U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, today discussed his two bipartisan bills that would increase internet transparency while preserving the light-touch approach to regulation that has allowed the internet to flourish: the Filter Bubble Transparency Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act. Thune discussed the heavily curated social media experience that many consumers encounter and the mainstream media’s abrupt reversal of the Wuhan lab coronavirus origin story. At the end of May, Facebook announced that it would no longer censor claims that the coronavirus was man-made, something many conservatives thought was worth investigating. The mainstream media, which had savaged the story during the previous administration, has now accepted the story as a credible theory.
Full text of Sen. Thune’s speech below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, at the end of May, Facebook announced that it would no longer censor claims that the coronavirus was man-made.
“The mainstream media, which had savaged the story during the previous administration, suddenly started backpedaling.
“And the Biden White House, which had reportedly canceled the previous administration’s investigation into whether the novel coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab, announced a 90-day inquiry into the virus’s origins.
“The occasion for all this backpedaling was apparently a report in the Wall Street Journal that three researchers who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology “sought hospital care” in late 2019 for symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
“In the wake of that report, it became impossible for the president or the mainstream media – or Facebook – to deny what had always been a plausible theory – that the virus came from the virology lab in Wuhan.
“Journalists moved to explain their previous rejection of this theory.
“And some of them openly admitted what had been obvious – that they rejected the theory not because of flaws in the theory itself, but because of those who had advanced this hypothesis.
“Mr. President, we don’t know what these revived investigations will ultimately show, but the Wuhan reversal illustrates multiple issues.
“One, of course, is the need to remember that our social media experience is heavily curated.
“The posts and ads we see are selected for us by complex algorithms that analyze the data social media companies have collected on each of us and curate our experience accordingly.
“On top of that, as the past year or two has illustrated, social media companies actively censor certain material, meaning that there are posts we will never see.
“As chairman and now ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s communications and tech subcommittee, I’ve pushed for transparency requirements for social media companies.
“And I’ve introduced two bipartisan bills that would increase internet transparency while preserving the light-touch approach to regulation that has allowed the internet to flourish.
“My Filter Bubble Transparency Act would allow social media users to opt out of the “filter bubble” – in other words, to opt out of the filtered experience tailored for them by opaque algorithms and instead see an unfiltered social media feed or search results.
“And the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which I introduced with Senator Schatz, would increase transparency and accountability around content moderation.
“Sites would be required to provide an easily digestible disclosure of their content moderation practices for users.
“And, importantly, they would be required to explain their decisions to remove material to consumers.
“Under the PACT Act, if a site chose to remove your post, it would have to tell you why it decided to remove your post.
“The PACT Act would also require sites to have an appeals process – so if Facebook, for example, removed one of your posts, it would not only have to tell you why, but it would have to provide a way for you to appeal that decision.
“Mr. President, let me be clear – private entities are free to have their own opinions and viewpoints, and should not be compelled by the government to publish alternative views.
“But that’s not what we’re talking about with these large social media platforms.
“Most strongly deny that they are publishers—and instead hold themselves forth as neutral platforms for the free exchange of ideas from all corners.
“That’s the promise they make to consumers.
“Mr. President, the Wuhan reversal is more than a reminder that our social media experience is actually a heavily curated one.
“It also raises serious questions about censorship and the maintenance of the marketplace of ideas that is a hallmark of a free society.
“Mr. President, there is no free society without the free exchange of ideas.
“Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom to speak in the public square – all of these are essential elements of a free society.
“The more government or other entities crack down on freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas, the more we move away from a free society and toward tyranny.
“I say ‘or other entities’ because the responsibility for protecting the free exchange of ideas extends beyond government.
“Government of course has an absolute obligation to defend our fundamental freedoms.
“But other institutions in society also have a role.
“You can’t have a free society without free institutions.
“I’m thinking here particularly of the press, universities, and, in this day and age, social media companies.
“If the press or social media companies only sanction one narrative – the narrative preferred by the government, or by social elites, or by any other group – the marketplace of ideas shrinks substantially.
“And if multiple groups that should be fostering the free exchange of ideas combine to limit or advance a particular narrative, they start to control public opinion, instead of allowing individuals to form their own opinions based on a free flow of information.
“Unfortunately, as the Wuhan story illustrates, today we’re seeing a real movement to restrict the free flow of ideas.
“Whether we’re talking speech codes or social media censorship, more and more we’re seeing a preferred narrative being advanced and opinions outside of that preferred narrative being censored or marginalized.
“We see it in government, with bills like S. 1, which would, among other things, allow the IRS to consider an organization’s views before deciding whether or not to grant it tax-exempt status.
“Or the Equality Act, which would crack down on freedom of speech and freedom of religion in unprecedented ways.
“And we see it outside government, when media outlets engage in selective reporting to highlight an accepted narrative, instead of reporting the news and the facts, whatever they are.
“Or when social media censors legitimate theories or stories.
“Or when universities crack down on free speech.
“In the case of the Wuhan lab story, we saw widespread censorship across government, social media, and the press for political reasons.
“President Biden seemingly shut down the former president’s investigation into the virus’s origin … because it was the former president’s investigation.
“Democrats in Congress pressured social media companies to censor information that contradicted the narrative they were embracing.
“The mainstream media savaged the lab origin story.
“And social media sites censored it.
“And all of this happened because of the political affiliation of the people advancing this reasonable hypothesis.
“Mr. President, you can only have a marketplace of ideas if ideas actually get out there.
“Which is why censorship, as I’ve said, is antithetical to a free society.
“It’s also important to note – and this is a critical point – having a free marketplace of ideas means allowing some ideas that might be wrong.
“That might seem offensive.
“That might be silly.
“We’re not talking about content that, for example, promotes violence, but ideas that are provocative, debatable, or out of the mainstream.
“The alternative is allowing the government – or some other entity – to decide what information we see and what we believe.
“And it’s important to remember that sometimes ideas that seem silly or wrong initially turn out to be right.
“More than one widely accepted scientific theory started out as a fringe position.
“A prevailing opinion may turn out to be wrong.
“And political or social power doesn’t necessarily equal truth.
“Mr. President, I hope that their abrupt reversal on COVID’s possible origins makes media organizations and social media platforms think twice the next time they consider censoring a story.
“I hope it reminds them of the dangers of restricting the free flow of ideas.
“And of their obligation to separate their politics from their jobs.
“In a speech he delivered in 1967, Ronald Reagan, marveling at our government by the people, said this: ‘Perhaps you and I have lived too long with this miracle to properly be appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.’
“I fear that long acquaintance with the blessings of liberty – with the blessings of a free press and freedom of speech and freedom of religion – has sometimes made us careless about the preservation of these freedoms.
“We are used to them, and we assume they will always be with us.
“But as Ronald Reagan pointed out, freedom has to be actively safeguarded, or it will be lost.
“I’ve seen too many instances lately where our cherished First Amendment freedoms are subordinated to a political and social agenda.
“And I hope the Wuhan story reminds us of the responsibility each one of us have to safeguard these freedoms … lest they slip away from us.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”