US Senator Ted Cruz had a simple piece of advice for some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley: “Leave the internet the heck alone.” Specifically, Cruz wants to keep tech giants from muzzling conservative Christian media outlets, which is why he voiced his support on Thursday for a new website created by the National Religious Broadcasters that will document what it says are cases of Silicon Valley companies censoring conservative voices and viewpoints.
NRB hosted the panel at the National Press Club, where its president and CEO, Jerry Johnson, expressed concern that companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple are stifling “opposing viewpoints from the marketplace of ideas.” He said many of them used terms like “hate speech,” which he called “an accusation with convoluted definition, but extremely grave connotations.”
On its new site, Internet Freedom Watch, the NRB cites examples such as Apple’s decision in 2013 to remove an app called Setting Captives Free that promised to “free” users of homosexuality, as well as Twitter’s more recent call to pull a video of US Representative Marsha Blackburn declaring she had fought Planned Parenthood to stop “the sale of baby body parts.”
Over the last century, evangelical preachers and organizations have relied heavily on new technologies, notably television and radio, to get their messages out. For some, these “televangelism” ventures have been incredibly profitable—pastor Joel Osteen is worth an estimated $40 million. YouTube has restricted some of the conservative media group PragerU’s videos, and in addition to suing the video platform it recently wrote to potential donors saying that it could achieve its messaging goals with the help of a $15 million annual budget.
The NRB’s announcement that it will crack down on “internet censorship” comes at a time when people on both the left and right are having tough discussions about the First Amendment. The panelists’ disdain for Silicon Valley was made clear by the likes of Cruz, who likened platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to “petty tyrants on college campuses” who protested appearances by Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer. Cruz remembered Microsoft founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates as “a bunch of college dropouts and hippies” when their business first took off, adding that as these unlikely tech companies got so big, “the locus for power in media” shifted to Silicon Valley.
Whether that description is accurate or not, there’s little argument that tech entrepreneurs now have a considerable amount of control over the media landscape today, as more Americans are increasingly turning to social media platforms to get their news. In 2016 Republicans sounded the alarm about Facebook’s “trending” news section, citing reports that the site censored conservative views there. Still, it’s not as if conservative viewpoints vanished from these platforms—in fact, wildly wrong pro-Trump stories may have been a factor in last year’s election, and social media sites also spread hoaxes like Pizzagate. Just last month, Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified about what role their platforms may have played in helping Russia influence the 2016 presidential election. All three companies sold ads to Russia-linked companies, including one that depicted Jesus arm-wrestling Satan to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the White House.
“If foreign governments are pushing propaganda to affect elections, then Facebook should be able to take a look at that, and screen and filter,” said NBR CEO Jerry Johnson, who said it wasn’t fair to equate questions about pro-Trump propaganda with what he called Facebook and Twitter’s “clear, calculated discrimination” toward conservative voices. For now, NBR isn’t urging Congress to take any specific legislative action; Johnson said that an ideal solution would be “market-based.”
Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell took a more cautious approach when he spoke, noting that significantly changing laws regarding censorship could quickly turn on conservatives’ heads should leadership in Congress change. “It’s great to have the government balance speech when your friends are in power,” McDowell said. “What’s going to happen when [they] aren’t?”