NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It, social media censorship.
Content on social media with a Christian or conservative perspective has been blocked by platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Platform administrators often claim such content is offensive or inflammatory.
When that’s shown clearly to be false — oftentimes, they don’t own up to it. You might hear the famous response, “Mistakes were made.”
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Those looking for a solution have a challenge — not only to find one that solves it, but doesn’t create another problem that’s even worse.
WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.
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JIM HENRY, REPORTER: When you search for certain information on Google or a video on YouTube, you might not find what you’re looking for, not because of a failure of technology, but because someone, somewhere, made a conscious decision not to show it to you.
We now know it’s far more likely to happen if that content is Christian or conservative.
PragerU is a conservative website founded by talk show host Dennis Prager. Last year he sued YouTube parent company Google for putting 40 PragerU videos content on an age restricted list.
PragerU provides 5-minute videos by guest lecturers. Prager says it’s the kind of content students won’t hear on college campuses.
PRAGER: We had a video by Victor Davis Hanson. He is about as even-tempered a professor as exists in the world, and he gave a talk, “Why Did We Fight in Korea?” That was on the restricted list. After a big battle, it’s back on. Alan Dershowitz is a liberal. He gave a course titled, “The Legal Founding of Israel.” That’s on the restricted list.
Prager says none of his group’s videos are offensive, but they’re restricted because they don’t fit Google’s liberal bent.
PRAGER: I debated a man from the left at a synagogue in San Francisco a couple of months ago, and that was put on the internet. Apparently they feel that I did better than the man on the left, and so they have put that on the restricted list. It’s transparently ideological.
Obama-appointed federal district court judge Lucy Koh in San Francisco recently threw out Prager’s lawsuit. She cited a failure to show the age restrictions were a violation of PragerU’s First Amendment rights. She reasoned that YouTube is not a “public forum run by a state actor.”
Google and YouTube are of course private corporations not government entities subject to the First Amendment’s free speech provision.
This kind of censorship comes amid increasing public pressure on companies like Facebook to control the content on its platform. Many lawmakers want companies to do more to stop the spread of fake news and other misinformation, but the filtering companies are already doing is under criticism.
Last week, Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn testified before the House Judiciary Committee. She told lawmakers she experienced ideological filtering when she announced her run for Senate last year, and mentioned leading an investigation into Planned Parenthood.
BLACKBURN: Last October, Twitter blocked my campaign launch video from its ads platform due to my pro-life message. This ban threatened the fundamental freedom to engage in political speech.
Blackburn said social media platforms should follow the same rules imposed on broadcasters. Section 315 of the Communications Act requires them to air political campaign ads, even those that carry disturbing content or language.
BLACKBURN: Like social media platforms, broadcasters clearly are private entities with their own First Amendment rights. But even so, we recognize that some speech is so important that we must protect its access to an important platform.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee argued that social media filtering of conservative viewpoints is overblown, and that Congress’s time would be better spend probing Russian ad buys on social media to influence elections.
But National Religious Broadcasters President Jerry Johnson says the government’s own communications watchdog recognizes this is a serious problem.
JOHNSON: The chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has said in the last year that these platforms are regularly, systematically eliminating content they don’t like. So, he’s on the record and he’s the man who ought to know.
In December of 2017, the NRB launched Internet Freedom Watch, a website aimed documenting online filtering of Christian and conservative content.
So far, the project has compiled 35 examples, dating back to 2010 when Apple removed Chuck Colson’s Manhattan Declaration from its App Store.
The declaration was signed by Christian leaders affirming their support for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.
Johnson says the timeline shows almost every major social media platform has restricted Christian or conservative content.
JOHNSON: You’ve got YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google, GoFundMe, Vimeo, Amazon taking down people like James Kennedy, Mike Huckabee, Todd Starnes, actually, NRB-TV. We were removed from YouTube in January. So, there it is. We know it’s happening because it’s happening to us.
When pressed about its decision, YouTube put the NRB’s Lifestream channel back up three weeks later, without saying exactly why it was taken down in the first place.
Johnson says the NRB isn’t calling for the heavy hand of government to regulate social media, but rather a voluntary commitment to the principle of free speech.
JOHNSON: No threatening, no violence, no indecency, but otherwise pretty much any argument goes. People would like that.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.