March 18, 2024 - 8:00pm

The US Supreme Court has been hearing arguments today on what could be one of the most consequential rulings related to free speech in decades. The case, Murthy v. Missouri, revolves around efforts by US Government agencies, including the CDC and the FBI, to influence the narrative around major events, such as Covid-19, by leaning on social media platforms to censor posts, topics and accounts.

The case — brought by two states, Missouri and Louisiana, as well as five individuals against the federal government — was in part animated by Elon Musk’s decision to publish the Twitter Files, a trove of emails, text and other company correspondence which showed the extent to which Government agencies ranging from the CDC to the CIA were in contact with managers at social media platforms over issues such as claims about the vaccine and the effectiveness of lockdowns.

The case could not be more significant for American society as far as freedom of speech is concerned. The reason is that at the heart of the case is what constitutes disinformation and what steps governments can take to combat it. In this case, many of the claims censored by social media companies at the behest of the Government turned out to be true. This includes widespread censorship of social media posts claiming that the Covid-19 vaccines carry health risks and that the lockdowns were not only ineffective but also damaging.

Republicans have alleged that the same dynamic was at play when social media giants censored the New York Post’s reporting on the now infamous Hunter Biden laptop story, arguing that deep state actors leant on the platform to block the coverage. Twitter executives involved in the decisions denied this, with one of them, Yoel Roth, saying “I believe Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016.”

The irony, of course, is that “the mistakes of 2016” refers to the widespread allegations that Trump colluded with the Russian government to sway that year’s election, including on Facebook. None of these claims have been proved true — and some, like the effect of “fake news” on the election, have been debunked.

Nevertheless, the “Russiagate” narrative — itself one of the most sweeping disinformation campaigns of recent years — took a firm hold in American public life, in large part thanks to claims of disinformation that lay at the heart of the campaign.

This speaks to the central challenge of the case: while the Government’s critics argue that disinformation is a cudgel to silence dissent, proponents argue that a core Government function is to police information, especially during times of emergency.

“If you think about what is the purpose of the Government, why do governments exist, it’s really to protect the health and safety and welfare of its citizens,” former Obama White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said during a panel discussion at New York University’s School of Law, according to NPR.

While the US media has largely taken the Government’s position on the case, Justice Alito raised a pertinent issue in oral arguments when, describing the White House’s “constant pestering of Facebook”, he noted that he “cannot imagine federal officials taking that approach to the print media”.

The risk that a ruling in favour of the Government runs is one of precedent-setting. Would the US media (or any of America’s elite class currently arguing in favour of the state’s ability to influence social media giants through heavy-handed pressure tactics) concur with the Government’s actions if next time it’s the New York Times, and not the New York Post, which finds itself on the wrong end of the censorship?