Last week, Virginia Thomas, a conservative activist, emailed her friends and associates asking them to join an “influencer network” to raise awareness about a new website fighting “corporate tyranny” and the growing power of social media over political discourse.
Five days later, in a concurring opinion for a Supreme Court ruling regarding Twitter and former President Donald Trump, her husband, Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a similar warning about America’s social media giants. The unprecedented control “of so much talk in the hands of a few private parties” would soon force the court to look into how the law treated major platforms, he wrote. The threat to freedom of expression was a “glaring concern”.
The Thomas double comes on top of what remains a major rallying cry for conservatives: perceived censorship of Republicans by big tech companies, especially in the wake of Trump’s electoral loss and the deadly riot of the 6th. January at the Capitol. Twitter permanently removed Trump from the platform a few days later, citing “the risk of further incitement to violence.”
It also gives new life to long-standing questions about whether Virginia Thomas’ activism presents a conflict of interest for her husband.
To date, the subject of social media bias has mostly been of political convenience to the right. Most Republican lawmakers who were given the opportunity to question tech CEOs during congressional hearings are instead taking the opportunity to condemn CEOs without providing much evidence for their complaints, perhaps because he didn’t. there aren’t many. A recent study by New York University professors found that Republican politicians and right-wing media may receive more interactions on social media platforms than liberals and left-wing media.
But that has not assuaged continued pressure from conservatives who often include Big Tech as part of broader concerns about a “culture of cancellation” and the conspiracy which, as Fox News host Sean Hannity recently put it. said, Democrats are trying to “silence, cancel any opposition vote.”
Clarence Thomas’ remarks may mark a new chapter in that effort, and an indication that the social media power struggle may end up being legal, rather than legislative. On Monday, the Federalist, a conservative news site, called Thomas’ remarks a “roadmap to eradicating the rampant social media censorship of online monopolies.”
“Thomas’ not very veiled hostility to big tech is absolutely another aspect of a more general conservative antagonism towards Silicon Valley,” Paul M. Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, and the co-author of the NYU study, said in an interview. “We could fight to reduce protections for social media companies in the Supreme Court rather than across the street in Congress.”
Thomas’ opinion this week was about the court’s decision to overturn an appeals court ruling that Trump had violated the First Amendment by blocking people from his Twitter account. Thomas argued that it was, in fact, the technology platforms that posed the greatest threat to the First Amendment: “[I]If the goal is to ensure that speech is not hushed up, “he wrote,” then the most glaring concern must necessarily be the dominant digital platforms themselves. “
He’s made it clear he’s talking about more than Twitter and Facebook, targeting two other giants who have often drawn bipartisan criticism. Google, wrote Thomas, “can remove content by deindexing or downgrading a search result or directing users away from certain content by manually modifying the autocomplete results. Amazon “can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors, among other things, by blocking a list.”
Thomas’ warnings build on the case he delivered in an October ruling, when he urged the court to determine the correct interpretation of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law which protects technology platforms from legal liability for what users post. He suggested that the law had been applied too broadly and needed more stringent definitions.
“Justice Thomas appears to be urging lawmakers (federal and state) to pass laws limiting the ability of platforms to exclude certain content or voices,” said Justin Brookman, chief technology officer for Consumer Reports and former policy director of the Federal Trade Commission. Technology Research and Investigation Office. “It is certainly legitimate to be concerned about the power of big technology platforms over the information we consume.”
It is not clear whether Thomas will succeed in provoking a legal debate on Section 230. But if he could, the ramifications for the tech industry would be significant.
The High Court “could potentially revisit interpretations of section 230 that go back 25 years and just say that the courts were wrong when they interpreted the protections very broadly,” Barrett said. “If you got a restrictive interpretation of Section 230 from the Supreme Court, it could rock the social media industry even more drastically than Congress could end up doing.”
Virginia Thomas’ recent effort may help fuel this push. In her email, obtained by NBC News, the activist and lawyer identified the power of social media companies to censor conservatives as the most immediate threat of corporate tyranny. She directed people to a post on the new site, StopCorporateTyranny.org, which called on Facebook and Twitter to “get out of politics.”
The message channeled the unproven argument Republicans have been making for years: that Silicon Valley has a pro-left bias and censors conservatives.
“Increasingly, Facebook and Twitter have decided to use their platforms as tools for political advocacy,” the post read. “They shouldn’t restrict Americans who stand up against the dominant cultural left-wing elites.”
This is far from the first time Virginia Thomas’ activism has straddled her husband’s forensic views. Ten years ago, forensic ethicists noted that her acceptance of anonymous financial contributions through her nonprofit group could prove problematic for her husband. Judges are required by federal law to recuse themselves from cases in which there is a conflict of interest, including those where their spouses might have a financial interest in the outcome.
It is not clear whether Virginia Thomas has received financial contributions from Back to Neutral (B2N), the coalition behind StopCorporateTyranny.org. She did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives of the Supreme Court did not respond to requests for comment.