Big Tech censorship was even worse in the third quarter of 2021. This was especially alarming considering the platforms didn’t have much farther to fall from their pathetic second quarter grades. Online Freedom on Google, Twitter and Facebook all continued to decline. Once again, this quarter saw widespread censoring of conservative content.
Pro-life activist and head of Live Action Lila Rose said Google banned LiveAction from running ads. Former Google senior software engineer Zach Vorhies wrote in his new book that Google altered its news algorithm to target former President Donald Trump. The Wall Street Journal released the beginning of its “Facebook Files” project this quarter, which produced stories from internal documents damaging to the platform. The project launched with news that Facebook maintains a “VIP list” of users whose content is not moderated as strictly as others on the platform. And Twitter’s latest transparency report released in July indicated that it had removed nearly 4 million tweets in just six months last year.
The increased censorship received positive coverage on broadcast evening news. Pro-censorship stories and mentions outnumbered those supporting free speech 12-to-0 on network evening news. Much of that coverage focused on network support for President Joe Biden’s push to restrain Coronavirus content.
Amazon surprisingly improved its grades slightly. TikTok debuted on the list this quarter with a D in Online Freedom. TikTok replaced Apple in the report card for this quarter. TikTok has surpassed 1 billion active monthly users, and has censored more and more content. The left continued to argue that Big Tech was not doing enough to silence online dissent. For the latest incidents of censorship, check CensorTrack.org.
Google reportedly removed a personal copy of a document containing data about COVID-19 that contradicted the leftist narrative. Twitter admitted in this quarter that it took action against over 11 million accounts between September 2020 and August 2021 for COVID-19-related content. It also worked to suppress a Project Veritas video of Johnson & Johnson employees’ unflattering comments about the company’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged this quarter that his company had removed over 20 million COVID-19 related posts. YouTube, meanwhile, reported that it has removed at least 1 million videos for so-called COVID-19 “misinformation,” according to TechCrunch, including one of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaking about masks.
Amazon is the only platform that improved this quarter, refusing to cave to calls from both its employees and the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to remove books speaking out about transgender issues. The platform also reportedly chose to remove a terror-supporting site from its Amazon Web Services, and reversed its decision to reject ads for a critical book about Black Lives Matter. Amazon should be credited for the improved performance in the areas that MRC Free Speech America investigates each quarter.
MRC Free Speech America once again graded Big Tech using five categories, culminating in an overall grade for each company’s Online Freedom. The five areas included: Free Speech, User Transparency, Bias, Responsiveness to User Complaints and Fact-Checking.
More freedom and less restriction is the only model that celebrates American principles and treats users as adults who can make their own decisions. Big Tech continued to demonstrate through its actions that it does not support the American principles of free speech.
Media coverage of the Coronavirus led to overwhelming support for online censorship. Pro-censorship stories and mentions outnumbered those supporting free speech 12-to-0 on broadcast network evening news shows. Much of that coverage focused on network support for President Joe Biden’s push to restrain Coronavirus content.
The other 20 percent of network evening news broadcast stories that covered Big Tech censorship (3 out of 15) were neutral. None of the stories took a pro-free speech position. This comes from a Free Speech America analysis of ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news coverage of third quarter news coverage.
NBC Nightly News offered the most blatant call for censorship when Investigative and Consumer Correspondent Vicky Nguyen reported that “anti-vaccine groups are trying to stop Facebook from removing their posts by using code words and fake profile names.” She lamented that the tactic would make it “tougher” for Facebook to “fight [so-called] misinformation.” Nguyen even acknowledged that, at the time, Facebook had already claimed to have removed 18 million pieces of alleged misinformation. Facebook’s aggressive censorship was treated as a positive with no counter-argument.
All three networks reported on President Joe Biden’s comment alleging that Facebook is “killing people” by allowing so-called “misinformation” on its platform. Both CBS and NBC framed stories justifying Biden’s claim. Each blamed “the unvaccinated” for a swift rise in July COVID-19 cases and portrayed the situation as if those skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines were misinformed. ABC World News Tonight did not justify Biden’s claim, but it did not challenge the narrative either.
ABC also undercut former President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Google, Facebook and Twitter for deplatforming him after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The network acknowledged Trump’s claim that the companies violated his First Amendment rights but condoned the censorship and deferred to “[l]egal experts,” who claimed, “private companies are not bound by the First Amendment.” The network provided no constitutional counter-argument nor any indication that the topic is hotly debated among even experts.
Overall Grade: F
Bias at Google can be harder to explain than other Big Tech platforms, but some damning incidents speak volumes. A culture war sparked as Texas passed legislation to protect the unborn from abortion once they have a detectable heartbeat. That put abortion center stage in American consciousness. Google punished pro-life organizations at the behest of pro-abortion activists,. Pro-Life activist Lila Rose addressed in September how Google “At the request of abortion activists” had “BANNED all of @LiveAction’s pro-life ads, including those promoting the Abortion Pill Reversal treatment, a resource that has saved 2500 children to date.”
Google reportedly had many censorship incidents ranging from manipulating traffic around public figures like Donald Trump via its algorithms and strategically demonetizing entire conservative outlets. Google is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law.
Free Speech: Google admitted demonetizing British journalist Piers Morgan‘s Daily Mail article about American gymnast Simone Biles. In the article, Morgan criticized Biles for withdrawing from the Olympic competition. Google, according to Reclaim the Net, sent Morgan a notice that it was disabling ads on the article, citing its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy.
Google also reportedly told The Gateway Pundit that it would “be disabling ad serving” for the outlet starting Sept. 1: “We’re emailing you to let you know that we’ve repeatedly found content on one of your sites that violates our Google Publisher policies.” Included in the email were two “violation explanation[s]” that suggested The Gateway Pundit was being penalized for “Dangerous or derogatory content” and “Misrepresentative content – Unreliable and harmful claims.”
The search engine company also reportedly removed Alexey Navalny’s voting app from its Russian stores before the Russian general election. “Google faced threats that its Russian employees could be imprisoned to remove the voting app under a threat to imprison local employees,” Bloomberg News reported. Grade: F
User Transparency: Google whistleblower and former senior software engineer Zach Vorhies said in his latest book, released Aug. 3, that Google altered its news algorithm to directly target former President Donald Trump. He said Google’s algorithm tacked new negative stories about Trump onto old ones in order to keep them at the top of search results longer. “They allowed the mainstream media to structure their stories so that they could remain in the top of their search index,” he illustrated.
But Google reportedly has also spied on the private files of its users, so long as they are made in Gmail, apparently. According to a mid-July tweet from digital specialist Aaron Ginn, “Google is reading what you host in Google Docs. They deleted and removed access to my personal copy of ‘Evidence over Hysteria: COVID-19. Free is never free.” An essay from Aaron Ginn, a Silicon Valley technologist, titled “Evidence over hysteria—COVID-19” was removed from Medium, where it was publicly posted back in March of 2020. Grade: F
Bias: Under its search bar, Google shared a link to “Experience stories about inclusive places for the LGBTQ+ community.” The page listed numerous businesses that Google then praised for discriminatory hiring practices in favor of social justice amid a pandemic that threw people of all kinds into financial struggle. Mina’s World was described as a “trans- and POC-run café.” Rainbow square was described as a “Community arts space for women, queer folks, non-binary artists, and artists of color.” Trans Sistas of Color was described as a “Nonprofit dedicated to uplifting the lives of trans women of color living in Michigan.” The page then touted that “This year alone, Google.org committed $4M of funding and Ad Grants – as well as tools, training, and volunteer opportunities – to LGBTQ+ businesses and organizations affected by the COVID-19 crisis.” Grade: F
Responsiveness to User Complaints: N/A
Fact-Checks: While Google does not use fact-checks like Facebook, it does rely heavily on Wikipedia for content that is provided in “knowledge boxes” above search results. A study found that only one-third of Google searches result in clicks, in part due to the knowledge boxes that seemingly provide the information sought. Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger called Wikipedia propaganda, saying that it is not neutral, often not true and that he is embarrassed by it. Google also said that it would start adding more “context” to search results in an effort to counteract so-called “misinformation,” according to Reclaim the Net. Grade: F
Overall Grade: F
In Q3, Twitter admitted that it had removed 3.8 million tweets in the second half of 2020 for various rules violations. It also revealed that between Q3 of 2020 and the end of Q2 2021, it took action against 11.7 million accounts in regards to COVID-19 content. Twitter is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law. There was no response from Twitter on the news that Politico confirmed the infamously censored New York Post article on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop showing links between Biden, his father, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, and Ukrainian businessmen.
Free Speech: Twitter continues to be one of the busiest censors among the Big Tech platforms. This quarter, it took swings at some big names. It temporarily restricted accounts for BlazeTV commentator Dave Rubin, Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington, bestselling author and candidate for senate in Ohio J.D. Vance’s press account, Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw, reportedly performer Nicki Minaj and popular account Libs of TikTok. It permanently suspended former New York Times reporter and now independent journalist Alex Berenson’s account and at least eight accounts that were reporting on various election audits. Twitter also unverified the account of reporter Christopher Rufo who has been at the front of the pushback against Critical Race Theory. Twitter also suppressed a video of the border crisis from The Heritage Foundation, and a Project Veritas undercover video showing Johnson & Johnson employees talking about the COVID-19 vaccine. Grade: F
User Transparency: In an odd move, Twitter changed its policies this quarter to allow users to change the response setting on tweets after they have been published. In other words, if a user tweets something highly controversial, and starts getting ratioed, mocked or questioned, the user can then decide to disallow other users from commenting. It is unclear what happens to all of the comments made prior to changing the setting on a tweet. Twitter also announced this quarter the testing of new labels to combat so-called “misleading information.” Additionally, it is seeking input from users on a new feature that it is working on to prevent people from seeing “potentially harmful or offensive” replies to tweets. Grade: F
Bias: The biggest bias-related stories for Twitter this quarter centered around the president of Cuba and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. In Cuba, President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez was inciting citizens to violence against each other in July, exactly what Twitter claimed it removed former President Donald Trump’s account for. Meanwhile, Trump’s account is still banned, while Bermúdez is still actively tweeting three months later. Twitter also allowed the Taliban to remain on Twitter despite not just its threats of violence, but its violent takeover of Afghanistan. An alleged Hamas leader was allowed to praise the Taliban’s actions, and still maintains his alleged account. The official spokesperson for the Taliban also maintains his account as well. While Facebook and TikTok were confirming that they would not allow the Taliban on their respective platforms, Twitter continues to maintain that as long as the terrorist organization now running Afghanistan follows the rules, they will be allowed to stay. Twitter confirmed in February that it will never allow Trump back on, even if he runs for president again. Grade: F
Responsiveness to User Complaints: Twitter decided to cancel its answer to Instagram Stories known as Fleets after only eight months. Users spoke with their apps, hardly using the feature, so Twitter made the decision to move on. Twitter reversed the restriction on J.D. Vance’s press account quickly, but generally the appeals process took longer than most account restrictions last for, so there is not a lot of information about positive results from appeals. Grade: D
Fact Checks: Twitter’s version of a fact-check is less intrusive than Facebook’s, typically consisting of a linked warning label that appears below the tweet. The site admitted that “in most cases,” when such a label is used, the platform will also “[r]educe the visibility of the Tweet on Twitter and/or prevent it from being recommended.” The fact-check pages that are linked are typically not one “authoritative” article written by a fact-checking organization as Facebook’s are. Rather, Twitter has created pages that are a roundup of many articles and tweets about the topic, though nearly all of them come from left-leaning sources.
Twitter continues to use these most heavily for COVID-19 related tweets. In one case, Twitter rounded up all of the fact-checks about a statement Biden made about getting vaccinated as part of hurricane preparedness. In some cases, when a warning label is utilized, Twitter will also restrict the ability to like, share or comment on the tweet, as was done in at least one case this quarter on a tweet about natural immunity to COVID-19. Twitter has been working on implementing a tiered label system for alleged misinformation that enhances what was already in place. However, Twitter did nothing to stop the proliferation of a provably false story that Rolling Stone printed. Grade: F
Overall Grade: F
Facebook received an overall “F” on the last report card for not allowing conservative users to freely express their opinions on the platform. The trend for the platform this quarter is more of the same. The platform’s User Transparency grade fell for the third quarter in a row, to a solid “F” this quarter. The continued plummet for this particular score was due to revelations from The Wall Street Journal detailing secret VIP user lists reportedly received special treatment and because Facebook reportedly knew of the harm Instagram caused to teenagers. Facebook also admitted this quarter that it’s AI made an egregious error, labeling videos of black men as “primates” as part of a video recommendation engine. Facebook is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law.
Free Speech: Facebook continued to censor users, including the Media Research Center (MRC), this quarter for posting content that it disagrees with. Facebook’s approved fact-checker PolitiFact rated a graphic from the MRC as “FALSE,” even though the image merely shared a chart from the Centers for Disease Control. Comedian and cultural commentator Nicole Arbour also accused Facebook of removing a video she uploaded that lampooned the constantly changing narrative around COVID-19 and vaccines. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a televised interview this quarter, noted that Facebook had removed over 20 million pieces of so-called “misinformation” about COVID-19. Facebook also made a widely-panned effort to alert users that they had been exposed to alleged “extremism” on its platform. The warning boxes reportedly offered “confidential support” to users who may be “concerned that someone [they] know is becoming an extremist.” Grade: F
User Transparency: The biggest story for Facebook in Q3 was the release of what The Wall Street Journal called the beginning of “The Facebook Files.” The first story released in this series showed that Facebook reportedly has a list of top celebrities, influencers and content creators who are not held to the same rules as everyone else. The next bombshell from The Journal was that Facebook was reportedly aware how “toxic” Instagram is for teen girls. This revelation even led to Congressional hearings. Facebook executives deflected on the “Facebook Files” reports, but even the platform’s Oversight Board called for greater transparency in light of the exposé. Facebook’s VP for Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, admitted that the platform would welcome some guidance from the Oversight Board on how best to improve its “cross-check” system, the internal name for the VIP list. Also reported this quarter was a story indicating that Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp misrepresented user privacy when it claimed that “not even WhatsApp can read or listen to” messages, a huge blow to user transparency and privacy. Grade: F
Bias: Facebook buckled under pressure from the White House, cracking down on a list compiled by the radical leftist organization Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) called the “Disinformation Dozen.” According to CCDH, the “Disinformation Dozen” is a list of accounts that are the most prolific spreaders of alleged “misinformation” and “disinformation” about COVID-19 and the vaccines. It also cracked down this quarter on the #revolution hashtag, unimpressively on the July 4th weekend. The Illinois Associations of Chiefs of Police (ILACP) said Facebook rejected an ad to celebrate its officer of the year. The platform puzzlingly applied its standards for political ads to it. It also came to light this quarter that Zuckerberg backed far-left candidates with “dark money” over the past few years, and the Capital Research Center said he went to great lengths to hide his donations from the public. One small point in Facebook’s favor is that it actively removed Taliban content in the midst of the terrorist organization’s takeover of Afghanistan, while Twitter and YouTube delayed action. Grade: D
Responsiveness to User Complaints: Facebook acted quickly to reverse its removal of a political ad for a Republican candidate. Instead of reversing its decision on the ILACP ad ruling on appeal, however, Facebook instead chose to explain that perhaps the association did not know how to properly create an ad. Facebook-owned Instagram did reverse its removal of the account of the mother of a Marine slain in the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. An analysis of Facebook’s Oversight Board rulings in the third quarter revealed that the Board overturned three of Facebook’s content moderation decisions. It upheld one decision. Additionally, one other case that was selected for review by the Board was immediately reversed by Facebook. When the Board ruled on the case, it agreed with Facebook’s decision to reverse itself. Grade: C
Fact Checks: An old story from April re-surfaced this quarter, with independent journalist John Stossel filing a lawsuit against Facebook for its fact-check on one of his videos. He said that the fact-check addresses something he never said, but Facebook maintained that it was correct in its decision to leave the fact-check. Also this quarter, Facebook announced a partnership with global tech non-profit Meedan in an effort to up its fact-checking game. The leftist organization planned to train its more than 80 partner organizations on how to “fact-check” health and vaccine-related content. As part of the Facebook Files reporting on the VIP list that Facebook maintains, it was also revealed that Facebook reportedly asked some of its fact-checking partners to change the results of their reviews of content generated by accounts on the specially protected list. Zuckerberg admitted that while he “has empathy” for the victims of Facebook’s fact-checking partners who may not provide an accurate review, he has no plans to make any changes to lessen the impact of such incidents. Grade: F
Overall Grade: F
YouTube is where many young internet users get their news. It also serves as a critical junction for both aspiring commentators and seasoned public figures to have a direct line of communication with audiences. Unfortunately, YouTube has a history of censoring creators and does so on a massive scale, including veteran politicians. YouTube appeared to remove Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) video protesting the platform’s censorship and reportedly suspended him for seven days.
Paul created a video in response to YouTube’s reported removal of an interview he did with Newsmax in which he discussed masking and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The senator told viewers the reasons YouTube purportedly gave for removing the Newsmax interview. “YouTube said the video violated their policy because of my comments on masks and that they don’t allow videos that contradict the government’s guidance on COVID,” he said. In fact, YouTube admitted this quarter that it has removed at least 1 million videos for COVID-19 so-called “misinformation.” Google, which owns YouTube, is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law.
Free Speech: YouTube reportedly suspended Right Side Broadcasting Network from uploading or posting new content, or live streaming, for an entire week shortly before its planned coverage of former President Donald Trump’s July 3 “Save America” rally in Florida. YouTube said the videos of rally footage violated its community guidelines around “Spam, deceptive practices and scams,” a common justification YouTube has used to censor political content on its platform that the company disagrees with, or doesn’t like.
YouTube censored a video from the Convention of States Project hosted by its president, Mark Meckler, according to a report from the Convention of States site. A purported screenshot indicated that YouTube removed the video for violating the platform’s “medical information policy.” Meckler made numerous statements that could have triggered YouTube’s action. The Convention of States report recounted that Meckler likely had been punished for having “criticized the greatest of all doctors, Dr. Anthony Fauci” when Meckler said, “I think that Fauci has lost his mind. This guy’s not a public servant. This guy’s acting like a king.” The Convention of States blog then lamented: “For this grave sin, Mark’s show was pulled from YouTube and our channel received a strike. With enough strikes, Big Tech will have the excuse to totally shut down our channel.” Grade: F
User Transparency: YouTube allegedly deleted a video of Trump uploaded by the American Conservative Union and then banned the channel from uploading new content for a week. The video was reportedly in violation of YouTube’s community guidelines surrounding so-called COVID-19 “medical misinformation,” but the platform did not specify which statements made in the video violated that policy, the ACU stated.
YouTube was also tight-lipped about why it had reportedly booted Immanuel Baptist Church off the air twice, according to an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal. The first interruption reportedly came with a notice that the video had violated YouTube’s copyright rules, which The Journal surmised could have been related to Christian music that was played during a break in the talk. The second “more mysterious instance” was due to an alleged”content violation,” The Journal op-ed summarized. “Was this an intervention by a human being or an algorithm on automatic pilot? Neither Mr. Trueman nor Immanuel Baptist has been told,” The Journal op-ed explained. “Equally unclear is the specific nature of the alleged content violation.” Grade: D
Bias: YouTube’s sloppy approach to censoring information that still is being hotly debated demonstrates a clear bias seemingly only valuing the left’s perspective. YouTube reportedly took down multiple videos uploaded by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s channel after he reportedly suggested “using indigenous teas and unproven drugs, such as chloroquine, to fight the virus,” according to The Washington Post. The Post reported, citing CNN Brazil, that Bolsonaro promoted “unproven drugs, such as chloroquine, to fight the virus — despite there being no scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.” Hydroxychloroquine, however, has been used by other countries such as Spain, Italy, France, and Germany throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
YouTube also took action against Sky News Australia, banning it for seven days, according to The Guardian. YouTube prevented the outlet from uploading content to the platform after Sky News Australia encouraged viewers to take hydroxychloroquine. “Specifically, we don’t allow content that denies the existence of Covid-19 or that encourages people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus. We do allow for videos that have sufficient countervailing context, which the violative videos did not provide,” a YouTube spokesperson reportedly told The Guardian. Grade: F
Responsiveness to User Complaints: While YouTube acknowledged that it has a problem with removing public meetings and promised to do better, many local governments and school boards have been censored multiple times and decided to move to other platforms. YouTube, on occasion, will reinstate videos after user complaints.
YouTube is known for regulating copyrighted material at the request of organizations. The video platform removed leaked footage of a CNN interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) released by investigative reporting outlet Project Veritas. YouTube purportedly sent an alert explaining: “This video contains content from Turner CNN, who has blocked it on copyright grounds.”
YouTube initially removed a Sept. 11, 2001 commemorative video posted by an ACT For America staffer, explaining: “[W]e think it violates our violent criminal organizations policy.” A YouTube spokesperson responded to an inquiry from MRC Free Speech America by explaining the platform had made an error. The platform reinstated the video: “Upon review, we’ve reinstated this video from the ACT For America channel. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.”
YouTube also reversed itself after the CensorTrack team reached out about the brand new “You Are Here” podcast co-hosted by The Blaze reporter Elijah Schaffer. Two videos had been removed and two strikes on the new channel generated in the first nine days of its existence. Schaffer tweeted that the channel’s two strikes were reduced to a warning and that YouTube reinstated the clip it had previously removed. Grade: C
Fact-Checks: YouTube’s fact-checking is not as robust as some other platforms. But there are examples to be found, and the fact-checks MRC Free Speech America observed are all one-sided. YouTube has called these labels “information panels” that are meant to provide “topical context” to certain videos. A YouTube Help page explains that these are used on videos about “topics prone to [so-called] misinformation.” YouTube stated that it will source information for these labels from “independent, third-party partners.” The examples found this quarter all source information from the United Nations (UN) — an obviously biased source — especially on the subject of these videos, climate change.
Both The Washington Examiner and the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) posted videos featuring Marc Morano, author of the book “Green Fraud: Why the Green New Deal Is Even Worse Than You Think.” In both cases, YouTube applied an “information panel” to provide more context about climate change, courtesy of the UN. The panel states “Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns, mainly caused by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels.” It then links to a UN page titled “What Is Climate Change?” The UN page provides only leftist talking points about climate change, with no other context. Another video that got the same label was posted by the National Post channel, and was titled “Steven Koonin’s controversial climate contentions.” Grade: F
Overall Grade: D
This quarter, Amazon surpassed Walmart to become the largest retailer outside of China. With such power comes great responsibility. Amazon stood firm on its decision to sell books offering various viewpoints, even despite pressure from employees and others not to. “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to written speech and a variety of viewpoints is one of the most important things we do,” an Amazon spokesperson reportedly said, “even when those viewpoints differ from our own or Amazon’s stated positions.” Amazon is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law.
Free Speech: Amazon’s commitment to free speech was stronger during Q3 than it was during previous quarters. The company withstood pressure from employees and activists, refusing to ban at least one book on transgender ideology, despite having done so in Q1 of this year with President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D.’s book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Amazon initially rejected ads for a book on Black Lives Matter (BLM) by a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, but it later restored the ads. Grade: C
User Transparency: A report from Reuters this quarter indicated Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) division would be “proactive[ly]” removing content that violates its cloud service policies, “such as rules against promoting violence.” Reuters reported that AWS would be expanding its Trust & Safety team and would also be hiring “a small group of people in its Amazon Web Services (AWS) division to develop expertise and work with outside researchers to monitor for future threats.” The move adds to the debate over how much power Big Tech should have in regards to restricting free speech. Amazon shot back against Reuters’ reporting, reportedly calling it “wrong” and adding that “AWS Trust & Safety has no plans to change its policies or processes, and the team has always existed.” Grade: D
Bias: As noted in the “User Transparency” section, Reuters reported in Q3 that Amazon would be cracking down on customers of its AWS product, specifically noting that “rules against promoting violence” will be more strictly enforced. However, it remains to be seen how this new rule will be applied, and whether it will be enforced in an unbiased manner. While Amazon rejected ads for a book on Black Lives Matter, it has continued to sell books such as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and a young adult book praising Communist activists called Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds. It is becoming more difficult to find universally objectionable items on Amazon, like those for ISIS or Antifa, though there is still a large number of items praising communists such as the hammer and sickle icon, Fidel Castro and Vladimir Lenin. Grade: D
Responsiveness to User Complaints: It took public pressure in the form of a Washington Post report to get Amazon to end the promotion of Islamic extremism, which was being proliferated online with help from the company’s web services arm. Following The Post’s reporting about the terrorist-related site, the company shut it down. After Amazon rejected ads for a book titled BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution, written by Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Mike Gonzalez, Heritage complained. As a result, Amazon reviewed the decision and claimed it was an error, restoring the ads. Grade: D
Fact Checks: N/A
Overall Grade: D
TikTok is a new addition to the report card this quarter as censorship has increased and the platform has grown in dominance over the last year. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, sold a 1 percent stake of TikTok to a Beijing company owned by three state entities in communist China, according to Reuters. BBC reported at the beginning of September that TikTok surpassed YouTube for the “average time per user spent on the apps,” according to data analytics firm App Annie. By the end of September, Forbes reported that TikTok reached 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. The rapidly growing platform allowed for the auto-ban of a user with no account violations and has repeatedly censored content critical of COVID-19 vaccines. It often does not provide specific reasons for removing content or banning accounts. Its ties to communist China combined with its lack of transparency are harmful to its grades.
Free Speech: Savannah Edwards, a popular creator known for challenging critical race theory, said TikTok permanently banned her account in early July. Edwards used a second TikTok account to tell her followers about the ban and said she was unaware of any recent violations that might have caused the censorship. She said in a follow-up video that the platform confirmed in an email that she had no Community Guidelines violations and that her account was restored two days later.
The platform also removed a video made by Tennessee State University athlete John Stokes who made a video from his hospital bed describing a purported Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine injury he allegedly experienced. Stokes said in the deleted video that he had “no prior health issues” and that he was diagnosed with myocarditis just four days after purportedly receiving the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. TikTok removed the video due to an alleged Community Guidelines violation, according to Stokes and the screenshots he shared on TikTok. The platform later allowed a short form of the video to be uploaded after the story rapidly spread on Twitter and received media attention. Grade: D
User Transparency: TikTok is notorious for not listing why an account or video was censored. Edwards suggested in her follow-up video that when users “mass report an account it triggers a ban.” However, TikTok’s Community Guidelines do not clearly enumerate how frequently reported accounts can be automatically banned. Stokes similarly did not seem to know which Community Guidelines he had violated. He appeared to speculate in his follow-up video that he violated the so-called misinformation policy. The policy vaguely forbids “[m]edical misinformation that can cause harm to an individual’s physical health.” TikTok’s Community Guidelines do not further clarify what types of content might break its ambiguous policy. Grade: D
Bias: As of yet, TikTok has not clearly exhibited a specific pattern of overt political bias. However, TikTok is also part of the prominent tech trade group, NetChoice, which has filed a lawsuit against Texas for its new anti-censorship law.
The platform has shown consistent bias related to discussion of COVID-19 vaccines on its platform. Stokes’s incident is a prime example of such censorship and though he appears to be openly Christian, he has left his political associations unidentified. Dr. Zubin Damania, a free-thinking podcaster who has spoken favorably of the COVID-19 vaccines, tweeted a screenshot showing that TikTok removed one of his videos when he criticized the Biden administration for calling the third dose of the vaccine a “booster” shot. Former podcast host Jeremiah Dieujuste told MRC’s CensorTrack that TikTok permanently banned his account after he posted a video about “How to Fight Back Against Vaccine Mandate From Employer, School, Etc… .” Grade: D
Responsiveness to User Complaints: TikTok has typically responded to appeal requests from the Media Research Center’s MRCTV TikTok account within a couple of days. The day after John Stokes made a follow-up video criticizing TikTok for censoring him he was able to upload a short version of his censored content. TikTok however has not yet restored Stokes’s original video, Dr. Damania‘s censored video nor Dieujuste’s permanently banned account. TikTok restored Savannah Edwards’s account two days after she was banned from the site. However, she identified a single email contact, email@example.com, that “actually responds” to complaints, implying that the site may not usually be so responsive. Grade: C
Fact Checks: N/A
Parler, Rumble, GETTR and Others
When conservatives rightfully called out Big Tech platforms for censorship and suppression of free speech online, a common refrain from the left was that conservatives should start their own platforms. Several alternative platforms have stepped up to the challenge, some claiming to hold to free speech values: Parler, Rumble, Gab, GETTR, FreeTalk and CloutHub. But it turns out the left — and Big Tech — were not serious about their challenge to free speech-loving Americans. Even after some of the more prominent startups, like Parler and Gab, began to grow, Big Tech has censored them and attempted to shut at least one of the new alternative platforms down.
Given how new these alternative platforms are, there was not much data on how they moderate content. Trump advisor Jason Miller announced the launch of GETTR on July 1. The platform aims to become the new home for conservatives on social media. CloutHub announced that it had taken steps to ensure that it would not suffer the same fate as Parler, which was booted off of Amazon’s web hosting services previously. CloutHub no longer relies on hosting services and is thus able to freely choose its own path for content moderation. One America News Network also launched a free-speech alternative social network this quarter called FreeTalk 45. Both Telegram and Rumble continue to increasingly be the home for controversial content to be posted in order to ensure it will not be censored, as well as to report on censorship experienced on other platforms.
Given the relative newness of many alternative platforms, MRC Free Speech America did not assess grades for them this quarter.