Project Veritas Raises Concerns That Social Networks May Be Violating Free Speech Laws

March 13, 2018 Updated: March 18, 2018

Technology and social media companies are under fire for censoring conservatives, and undercover videos released by Project Veritas are bringing evidence to the debate over whether these media platforms are violating laws on free speech.

“This is what happens when news hits critical mass,” said James O’Keefe, president of Project Veritas. “Democracy can only work if the public is informed, and thanks to our investigation, we are seeing just that.”

Project Veritas released a new video on March 13, which compares clips from its undercover investigations of Twitter, along with clips from a Jan. 17 Senate committee hearing with representatives from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter on online extremism and censorship policies.

In the video, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) states, “There were several videos that were released in recent weeks that I and a lot of other people find highly troubling.”

Cruz points to undercover videos of Twitter employees explaining how the company targets conservatives for censorship. One Twitter employee said that flags include people tweeting about “God,” “the American flag,” and “guns,” which he suggested may get a user labeled as a “bot” and censored.

When Cruz presses Twitter Public Policy Director Carlos Monje further, asking whether Twitter’s position is that it censors users for being categorized as “extremist or fringe,” Monje replies that only bots that act abusively are censored and “it depends on the user.”

The statement points to a deeper problem of how online censorship is being done. The online platforms have created extremely broad criteria that allow them to label users as “bots,” and then subject them to censorship.

To frame the “bot” label, Twitter and Facebook go through the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is part of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The Alliance says on its website that users can be defined as bots if they are loosely connected to Russia or even “unconnected” to the Russian government.

These actions directly violate personal liberty and stand at contrast with the bill of rights.
— From a White House petition for an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ to protect free speech online

Among its loose criteria, it says some users “may not understand” they are part of the Russian social network. In other words, the “bots” are not necessarily automated systems, but can also be regular users who may post articles or phrases that the social media companies associate with their labels of “bots.”

Calls are now growing for protections of free speech online, as evidence grows showing that tech giants are pushing political censorship on some of the internet’s largest forums of discussion.

Some users are calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” to protect online free speech. A White House petition for such a bill has close to 20,000 signatures and argues “Internet forums and social networks which provide free access to the public are a digital place of assembly, and individuals using such methods for public communication should not be subjected to censorship due to political beliefs or differing ideas.”

It notes that some online platforms are not only censoring conservative voices but are also using tracking methods to monitor the internet history of users, sometimes without the users’ knowledge. It states, “These actions directly violate personal liberty and stand at contrast with the bill of rights.”

Cruz raised a similar point. He stated during the Jan. 17 hearing that “The pattern of political censorship that we are seeing across the technology companies is highly concerning.”

According to Cruz, however, there may already be laws in place under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that the technology companies are violating by censoring conservatives.

“The opening question I asked of whether you are a neutral public forum—if you are a neutral public forum, that does not allow for political editorializing and censorship,” Cruz said. “If you are not a neutral public forum, the entire predicate for liability immunity under the CDA is claiming to be a neutral public forum, so you cannot have it both ways.”

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp