The ongoing release of the Facebook Files reveals the target of the White House’s collusion with Big Tech: you. Censorship is not a targeted attack on speakers; the objective is to deny you, the citizenry, your right to access information.
Journalists including Michael Shellenberger have exposed what they dub the “Censorship Industrial Complex,” a tangled web of the world’s most powerful government agencies, NGOs, and private corporations that work together to stifle unapproved narratives.
The henchmen who implement this system receive little publicity. Few Americans study Albert Burleson, Woodrow Wilson’s Postmaster General who intercepted mail that the White House deemed subversive. Frank Wisner’s name is absent from history books despite overseeing Operation Mockingbird, a CIA program to infiltrate, influence, and control American media outlets.
Likewise, today’s public is generally unfamiliar with their information czars, the government officials charged with carrying out assaults on the First Amendment. Like soldiers in The Sopranos, they demand compliance with threats of retribution from their boss.
The powerful enact censorship for their own interests while claiming it is for the good of the public. They use abstract fear-mongering to evade accountability.
In the Biden Administration, they’ve used mantras of public health to strip you of your First Amendment rights in the Covid era. Thanks to the Facebook Files and Missouri v. Biden, we now have a better understanding of the individuals behind the censorship regime. Rob Flaherty exemplifies the arrogance inherent to the assault on the First Amendment.
America’s Thought Police: Rob Flaherty
After serving on the failed presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke, Flaherty joined the Biden White House as Director of Digital Strategy in January 2021.
In that role, he repeatedly worked with Big Tech companies to suppress political opponents’ speech. “Are you guys fucking serious?” Flaherty asked Facebook after the company failed to censor critics of the Covid vaccine. “I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today.”
At other times, Flaherty was more direct. “Please remove this account immediately,” he told Twitter about a Biden family parody account. The company compiled within an hour.
Flaherty made it clear that he was concerned with political power, not veracity or disinformation. He demanded Facebook stifle “often-true content” that could be considered “sensational.” He asked company executives if they could interfere with private messages containing “misinformation” on WhatsApp.
Flaherty later demanded to know how Facebook would address “things that are dubious, but not provably false.” In February 2021, he accused the company of fomenting “political violence” by allowing “vaccine skeptical” content on its platform.
His desire to control Americans’ access to information meant eliminating critical media sources. He demanded Facebook reduce the spread of Tucker Carlson’s report on the Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine’s link to blood clots. “There’s 40,000 shares on the video. Who is seeing it now? How many?” Like Burleson’s censorship of the mail, Flaherty’s attack on the First Amendment was not directed at the speaker – the objective was to protect political power by denying citizens the right to access information.
“I’m curious – NY Post churning out articles every day about people dying,” he wrote to Facebook. “Does that article get a reduction, labels?” He suggested that Facebook “change the algorithm so that people were more like to see NYT, WSJ… over Daily Wire, Tomi Lahren, polarizing people.” Flaherty was not subtle in his objective. “Intellectually my bias is to kick people off,” he told the company executive.
In April 2021, Flaherty worked to strong-arm Google into ramping up its censorship operations. He told executives that his concerns were “shared at the highest (and I mean the highest) levels of the WH.” There’s “more work to be done,” he instructed. He had the same talking points with Facebook that month, telling executives that he would have to explain to President Biden and Chief of Staff Ron Klain “why there is misinfo on the internet.”
In nearly every case, the social media companies caved to the pressure of the White House.
Jenin Younes, litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “These emails establish a clear pattern: Mr. Flaherty, representing the White House, expresses anger at the companies’ failure to censor Covid-related content to his satisfaction. The companies change their policies to address his demands. As a result, thousands of Americans were silenced for questioning government-approved Covid narratives.“
Protecting the government-provided Covid narratives were Flaherty’s primary focus. “We are gravely concerned that your service is one of the top drivers of vaccine hesitancy—period,” he wrote to a Facebook executive. “We want to know that you’re trying, we want to know how we can help, and we want to know that you’re not playing a shell game. . . . This would all be a lot easier if you would just be straight with us.”
Flaherty’s censorious thuggery mimics mobsters’ interrogation tactics. We can do this the easy way or the hard way- it’d all be a lot easier if you would just be straight with us. Nice company you have here – would be a shame if something happened to it.
“Key Parts of Our Covid Strategy”
Of course, the La Cosa Nostra approach to free speech violates the First Amendment.
Flaherty sought to control who could have a Facebook account, determine what they could post, and influence what they see. He didn’t own the company or work for Mark Zuckerberg – he used the threat of government retribution to impose censorship.
It is “axiomatic” under American law that the state cannot “induce, encourage, or promote” private companies to pursue unconstitutional aims. “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea,” the Supreme Court held in Gertz v. Welch. “However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries, but on the competition of other ideas.”
There is no misinformation carve-out to the First Amendment or Pandemic exception to Constitutional Law. Yet Flaherty spearheaded the Biden Administration’s assault on free speech, and he now appears unremorseful for his role in the censorship apparatus.
In March 2023, Flaherty participated in an hour-long discussion at Georgetown University on his role in “how governments use social media to communicate with the public.”
An audience member asked Flaherty about his emails encouraging Facebook to censor private WhatsApp messages. “How do you justify legally telling a private messaging app what they can and cannot send?”
Flaherty declined to answer. “I can’t really comment on the specifics. I think the President has sort of made clear that one of the key parts of our Covid strategy is making sure the American people have access to reliable information as soon as they could get it, and, uh, you know, that’s all part and parcel to that, but unfortunately I can’t go too far into the litigation.”
Three months later, Flaherty stepped down from his position at the White House. President Biden remarked, “The way Americans get their information is changing, and since Day 1, Rob has helped us meet people where they are.”
President Biden was right – Americans’ access to information changed. The internet promised a liberating free exchange of ideas, but bureaucrats like Flaherty worked to implement informational tyranny. In Flaherty’s words, this was all “part and parcel” to the White House strategy. On behalf of the administration, he demanded companies remove true content; he called on social media groups to remove journalists’ accounts; he suggested censoring citizens’ private messages; he institutionalized the abuse of the First Amendment.
If there were any remaining doubts about the federal government’s censorship activities, this new evidence should settle every question. During the Covid years, the government effectively nationalized all the main social media portals and converted them to become propaganda vehicles for bureaucrats while demoting or completely blocking contrary views. There is simply no way this practice can survive serious juridical scrutiny.
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