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Republicans take aim at the Biden White House’s emails with tech platforms

Selective releases from Rep. Jim Jordan and a federal court case have become a focus for Republicans claiming censorship on social media.
Rep. Jim Jordan speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing at the Capitol
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaks at an Oversight Committee hearing at the Capitol on July 19.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Internal corporate emails from social media companies are giving fresh momentum to Republicans’ long-standing claims that they’re being censored online — and in a twist, tech companies aren’t the ones getting blamed. Instead, the focus is on the White House. 

The emails have been published in two venues: as part of a federal lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general making its way through federal court and from an investigation by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. 

The lawsuit is partly based on internal emails from Meta and Twitter, now called X, and it includes communications to and from White House officials. In one email, a White House staffer wrote to Twitter flagging a tweet from vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., now a presidential candidate, writing, “wondering if we can get moving on the process for having it removed ASAP.” A federal appeals court ruling on whether the White House should be limited in its communication with tech companies is expected in the coming weeks. A district judge previously granted an injunction seeking to bar White House messages to tech companies, but the appeals court put that on pause while it considers the measure. 

And in the congressional investigation, Jordan has been selectively posting on X even more internal emails from Meta, calling them “The Facebook Files.” He has published four installments so far, the most recent one last week. Jordan has requested documents from other tech companies about their communications with the Biden administration; he has yet to post any. 

The emails published by Jordan describe meetings, phone calls and other communications between Meta employees and Biden administration officials, some of them with people who worked in the White House. They pertain mostly to the White House’s response to Covid-19, but some relate to the FBI’s responses to election misinformation and the Hunter Biden laptop investigation. They aren’t a complete picture, including only the perspectives of Meta employees. The employees write about alleged efforts by the administration to sway how Facebook and Instagram handled posts, including content from false medical information about Covid-19 to memes about the vaccines. 

The emerging fight over the emails could reshape the relationship between tech giants and the federal government.

Republicans, including Jordan, argue that the White House requests violate the First Amendment rights of the tech platforms and their users, an allegation the White House denies. 

The Biden administration has said that its actions came at a unique time: the public health emergency around Covid-19 deaths, and specifically the pro-vaccination push of 2021. 

Some Meta employees said in the internal communications that the White House’s arguments were having an effect on Meta’s actions, in part because of the possibility of soured relations with the administration. 

“We were under pressure from the administration and others to do more,” an employee wrote in a July 2021 email to colleagues, explaining why Meta had removed some posts saying SARS-CoV-2 was “man-made,” a theory that is still hotly debated and for which there is no conclusive evidence. The employee’s name was redacted in the email Jordan posted. 

“We shouldn’t have done it,” the employee added. 

For years, Republicans have claimed that they’ve been unfairly censored on social media. Courts have repeatedly rejected their arguments of bias, and a large volume of evidence points in the opposite direction, to tech platforms such as Facebook’s going easy on conservatives

But now, they have finally hit on a censorship claim that may resonate beyond their base

One difference is that, in Jordan’s investigation and in the federal lawsuit, it’s not clear that powerful companies in Silicon Valley are the organizations pushing to take down certain posts. Ex-Twitter executives for instance, vocally argued in congressional testimony that their decision in 2020 to throttle a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop had nothing to do with pressure from Democrats or law enforcement. But with the recently released emails, legal scholars said the tech platforms and their users could have serious complaints about government pressure on tech companies. 

Those considerations will have to be weighed, though, against the emergency circumstances surrounding the White House’s pandemic response, which may give White House officials some ammunition in court, legal scholars said. 

The Supreme Court has been sharply divided over when and how government officials can intrude on the First Amendment during public health emergencies, with divided rulings on state-imposed limits on church attendance

Emails from the White House presented in the federal court case show that White House officials flagged suspected Covid-19 misinformation frequently.

Two White House staffers expressed their dissatisfaction with Meta’s compliance on March 15, 2021. In an email chain with the subject line “You are hiding the ball,” Rob Flaherty, the director of digital strategy, said Meta should do more to “mitigate” anti-vaccine content on Facebook. 

“We are gravely concerned that your service is one of the top drivers of vaccine hesitancy,” Flaherty wrote in an email to a Meta employee whose name was redacted in court papers. 

Andy Slavitt, then a White House senior adviser on pandemic response, also weighed in on the thread. 

“We have urgency and don’t sense it from you all,” Slavitt wrote. “Internally we have been considering our options on what to do about it,” he added, without elaborating on those options. 

Slavitt was not immediately available for an interview about the matter, a representative said.

The unnamed Meta employee wrote back that the company was “absolutely invested in getting you the specific information needed to successfully manage the vaccine roll out.” The employee stopped short of promising more takedowns. 

A month later, in April 2021, Brian Rice, a Meta vice president for public policy, wrote an email that how the company responded to Covid-19 misinformation could put it at a “crossroads” in its broader relations with the Biden White House. 

A Meta spokesperson this week declined to comment on the emails. 

The emails have created enough pressure to draw a response from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. 

“We have promoted responsible actions to protect public health, safety and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections,” Jean-Pierre said at a briefing July 27. 

She went on: “We have consistently made clear that we believe social media companies have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects of their platforms that they have on the American people.” 

In 2021, President Joe Biden was public and direct with his view of Facebook and its handling of Covid-19 misinformation, telling reporters, “They’re killing people.” 

A White House spokesperson declined to comment further. 

Legal experts said that, in general, requests from a government official to censor a social media post could violate the First Amendment if there was even a perception that refusal could mean retaliation. 

An unattributed email posted by Jordan summarized what a Meta employee said were the White House’s desires: “We can extrapolate that they would like us to remove content that provides any negative information on or opinions about the vaccine without concluding that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh that information or opinion; humorous or satirical content that suggests the vaccine isn’t safe.” The employee’s name is redacted, so it’s not clear whether the employee also wrote other emails at issue; at least nine Meta employee email addresses are redacted in the Jordan emails, while the names of executives aren’t redacted, among them those of Global Affairs President Nick Clegg and Rice, the public policy vice president. 

The email goes on to say, “The Surgeon General wants us to remove true information about side effects if the user does not provide complete information about whether or not the side effect is rare and treatable.” 

Clegg said in an undated email published by Jordan that refusing the White House’s demand could put other company priorities at risk. 

Refusing the White House’s requests, Clegg wrote, “is a recipe for protracted and increasing acrimony with the WH.” He continued, writing, “Given the bigger fish we have to fry with the Administration — data flows etc — that doesn’t seem a great place for us to be.” 

At the time, in summer 2021, U.S. and European officials were in active talks for a new agreement to govern trans-Atlantic data flows in compliance with privacy laws — an issue critical to Facebook and other tech companies. 

The emails have gotten relatively little notice with the mainstream media and the general public, most likely because past Republican censorship claims have so often fallen flat. Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s promotion of “The Twitter Files” last year mostly rehashed information that was already public or internal debates that Republicans argued showed internal bias at social media companies. 

The name “The Facebook Files” is also already associated with a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal in 2021 based on documents provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen. 

But Jordan’s probe has become a rallying point in conservative media. Jordan’s initial blast of emails on July 27 has gotten more than 29 million views on X, according to the site’s view counter. 

Jordan has also introduced legislation to prohibit government employees up to and including the president from even suggesting publicly that a social media platform remove a post that has “speech that is protected by the Constitution of the United States.” (The bill doesn’t mention restricting members of Congress.) 

The claim by Republicans is also getting attention from mainstream free speech advocates and legal scholars who as a group were skeptical of past claims of online censorship. 

The Trump White House was also accused of sending inappropriate censorship requests to tech platforms, including asking Twitter to take down posts from celebrity Chrissy Teigen because she had criticized President Donald Trump, a former Twitter employee told Congress this year. In 2020, Trump threatened to shut down social media entirely after Twitter put a fact-check label on one of his posts. 

Courts have examined coerced censorship for decades, and in legal circles, government pressure to censor has an evocative name: “jawboning.” 

“Jawboning is the great forgotten free speech problem,” said Genevieve Lakier, a University of Chicago law professor who has written about the topic. Depending on the exact circumstances and context, Lakier said, “it can be an end-run around the Constitution.” 

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the free expression group PEN America, said in an interview that the recent disclosures from social media companies about interactions with the White House raise alarm bells: “There is reason to have more concern where there’s evidence that a social media platform took action not of their own volition but because they were prompted by a government.” 

Many tech companies take a hard line against problematic content such as Covid-19 misinformation without the government’s asking — Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2021 that it was company policy to promote Covid-19 vaccinations. 

But Jordan’s investigation and the federal lawsuit allege more has been at play beyond the biases expressed by tech company executives in California. 

Last month in the federal case, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, appointed by Trump, ruled that it was likely that the Biden administration had “used its power to silence the opposition,” and he ordered sweeping limits on when administration officials could speak with social media companies, citing “suppressed” topics such as opposition to masking and the validity of the 2020 election. He made exceptions for communications about criminal activity, national security and a few other topics that he said were acceptable. 

Many legal experts panned the judge’s reasoning, and a federal appeals court in New Orleans put his order on hold. But the case is continuing, and last week, a panel of three judges heard oral arguments for 81 minutes, at times expressing alarm at the White House requests but also asking skeptical questions of the Louisiana and Missouri Republican officials. 

Jennifer Jones, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in an interview: “The First Amendment does forbid the government from coercing an entity, including a social media platform, into censoring someone’s speech, and that’s true if the coercion has been direct or more subtle.” 

But she added: “Right now, the distinction between what is coercive and what’s not coercive is not really clear. It’s really important that these questions eventually do get answered.” 

Kennedy sued Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2021 for alleged jawboning. Warren had written a letter asking Amazon to stop directing users to a book for which Kennedy, an anti-vaccine crusader, had written the foreword. A federal appeals court invoked a four-part test, including an examination of Warren’s tone, and concluded that her letter was run-of-the-mill political persuasion, not coercion. Warren prevailed. 

The most recent major Supreme Court ruling on the topic was 60 years ago. A 2015 case got national attention when a federal appeals court barred an Illinois sheriff from jawboning. 

There’s a chance that the Supreme Court will hear a jawboning case in its next term. The National Rifle Association has asked the court to reinstate a lawsuit accusing New York state officials of unlawfully coercing financial institutions into cutting ties with it over protected speech through public statements and financial penalties

The latest dispute promises to reverberate through tech companies’ legal departments and lobbyist offices — possibly strengthening the independence and power of tech platforms if a court or Congress limits how far government officials may go in their dealings. 

David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression, said that government coercion is a significant problem for tech platforms globally and that other countries will watch what U.S. courts do. 

“If we were to say that governments have to be cautious in their communications with platforms because of the free speech implications, I think that would have an impact at least on other democracies,” he said.