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Judge limits Biden administration's communication with social media companies

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Biden administration says it will appeal a federal judge's ruling that blocked the government from communicating with social media companies about nearly all content. The ruling was a temporary win for conservatives, who argue they're censored on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but it's also a debate with profound First Amendment implications. Here to discuss is NPR's Shannon Bond, who covers disinformation and social media.

Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: Can you briefly explain again what this lawsuit is about?

BOND: So these Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration. And their claim is that the government is illegally colluding with social media companies to suppress what they see as protected free speech. And these concerns center on the platform's policies against misleading or false claims about the COVID pandemic and vaccines, as well as about election integrity. But it also ties into this larger Republican narrative, like we've talked a lot about - that conservatives claim they are being censored on social media for their views. And so this case is still ongoing. But the judge, who is a Trump-appointed conservative, has issued this temporary injunction that would block agencies like the Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, the CDC, and many individual government officials from being in touch with these platforms - doing things like flagging specific posts that might be against their rules or asking for information about content moderation efforts.

And now I should say there is a carve-out. The government is supposed to still be allowed to warn platforms about things like criminal activity, national security threats, foreign election interference. But, of course, you know, how that gets defined may be up in the air.

DETROW: Well, when it comes to day-to-day activity, how big of a change is this for the relationship between the government and these social media companies?

BOND: Yeah, it's a little unclear. There's actually not a lot of transparency into what those relationships look like. Now, we've known for years there are partnerships - efforts to share information between the government and the platforms - for things like fighting terrorism, curbing the spread of child sex abuse material, right? That's, like, the important communications they have, say, with the FBI. Those relationships have really expanded in recent years, especially after 2016, with the Russian efforts to interfere with the presidential election and then, of course, with the pandemic - these new set of concerns around vaccines and public health. And so now you have government officials and agencies working much more closely with companies when it comes to these really kind of critical public issues, like voting and vaccines. And it does raise legitimate questions - right? - about how close is too close - like, when does this tip into the government going too far and curbing free speech, as these attorneys general are arguing?

DETROW: So what does constitute government overreach when it comes to blocking free speech, then?

BOND: Well, the Biden administration said it's not telling social media companies what to take down or how to write their policies, but it does believe it has an interest in curbing the spread of illegal material and then promoting accurate information, right? And when it comes to things like public health, elections, there are these concerns that false and misleading social media posts could erode confidence in vaccines, undermine people's faith in voting and in election integrity, you know? These are matters of great public importance.

The question is, how do you balance that interest that the government has against the free-speech protections of the Constitution - right? - which bar the government from regulating speech? And we have seen examples in other countries, like in India and Turkey, where governments have used social media companies sort of as cudgels to muzzle their critics and to, you know, hit back at their opposition to deplatform people. And so the question in this lawsuit comes down to, you know, when do government communications with social media platforms that may fall short of outright orders or demands to take down content - like, when do those still constitute some kind of undue pressure? And we don't have clear answers.

DETROW: Yeah. And the administration says it's appealing, but what would the implications be if the ruling were to stand?

BOND: Well, experts I spoke to said, you know, this could have a chilling effect. It could leave government officials very wary of any kind of communication with tech companies. And, you know, that would have implications for the next public health crisis, pandemic, natural disaster, an emergency situation.

In terms of the companies themselves, you know, we reached out to Facebook parent Meta, Google and Twitter. They all declined to comment. But even before this ruling, many of these companies had already been backing off their policies about COVID and about election integrity. There's just been a lot of pressure on them, and I think it really shows how politicized this topic has become and is going to continue to be.

DETROW: Yeah. That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks for being with us.

BOND: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond
Shannon Bond is a correspondent at NPR, covering how misleading narratives and false claims circulate online and offline, and their impact on society and democracy.
David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.