If You Believe In Free Speech, The GOP’s “Weaponization” Subcommittee Is Not Your Friend

from the weaponizing-the-government-against-weaponizing-the-government dept

“Politics,” the writer Auberon Waugh liked to say, “is for social and emotional misfits.” Its purpose is “to help them overcome these feelings of inferiority and compensate for their personal inadequacies in the pursuit of power.” You could accuse old Bron of painting with a rather broad brush, and you would be right. But he plainly understood the likes of Kevin McCarthy. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus observed last week, two aspects of McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker of the House stand out. First, that he “seems to crave power for power’s sake, not for any higher purposes.” And second, that he “is willing to debase himself so completely to obtain it.”

Of the many concessions McCarthy made to his far-right flank to obtain the Speaker’s gavel, one of the most straightforward was to create a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The desire for such an entity “percolat[ed] on the edges of the [party] conference and conservative media,” Politico reported last month, and the calls for it then quickly spread, “getting harder for the speaker hopeful to ignore.” But the hardliners were pushing at an open door: McCarthy had already been promising sweeping investigations of the Department of Justice and the FBI.

It’s amusing that the subcommittee is simply “on” weaponization, leaving onlookers the latitude to decide for themselves whether the body’s position is “pro” or “con.” The subcommittee will likely seek to disrupt the executive branch’s probes of Donald Trump’s interference in the 2020 election, role in the Capitol attack, and defiant mishandling of classified documents. It might also seek to hinder the government’s efforts to prosecute Jan. 6 rioters. In attempting to obstruct federal law enforcement, the House GOP would be engaging in its own forms of “weaponization.” It would be trying to “weaponize” its own authority—which, under our Constitution’s separation of powers, does not extend to meddling in ongoing criminal investigations. And it would be trying to “weaponize” the federal government by compelling it not to enforce the law. A better label might have been the “Select Subcommittee on Weaponizing the Federal Government Our Way.” Or, for brevity’s sake, perhaps “Partisan Hacks Against the Rule of Law.”

It is in this light that we must view another of the subcommittee’s main goals—getting “to the very bottom” (McCarthy’s words) of the federal government’s relationship with Big Tech. Last month Rep. Jim Jordan, the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee—and, now, of its “weaponization” subcommittee as well—accused the major tech firms of being “out to get conservatives.” He demanded that those firms preserve records of their “‘collusion’ with the Biden administration to censor conservatives on their platforms.” According to Axios, the subcommittee “will demand copies of White House emails, memos and other communications with Big Tech companies.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with setting up a congressional committee to investigate whether and how the government is influencing online speech and content moderation. After all, Congress has good reason to care about what the government itself is saying, especially if the government is using its own speech to violate the Free Speech Clause. Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee (though not intrude on) the executive branch’s faithful execution of the laws Congress has passed.

Lately, moreover, the executive branch has indeed displayed an unhealthy desire to control constitutionally protected expression. Government officials now routinely jawbone social media platforms over content moderation. There were Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s guidelines on “health misinformation,” issued—the platforms may have noticed—amid a push by the Biden administration to expose platforms to litigation over “misinformation” by paring back their Section 230 protection. Biden’s then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the administration was flagging posts for platforms to remove. What’s worse, she declared that a ban from one social media platform should trigger a ban from all platforms. And then there was the notorious “Disinformation Governance Board”—a body whose name was dystopian, whose powers were ill-defined, whose rollout was ham-fisted, and whose brief existence unsettled all but the most sanguine proponents of government power. It can hardly be said that there’s nothing worth investigating.

The First Amendment bars the government from censoring speech it doesn’t like—even speech that might be called “misinformation.” The state may try to influence speech indirectly—it is allowed, within limits, to express its opinion about others’ speech—but that doesn’t mean doing so is a good idea. The government shouldn’t be telling social media platforms what content to allow, much as it shouldn’t be telling newspapers what stories to print.

Misguided though they may be, however, none of the government’s efforts—to this point—have violated the First Amendment. The government has not ordered platforms to remove or ban specific content. It has not issued threats that rise to the level of government coercion. And it has not co-opted the platforms in a manner that would turn them into state actors. If anything, the right’s ongoing lawsuits alleging otherwise have helped reveal a quite different problem: that the platforms are all too receptive to government input. But agreeing with the government does not make one’s actions attributable to the government.

The “Twitter Files”—which helped inspire, and will drive much of, the subcommittee’s investigation—change precisely none of this. Much misunderstood and even more misrepresented, the information released via Elon Musk’s surrogates actually undercuts the narrative that the federal government is dictating the platforms’ editorial decisions. 

We were promised evidence that the FBI and the federal government conspired with platforms to squash the Hunter Biden laptop story. Instead, we learned—as “Twitter Files” player Matt Taibbi himself put it—that “there’s no evidence … of any government involvement.” Messages to Twitter sent by the Biden campaign, we were told, amounted to a bona fide First Amendment violation. But a non-state actor lobbying a non-state actor does not a state action make. Such lobbying by political campaigns is common—and, in many instances, even proper. (Many of the tweets the Biden campaign flagged contained links to leaked nude photos of Hunter Biden. Even political candidates may try to defend their families’ privacy.)

Yet another “Twitter Files” document dump showed Twitter receiving payments from the FBI. This, we heard, definitively revealed the Grand Conspiracy to Censor Conservatives. Except that the payments were simply statutorily mandated reimbursements for expenses Twitter incurred replying to court-ordered requests for investigatory information.

So although there might well be issues regarding government jawboning worth investigating, you can be forgiven for doubting that the House GOP, proceeding through its “weaponization” subcommittee, is up to the task of seriously investigating them. Judging from past performance, the Republicans who control the body will use its hearings to emit great waves of impotent, performative, largely unintelligible sound. “The yells and animal noises” of parliamentary debates, Auberon Waugh wrote, have nothing to do with principles or policy. “They are cries of pain and anger, mingled with hatred and envy, at the spectacle of another group exercising the ‘power’ which the first group covets.” That will describe Republican-run Big Tech hearings to a tee.

The GOP is not fighting to stop so-called “censorship”; it’s fighting to stop so-called “censorship” performed by those they dislike. When Musk suspended some journalists from Twitter—on trumped up charges, no less—many on the right responded with whoops of glee. That Musk had just engaged in precisely the sort of conduct those pundits had long denounced was of no consequence. Indeed, when some on the left pointed out that the suspensions were arbitrary, impulsive, and imposed under false pretenses, their remarks launched a thousand conservative op-eds crowing about progressive hypocrisy. (There should be a long German word for shouting “Hypocrite!” at someone as you pass by him on the flip-flop road.)

Choking on outrage, the contemporary political right has descended into practicing “Who, whom?” politics of the crassest sort. House Republicans have no problem with “weaponizing” the government, so long as they’re the ones doing the “weaponizing.” This explains how they can rail against a government campaign to reduce COVID misinformation on social media while also arguing that Section 230, the law that gives social media platforms the legal breathing room to host sketchy content to begin with, should be scrapped.

If you believe for one moment that Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, and their myrmidons truly support free speech on the Internet, we’ve got beachfront property in Kansas to sell you. There was no limit to Waugh’s disdain for such men. Until the public “accepts that the urge to power is a personality disorder in its own right,” he said, “like the urge to sexual congress with children or the taste for rubber underwear, there will always be a danger of circumstances arising which persuade ordinary people to start listening to politicians … and taking them seriously.” A bit over the top, to be sure—though not in this case.

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Comments on “If You Believe In Free Speech, The GOP’s “Weaponization” Subcommittee Is Not Your Friend”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

This is exactly what the ultra-wealthy, who financed the propagation of the “big lie,” want. There’s a huge return-on-investment in chaos and anything that disrupts the government’s operations. Unfortunately, the people who will suffer the most from this nonsense are the very people who were conned into voting for these wackos.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Not the face-eating leopards(again)!'

Last month Rep. Jim Jordan, the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee—and, now, of its “weaponization” subcommittee as well—accused the major tech firms of being “out to get conservatives.”

Which just nicely shows, again, how utterly useless the attempts to appease US conservatives and treat their complaints as valid and honest when it comes to social media moderation is and always has been.

Perhaps if tech companies had held some feet to the fire, demanding that those crying about ‘conservative persecution’ point to what, exactly was being ‘censored’ that dishonest talking point might have been dropped as counter-productive but by bending over backwards and acting as though there was any merit to the idea the tech companies have instead emboldened those making the claims.

Cole says:

Re:

…demanding that those crying about ‘conservative persecution’ point to what, exactly was being ‘censored’ that dishonest talking point might have been dropped…

The thing is: it wouldn’t matter. The people who’ve been duped into believing it “did [their] own research” that proves we’re the duped ones.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps, the goal isn’t so much to convince the diehards, rather it’s to make it harder for them to convince anyone who isn’t already bought in that they’re arguing honestly and have good points.

If all someone’s heard is that ‘conservative speech’ is being taken down then they might think that something problematic is happening and online platforms are overstepping what they should be doing. If they are faced with just what that speech is however then that’s probably going to be a harder sell.

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YourAdHere says:

Re: Re:

“The left really is stuck in he 50s.”

As opposed to being stuck in the dark ages.

I’m not even sure what is meant by the term “left” anymore.
I guess it is a catchall for whatever displeases you at the moment. Maybe if you go yell at a minimum wage worker you would feel better about yourself.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

If you don’t mind something a lot less rigorous, Sourcewatch has a ton of these fuckers.

Starting with the Kochs and Rupert Murdoch. Koch Industries and their parasite trusts and charities, and News Corp for those of you who don’t care to read.

Then there’s Bayer/Monsato and the general agribusiness “cartel”, AT&T, Comcast AND Verizon for Big Telecom/ISP, Pfizer for Big Pharma, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and all the corps in the military-industrial complex, Phillips-Morris in Big Tobacco, Shell, BP, Chevron Texaco, and Exxon-Mobil for Big Oil…

Again, Sourcewatch is not the most rigorous place.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Long story short, the Kochs have been funding this nonsense ever since it was called the Tea Party.

They’re one of the biggest funders of this partisan nonsense and have sunk a LOT of their money into Republican-leaning theinktanks, some reputable, some pure propaganda.

Oh, would you look at that, the Charles Koch Foundation DID fund Techdirt that one time during the pandemic.

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Bloof (profile) says:

Conservatives don’t believe in free speech, they believe in you sitting down, shutting up and listening to them berate you, and that’s all this committee is. It’s an opportunity for dregs of humanity like sexual abuse enabler Gym Jordan to be seen on Fox yelling at former Twitter employees, nothing more.

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Koby (profile) says:

Sour Grapes

The democrats setup a witch hunt comittee, whose biggest success was releasing trump’s tax returns. Even the hardcore leftists collectively yawned at the giant nothingburger.

Now, it’s time for payback. And the select committee is likely going to investigate government malfeasance. If government oversight makes you apprehensive, then you’re probably an FBI stooge. My, my, how techdirt has fallen. Once a staunch critic of the FBI, now it’s a defender.

dickeyrat says:

How can anyone, at any time, who’s not bonging paint chips even dream that the Rethugnican Reich has any interest whatsoever in preserving or promoting any freedoms for anyone, save for those protecting us from Jewish Space Lazers, fake meat grown in Peachtree Dishes, the vapid “entitlements” of anyone who’s not a bulti-billionaire, and them hordes of dark-skinned people who all want our wimmen! And, let’s not forget those in full worship of Our Respected And Beloved Leader, the Golden-god fat trump! Any statement of the very concept is absolutely ludicrous. Big Surprise, is it, that the Fascist thugs would even toy with the idea of anything short of full Autocracy, in the Name of fat trump, the My Pillow guy, and all that is sacred to the superior Aryan race? Please, let’s recognize reality when it hits us in the face!

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Chozen (profile) says:

Is this a joke?

The authors make some grand claims.

“It would be trying to “weaponize” its own authority—which, under our Constitution’s separation of powers, does not extend to meddling in ongoing criminal investigations.”

And under what authority do the authors claim that? A 2000 letter from the DOJ to congress. And it doesn’t say what it authors say it says. It just says that they wont turn over information that could damage an ongoing case. It doesn’t’ challenge the validity of the committee.

And again this is a DOJ opinion not a SCOTUS decision.

This 2000 opinion is actually a very dangerous one in the 2021 context of ‘policing online disinformation’ as such an “investigation” if you want to call it that is never ending so there can never be no congressional oversight as such oversight according to this interoperation of the DOJ opinion must occur after the investigation is concluded.

“We were promised evidence that the FBI and the federal government conspired with platforms to squash the Hunter Biden laptop story. Instead, we learned—as “Twitter Files” player Matt Taibbi himself put it—that “there’s no evidence … of any government involvement.””

Wow dont give up the narrative. Look we know that all of you BigTech paid hacks with your non-profits AKA your personal tax shelter were given your marching orders knowing that James Baker was still at Twitter and was going be hiding and destroying all evidence of FBI involvement. But mother fuckers that was a month and a half ago. Stop pretending it didn’t happen. Your inside mole James Baker got caught by Barry Wiess on Tuesday December 6, 2022 and immediately fired by Musk. Subsequently all the FBI involvement became public. Even Yoel Roth admitted the FBI set him up. Stop pretending you hacks. You sound like Chris Como rising from his basement when he was already caught breaking quarantine. We all know it was a act.

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Chozen (profile) says:

Mike is Right

Mike is right!!!

In a way lol.

Yes bad faith actors abuse rules. You make a rule. It seems like a good rule. Then bad faith actors abuse the rule.

The DOJ says we will not discuss sources and methods. Its a rule. It seems like a good rule. Decades later the DOJ is caught putting Igor Danchenko, the then discredited source of the Steel Dossier, after they knew it was bullshit because if he was a paid source they could tell congress “sources and methods.”

Absolutely correct Mike bad faith actors will abuse rules.

Chozen (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m just asking Mike to be consistent. Mike likes to say that the problem with unambiguous rules is bad faith actors will abuse such rules. Here we have a perfect example. Igor Danchenko fed pure bullshit to Christopher Steele who fed it to the FBI. AFTER the FBI found out that the information Igor fed to Steele was bullshit they offered to put Igor on the pay roll for no other reason than to hide him from Congress under the sources and methods rule. That is a perfect example of how bad faith actors abuse unambiguous rules.

mechtheist (profile) says:

There should be a ‘law’ in the vein of Murphy’s Law, that the name of an organization, or bill, or movement is in direct opposition to what their intent or purpose actually is. A very common example is anything with ‘Family’ in it’s title. A little googling led to this gem:
Pournelle’s iron law of bureaucracy: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

Stupid-ist (profile) says:

What is misinformation?

“government campaign to reduce COVID misinformation”

That line is a hoot. It was to suppress every whisper that was not in lock step with the BS they were shoveling. They’re lies and censorship had killed many and injured many more. But at least this is a point that doesn’t need argued about. The truth is coming out now, and on a few years when the damage is irrefutable to even the devoutest fauci fanatic.

The problem with defending the censorship of “mis-dis-mal information” is that it is up to the powers that be to determine WHAT qualifies. Which is always anything contrary to the in-power party’s current line of BS.

Final note: why is it that the very people crying the loudest about,”protecting” the Constitution, claim that violating it is the best way to preserve it? How will allowing gov censorship preserve our 1st amendment rights? Anyone seriously believe that any politician that can get away with dictating what cannot (and even worse, what MUST be,) said, will not take that to the extreme? Does anyone really believe, from politicians’ pov, that the gun control laws they push really have anything to do with guns? Those seeking power only need ONE precedent of circumventing the Constitution by political fiat, to completely disregard the entire document. If they can get away with violating the 2nd amendment without using the amendment process, who among us believes they will stop there? Just need three PRECEDENT of getting away with once, to get away with it always. And to those of you cheering on the Democrats trying to do so, advocating for them to trample even the smallest bite of the Constitution, (and yes, even though Orange Man Bad!) I say that I fear you will get what you want, and very briefly feel very smug that y’all won. But when the politicians don’t stop at just stomping out trump, and forcing fake “vaccines” into people’s body’s, and mandating we all learn made up words like ze, zim, xi, I will be uttering the saddest I told you so ever.

Maybe the left\liberal dream of a stalinistic American government will be a better place than we have enjoyed, but somehow I don’t believe a government in total control of the people’s lives will be a good thing. But I’m afraid I will live to find out.

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