Dan O’Donnell reports on Big Tech censorship of an interview with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson
October 22, 2021
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
I suppose it was bound to happen at some point. I, Dan O’Donnell, am a conservative, and a rather outspoken one. It was only a matter of time until YouTube figured that out.
On Thursday, my YouTube channel was suspended for one week after I posted an interview with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson in which Johnson voiced opposition to both President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and the Food and Drug Administration’s pending approval of the vaccine for use in 5- to 11-year-old children.
“We know that this might be disappointing, but it’s important to us that YouTube is a safe place for all,” YouTube said in an email informing me of the suspension. “YouTube doesn’t allow claims about COVID-19 vaccinations that contradict expert consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organization (WHO).”
Even if those claims come from a sitting United States Senator—which would make them inherently newsworthy and thus valuable to Johnson’s constituents—YouTube deemed them to be simply too dangerous for public consumption.
The primary focus of the interview (and the reason I had Johnson on in the first place) was to ascertain whether he was leaning toward running for a third term in the Senate next year or retirement. This is the major political question in Wisconsin, and I sought to provide some clarification on it.
Johnson’s answer—that he is likely to wait several months before deciding—is significant news, and not just in Wisconsin. Johnson’s race is one of the most closely watched nationally, as it may well determine control of the Senate, and thus any indication that the incumbent is either running or retiring would be of importance. The incumbent telling an interviewer that he doesn’t particularly like lengthy Senate campaigns and might not make a final decision until next April is rather stunning.
And YouTube determined that no one could see it.
While YouTube does retain the right to determine what content is allowable on its platform, the manner in which it censors content may jeopardize its legal protection as a platform. Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (also known as the Communications Decency Act) provides a safe harbor against liability for defamation for companies that host third-party content on publicly available platforms but do not exercise editorial judgment over said content. Because their platforms are merely the vehicle for others to communicate, they cannot be held legally liable if those third parties defame others or engage in other civilly or criminally punishable activity.
Publishers, on the other hand, can be. Since they retain editorial control over their platforms, they may be held legally liable if others misuse them. For instance, the MacIver Institute allows me to write columns on its website, but reserves the right to edit them. Because of this, MacIver may be held liable if I defame someone in this column.
YouTube’s parent company Google, however, is immune. If, for example, I post a video making false accusations against my next door neighbor, he could sue me for defamation, but not Google. If I write a column for the MacIver Institute making those exact same false allegations, he could sue MacIver because MacIver has editorial control over what I say.
Now explain to me how YouTube didn’t exercise editorial control over my interview with Senator Johnson. The company’s editors (which it calls its “Community Guidelines Team”) determined that, in its judgment, the claims Johnson made about COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous and should not appear on the YouTube platform. In other words, it exercised editorial judgment. Which it legally can’t do and still hold itself out as a platform under Section 230.
Legal issues aside, YouTube’s censorship is fundamentally antithetical to the concept of a free, democratic society. Senator Johnson is one of the leading voices in the Republican Party who is potentially up for re-election next year. It is thus necessary for him to get his message out to as many voters as possible. A neutral platform would allow him to do this no matter how much it may disagree with that message, but a biased publisher hellbent on silencing voices that it deems to be political enemies would not.
There can be no doubt that YouTube is the latter. Don’t misunderstand: I am not at all bitter that my video was removed or my account suspended for a week. I’m a conservative, I’m used to it. I have plenty of other platforms: Radio, television, social media, this column. But I am as a citizen thoroughly alarmed and disgusted that the American ideal of open discourse between duly elected representatives of the people (Senator Johnson) and members of the free press (me) is being willfully and maliciously suppressed.
Amazingly, YouTube has not censored a video from NBC News posted last October in which Vice President Kamala Harris (then a candidate) said during a debate that “if Donald Trump tells us we should take [a COVID vaccine] then I’m not taking it.”
This anti-vaccine sentiment was open, incredibly public and, in theory at least, contrary to YouTube’s policy of deleting any statement about vaccines that goes against public health guidelines. It has been on YouTube’s platform for more than a year.
An interview with a Republican Senator whose primary focus was not actually vaccines didn’t last an hour. This frightening censorship isn’t about Senator Johnson or me, though; it’s about you. It’s about your ability to hear from your elected representative. It’s about your ability to be represented.
If Johnson can’t communicate with you without a massive monopolistic corporation flexing its political muscles and interfering, then you cannot be adequately represented. And remember: This sort of censorship only happens to Republicans. Both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden could say they wouldn’t trust any vaccine developed under Trump for months and no company in the world dared even to question them.
The silencing of Ron Jonson—like the silencing of President Trump before him—is blatantly obviously politically motivated and designed to interfere in an upcoming election…and the American people should not tolerate it.