The Memo: Twitter ban on Marjorie Taylor Greene reignites political battles

Twitter’s suspension of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) personal account has breathed new life into the fraught debate about misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric and free speech.

Greene, who has been involved in a steady stream of controversies ever since she began running for Congress, fell afoul of Twitter’s “five strikes” policy against COVID-19–related misinformation at the weekend.

The Georgia Republican’s final offense was an assertion about an “extremely high” number of deaths that she said were related to COVID-19 vaccines. 

In fact, she based that claim on a website that permits self-reporting of alleged vaccine-related problems and which demonstrates no causal link between vaccines and deaths. The abundance of available evidence shows that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.

In some ways, however, the dispute is only tangentially about the science of COVID-19 and vaccines. Instead, former President Trump and other prominent Republicans have used the episode to assert that tech companies are biased against conservatives.

Trump branded Twitter “a disgrace to democracy” in a statement released late Monday evening. He also claimed that the site and Facebook — which suspended Greene’s personal account for 24 hours — were “boring, have only a Radical Left point of view, and are hated by everyone.”

Earlier that day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed that “diversity of opinion … is under assault by Big Tech.” McCarthy also alluded to Greene without naming her when he referred to “recent decisions to silence Americans — including a sitting member of Congress.”

Overall, McCarthy contended, “any speech that does not fit Big Tech’s orthodoxy gets muzzled.”

Some conservatives also contend there is a double standard whereby figures like Greene can get banned even when social media accounts linked to groups such as Hamas and the Taliban remain active.

The problem, however, is that those kinds of complaints sit in stark contrast to the views of many experts on social media and misinformation. Many of those experts say that social media companies have in fact been far too lax in cracking down on misinformation — a tendency that does not just pertain to conspiracies about the pandemic but to a global glut of bad information and inflammatory or extreme material.

The banning of Trump from Twitter in the wake of his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection is also part of the same picture. Liberals say such action should have been taken long before, given Trump’s penchant for untruths. Conservatives contend the former president was unfairly silenced. 

Former Trump aide Jason Miller is now the CEO of one site that is ostentatiously more welcoming of conservatives, Gettr. In a Monday statement, Miller contended that “Big Tech is censoring itself into irrelevance.”

But experts who spoke with this column broadly supported Twitter’s action against Greene.

“It is a welcome push against disinformation,” said Brian Hughes, the co-founder and associate director of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. “There are decades of research supporting the idea that people take their information from trusted sources, which can be people in their lives or political leaders.

“When a political leader is spreading dangerous false information and when they have been warned numerous times that this is detrimental to the public’s health and wellbeing, a private platform has every right to take action.”

Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Buffalo who studies misinformation and persuasion, went further. He suggested that in an ideal world, such decisions would not rest with private companies at all but should be subject to governmental regulation. To him, this would be broadly similar to the way the Federal Communications Commission already regulates broadcasters — something that virtually no one sees as a violation of the First Amendment.

“Social media has huge power over our lives, over the flow of information in society,” Ophir said. “It has the power that 30 years ago only CNN or The New York Times would have had. I believe the government should have some more organized approach, because the government is representative of the people — as opposed to Mark Zuckerberg. How long are we going to allow a bunch of five or six tech CEOs to control all this information?”

Greene, in the immediate wake of her banishment from Twitter, took to another social media platform to insist she would fight on. In a post on Telegram, she accused Twitter of being “an enemy to America.”

Critics of Greene’s flame-throwing brand of politics roll their eyes at those kinds of comments.

“Have at it, if she wants to do that and be on those extreme platforms. That is her audience, and maybe it takes her voice out of the mainstream,” said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist but a strong critic of Trump. “Let her yell and scream there.”

There is, of course, the much bigger issue of the way in which inflammatory voices are rewarded by our current media and political culture, which is highly polarized and increasingly sectarian. 

Greene, in her first term and stripped of her committee assignments last year for endorsing the assassination of political opponents, is far better known than most members of Congress. 

She raised more than $6 million in the first three quarters of last year.

She is, therefore, in many ways a symptom rather than a cause of a broader problem — one for which no one has an easy solution.

“Marjorie Taylor Greene is a public representative,” said Ophir. “So who is to blame for her power? I mean, people voted for her. She didn’t buy that power. She used a kind of rhetoric to shine in an information environment that allows people like her to get ahead — and get a lot of attention.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Facebook Kevin McCarthy Marjorie Taylor Greene Mark Zuckerberg Twitter

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