Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tensions flare as GOP assails social media ‘weaponization’

Barking over who was out of order, lawmakers conjured their inner Al Pacino in a hearing on perceived bias against conservative viewpoints.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A new House subcommittee that met for what is only the third time devolved Thursday into partisan bickering as congressional Republicans sought to implicate the White House in an alleged conspiracy over the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan convened the latest gathering of Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government by pointing to evidence in Missouri v. Biden, an ongoing federal case in which lawyers have accused the Biden administration of encouraging social media platforms to discriminate during the pandemic against anti-mask and anti-vaccine viewpoints.

“Within days of taking office, the Biden White House was already pressuring Big Tech to suppress free speech,” Jordan argued during an opening statement. “The censor’s goal is simple: limit what Americans can see and limit what Americans can say, which is a direct assault on the right to free speech that is protected under the First Amendment.”

Accusations of this sort brought indignation from House Democrats, with at least one member trying, unsuccessfully, to cancel the hearing entirely.

“This is a mockery and a disgrace,” Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch complained during what was a particularly heated exchange between lawmakers. “It’s shameful that you participate in this,” the Democrat told Jordan, the subcommittee's chair.

Lynch’s motion to adjourn devolved into a yelling match between lawmakers on the panel, with House Republicans accusing the lawmaker of being out of order. “If you don’t know the rules of the committee, then talk to your parliamentarian,” Lynch retorted.

As the hearing continued over his objections, Lynch later requested to strike from the record the testimony that was given Thursday by witnesses including Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Missouri Senator Eric Schmitt, the former state attorney general.

Landry, who is leading the prosecution in Missouri, contended that federal agencies had taken steps to co-opt social media companies and control the narrative. “Our lawsuit has uncovered a censorship enterprise that spans numerous government institutions and all major social media platforms," he said.

The Louisiana attorney general pointed to statements from the White House and FBI that he said boasted about reducing engagement with content flagged by federal agencies.

Schmitt, a Republican, testified that the Biden administration has threatened to strip social media companies of legal protections. “These social media companies, some of the biggest companies in the history of the world, willingly took part in this Orwellian, vast censorship enterprise,” the lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, Matthew Seligman, a professor at Stanford University’s Constitutional Law Center, defended what he said were efforts by the federal government to combat misinformation online, referencing conspiracy theories spread on social media about the last presidential election that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“It is both constitutional and consummate with the principles of the First Amendment for government experts to help social media networks in identifying this information and to encourage those networks to stop spreading it and amplifying it," Seligman said.

Among those who sought to poke holes in Seligman’s testimony, New York Republican Elise Stefanik argued that Democrats had publicly opposed President George W. Bush’s 2000 election victory as well as his 2004 reelection bid.

“The irony is so thick in the room that you could cut it with a knife,” Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson agreed.

Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schultz attacked the credibility of the GOP witnesses, arguing that Louisiana Special Assistant Attorney General D. John Sauer, invited to testify Thursday, was involved with a special interest group that encouraged people to attend the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The lawmaker accused Sauer of using state resources to participate in “war games” in the days leading up to the insurrection.

Sauer said Wasserman-Schultz had mischaracterized his involvement and did not recall participating in any such meetings.

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for finally bringing a witness before us that has personally weaponized the government,” Wasserman-Schultz told Jordan. “Given what we know and just heard, clearly, my Republican colleagues support further investigation into this matter.”

A motion from the Florida lawmaker to subpoena the Louisiana assistant attorney general was tabled by the Republican-controlled committee.

The panel’s ranking member, U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett, said that it was nonsense to suggest that the White House had any hand in censoring what she called conservative viewpoints on social media. She argued that tech companies actually amplify such opinions.

“Everyone should be alarmed when that amplification pushes out false and dangerous narratives — false narratives such as Jan. 6 being a deep-state effort,” Plaskett said. “In fact, that’s the real reason we’re here. Republicans know that these are false narratives and know that Americans know the truth, so they are grasping for a way to spin the truth.”

House Republicans’ weaponization committee first convened in January. The panel has been widely condemned by congressional Democrats as giving credence to conspiracy theories and promoting partisan division.

Categories: Government Media Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.