House Republicans issued a new report Monday about the FBI’s communication with social media companies that is sure to feature prominently in Wednesday’s hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Wray is expected to face intense questioning from the House Judiciary Committee, including from the chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of his fiercest critics.
What we know
Days after Russian troops invaded their country, Ukraine intelligence services sent requests to U.S. social media companies to take down content that promoted Russian propaganda or disinformation.
The FBI was the liaison between the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the social media companies. FBI agents passed on requests from the SBU to Meta, which owns Facebook, and to Google and Twitter.
At least one of the accounts flagged by SBU was a U.S. government account, run by the U.S. State Department, according to the report. Other accounts were U.S. individuals.
The report, created by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, claims that the FBI’s communication with social media companies “violated the First Amendment rights of Americans.”
Did the government ‘demand’ censorship?
“The FBI is not permitted to demand the censorship of domestic political speech,” the Republican report stated.
But the report provides little evidence of such a demand. Multiple emails that were provided to Congress in response to a subpoena show the FBI passing on requests from the SBU to social media companies.
“The SBU requested your review and if appropriate deletion/suspension of these accounts,” wrote FBI agent Aleksandr Kobzanets in a March 14, 2022, email to a Facebook employee.
Another email on March 9, in reference to a different set of requests from the SBU, was interpreted as an explicit demand by House Republicans.
“Would you be able to tell me if these accounts were taken down, or if you need some legal process from us?” wrote FBI agent Patrick Miller on March 9 to a Meta employee.
House Republicans concluded that this email from Miller “suggested concocting a legal justification to support the removal of the flagged accounts if Meta did not find that the posts and comments violated its terms of service.”
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law expert, and Leah Litman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote this month that “there are myriad legitimate and indeed compelling reasons the government might have to ask social media companies to remove content.”
“And the First Amendment certainly doesn’t prevent them from merely asking,” Tribe and Litman wrote.
What the report leaves out
Much is unknown about the requests. The content of the posts that were flagged is not specified in the report, although one email from Kobzanets on March 27, 2022, to Twitter notes that some posts in question were “suspected by the SBU in spreading fear and disinformation.”
In that instance, Twitter executive Yoel Roth wrote that the SBU had flagged a “mix of individual accounts … and even a few accounts of American and Canadian journalists.” Notably, House Republicans did not include the full text of Roth’s email on the matter.
And it’s not clear what, if anything, Meta did in response to the SBU requests.
“It is unclear how Meta employees reacted internally,” the House Republican report said. “It is also not immediately apparent to what extent Meta agreed” with the requests.
In the past, social media companies have demonstrated a tendency to resist pressure from the government to suspend or restrict content.
What outside reformers say
Information from the “Twitter Files” brought to light questions about how the government interacts with social media companies, although the answers to those questions are not as clear cut as some think.
Katie Harbath, a former public policy director for Facebook, said the Twitter Files were problematic in how they were released by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, but said they raised a “valid question on what the role of the government should be in identifying and reporting people and content.”
The FBI itself promotes its work in the “identification of the use of social media channels to spread disinformation related to the war.”
A federal judge in Louisiana recently ruled that the government can’t communicate with social media companies at all, but that decision is being appealed.
In fact, it’s possible that when private social media companies remove content, they are engaging in constitutionally protected speech. That question is being litigated in courts at this moment, in a set of cases that are likely to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Thumbnail Credit: (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)