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Obama says First Amendment doesn’t apply to social media – companies need more regulation

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a Stanford Cyber Policy Center event, April 21, 2022. (YouTube screenshot)
April 22, 2022

Former U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech on Thursday in which he advocated for more regulation and legislation to deal with the spread of disinformation. During that speech, Obama said the First Amendment’s protection of free speech does not apply to private social media company’s like Facebook and Twitter.

Obama delivered a keynote speech at a Stanford Cyber Policy Center event during which he said “the very design” of social media platforms “seems to be tilting us in the wrong direction.” The former president said Congress should consider laws to force social media companies to maintain “a higher standard of care when it comes to advertising on their site.”

Amid his calls for more regulations against speech on social media, Obama addressed some arguments that social media companies are censoring on the basis of political ideology and limiting freedom of speech on their sites. Obama argued that freedom of speech has never been a right on such social media sites.

“I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist,” said Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer at the University of Chicago. “The First Amendment is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter, any more than it applies to editorial decisions made by the New York Times or Fox News. Never has.”

“Social media companies already make choices about what is or is not allowed on their platforms and how that content appears, both explicitly through content moderation and implicitly through algorithms,” Obama added. “The problem is we often don’t know what principles govern those decisions.”

Obama described a regulatory idea of establishing a “meat inspector” for the social media industry. His concept would allow social media companies to not have to provide information about their content moderation practices directly to consumers, but instead to a government regulator.

“They don’t have to reveal to the world what that technique is. They do have to tell the meat inspector,” Obama said. “In the same way, tech companies should be able to protect their intellectual property while also following certain safety standards that we as a country, not just them, have agreed are necessary for the greater good.”

According to USA Today, Obama also advocated for such social media companies to implement “circuit breaker” policies that slow the spread of viral online posts so fact-checking organizations have more time to review them.

Facebook implemented a similar policy to the one Obama suggested in October 2020, against the New York Post’s reporting about a laptop belonging to then-candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Facebook limited the reach of the New York Post’s reporting on the laptop. Twitter locked New York Post’s account altogether and refused to reverse the action until it deleted tweets about the laptop reporting, even after Twitter revised the policy it said the New York Post violated.

Days after the New York Post published its first articles on the Biden laptop, dozens of former U.S. intelligence officials signed onto a letter claiming the reporting resembled a “Russian information operation.” Politico reported on the letter, with a headline that read “Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say.” The New York Times has since reported they’ve “authenticated” materials found on the laptop.