabling figures like Alex Jones to regain a platform. “Elon Musk and his team have basically allowed the return of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and they’ve also dramatically reduced the size of their Trust and Safety team,” Kent stated.
Kent also stated that, on platforms like Meta’s Facebook, “the reality here is that taking down all of this bad information has always been an impossible task on platforms of that size.” Despite describing it as impossible, Kent appears to suggest they should still try.
As has always been the case, false information during an election cycle is often rife. But in the online world, where most speech runs through a handful of Big Tech giants, the power and control over online discourse that these companies have is immense. A handful of companies have the power to affect elections and the play of democracy itself.
While even Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that the companies’ online censorship has been heavy-handed, and has resulted in truthful speech being suppressed, tech giants and largely legacy media outlets that once had a monopoly on information, continue to push for online censorship.
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