Republican snoopers unfriend Facebook

    A Facebook employee is shown walking past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park

    A Facebook employee is shown walking past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park

    In case you’re wondering how Senate Republicans are spending your tax dollars, how they’re filling the time that would be better spent conducting confirmation hearings on Merrick Garland, I have some fresh evidence.

    They’re playing Big Brother and stomping on the First Amendment.

    It’s amazing the lengths some people go to, the thumb-twiddling they engage in, just to avoid doing their real jobs. Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune demanded yesterday that Facebook share internal info about its news judgment. You know, the kind of stuff that’s supposed to be protected by the First Amendment. In the document that Republicans profess to revere.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the social media behemoth, Facebook flags hot news stories in its “Trending Topics” box. But after an anonymous source claimed that workers sometimes edit out conservative stories, Thune sprang into action. In a letter yesterday, he demanded that Facebook fork over “a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014,” and that Facebookers fly to D.C. to brief the committee. And Reince Priebus, the GOP’s Mighty Mouse, squeaked on Twitter: “Facebook must answer for conservative censorship.”

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Oh man. These guys need to read Thomas Jefferson, who said in 1786: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” 

    Regardless of whether the anonymous source’s allegations are true — and, as a Facebook user, I’ve seen loads of links to conservative stories — the bottom line should be obvious: The United States Senate has no business snooping into the internal editorial decisions of a communications outlet. You’d think that conservative Republicans would be most attuned to the dangers of government overreach, since they rail about that all the time. But hey, hypocrisy makes some people deaf and dumb.

    I’m in sync with conservative thinker Charles Cooke, writing yesterday in National Review: “The federal government has no authority to oversee Facebook, a private website, and it should not claim it …. In addition to representing a clear violation of the First Amendment, [Thune’s action] sets a dangerous and undesirable — one that conservatives would usually avoid at all costs.”

    Frankly, even if Facebook totally skewed left in its aggregation of stories — which it most definitely does not — that wouldn’t be Washington’s business. The free market, which Republicans typically tout, has room for all kinds of outlets. Funny how Thune isn’t demanding internal documents from Fox News or Breitbart News, both of which skew rightward in their aggregation of stories.

    Reason, the conservative online magazine, said it best yesterday: “Facebook [has] the right to provide services … in whatever way it sees fit. Conservative entrepreneurs are free to start their own social media websites and impose ideological purity tests on the news items they choose to promote. There is simply no reason to make a federal case out of what is essentially headline aggregation.”

    Thune insisted yesterday that this is merely a “consumer protection” issue. But Reason magazine didn’t buy that con: “Imagine a Democratic-led Commerce Committee investigating Fox News because it found the network’s claim of being ‘Fair and Balanced’ to be misleading, and thus, worthy of a congressional investigation. In the public interest, the government could take any media company’s mission statement, decide that it is misleading, and order an inquiry.”

    What’s particularly amusing — what’s doubly hypocritical — is that Thune has long opposed federal rules mandating equal time for competing political views. We used to have something called the “Fairness Doctrine,” which empowered the Federal Communications Commission to enforce equal time on TV and radio. But the FCC, prodded by Congress, abolished the doctrine in 1987 — and lawmakers have blocked its reinstatement ever since, arguing that the Internet marketplace has made it irrelevant.

    One of those lawmakers is Thune. Nine years ago, he wrote that the feds shouldn’t snoop on news sites, that they should butt out and thus “preserve the vibrant marketplace of ideas.” And he warned — get this — that “giving power to the few to regulate fairness in the media is a recipe for Orwellian disaster.”

    Anyway. This big-government Republican crusade du jour is too stupid to go very far, but just in case Thune and Priebus feel the need to brush up on the Bill of Rights, they can always ask Merrick Garland. He has the creds to enlighten them, and he has lots of time on his hands.

    Meanwhile, Donald Trump is slated to meet tomorrow with Paul Ryan, to reconcile the seemingly unreconcilable. To set the stage for that summit, here’s conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, who is based in Ryan’s home state. Just a little advice for the House Speaker:

    “I’ve cautioned my fellow conservatives, you embrace Donald Trump, you embrace it all. You embrace every slur, every insult, every outrage, every falsehood. You’re going to spend the next six months defending, rationalizing, evading all that. And afterwards, you come back to women, to minorities, to young people and say, ‘that wasn’t us. That’s not what we’re about.’ The reality is, if you support him to be president of the United States, that is who you are, and you own it.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal