The Trump administration, home to some of the most prominent voices that cry wolf about supposed politically biased censorship online, is calling on some of the biggest names in tech and social media to crack down on how users post about ongoing racial-justice protests.
As first reported by the Washington Post, this week the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Apple, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, demanding that they take action against posts that encourage protestors to commit violence, break curfews, or tear down statues representing white supremacy.
In a copy of one of these letters shared by the Verge, Wolf condemns platforms for their lack of censorship on this kind of content (of which he cites zero examples). He argues that while the Constitution’s First Amendment protects free speech, “the power of social media can also serve as a weapon to perpetuate criminal activity” and the inaction of Facebook, Twitter, and the like has helped facilitate “burglary, arson, aggravated assault, rioting, looting, and defacing public property” amid nationwide protests.
Of course, it’s unclear exactly what posts Wolf’s referring to here because, again, his letter doesn’t reference any. One of the more prominent subjects of online censorship in recent weeks has been the so-called “boogaloo” movement, a loosely coordinated group of far-right extremists based around the idea that America is headed into a second Civil War. After several posts in “boogaloo” groups pushed members to grab their guns and crash otherwise peaceful protests, Facebook purged nearly 200 accounts associated with the movement and stopped promoting Facebook groups tied to such violent calls for action as well.
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But something tells me that’s not what Wolf was referring to, since the idea of violent right-wing extremists causing trouble doesn’t fit the narrative of the “antifa” boogeyman spun up by conservative media and, by extension, President Donald Trump himself.
“In the wake of George Floyd’s death, America faced an unprecedented threat from violent extremists seeking to co-opt the tragedy of his death for illicit purposes,” he continued. “At the Department of Homeland Security, we are committed to safeguarding the American people, our homeland, and our values, which includes protecting our First Amendment rights while keeping our citizens, law enforcement officers, and property safe.”
It should be noted that Wolf makes no mention in these letters of Trump’s own controversial post in which he encouraged a violent military response to protestors by proclaiming “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Ironically, that post did run afoul of Twitter’s policies against glorifying violence and was quickly flagged with a warning.
Facebook’s decision to keep the president’s post up for the sake of public interest prompted a wave of criticism, including from within the company itself, that led several advertisers to pull their business (in part, at least) from the platform. The company has since back-pedaled heavily, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying Friday that Facebook will begin affixing labels or taking down posts from public figures that violate its rules moving forward.
Since these letters are a general call to action rather than an announcement of any official legal proceedings, it’s uncertain what—if any—action these platforms might take in response. Though it does mark the latest escalation of the administration’s attempt to curb speech online that the president doesn’t care for, all while simultaneously ranting about how social media platforms silence right-wing voices. At the end of May, Trump signed an executive order tasking the Federal Communications Commission with investigating whether tech companies are censoring, harassing, and shadow banning conservatives even though previous investigations have found insufficient evidence to support this conspiracy theory.