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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek MurthyShutterstock

WASHINGTON, D.C. (LifeSiteNews) – U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised new concerns about the Biden administration’s view of free speech this week by formally requesting that online search, social media, and shopping platforms submit to the federal government information about the prevalence of so-called COVID-19 “misinformation” on their platforms.

The New York Times reported that it has reviewed a copy of the notice in which Murthy requests information by May 2 on “exactly how many users saw or may have been exposed to instances of Covid-19 misinformation,” as well as sources of “misinformation” and the demographics of those supposedly affected. The notice covers social media networks, internet search engines, crowdsourcing platforms, e-commerce websites, and even instant messaging services.

“Technology companies now have the opportunity to be open and transparent with the American people about the misinformation on their platforms,” Murthy told The Times in a statement. “This is about protecting the nation’s health.”

This new request continues a pattern of public statements in which Murthy has advocated that Big Tech, which has already appointed itself an arbiter of medical misinformation, do even more to police disfavored COVID claims. Last year, he released an official advisory on the “urgent threat of health misinformation [that] call[ed] for a whole-of-society approach to address” it, and a “Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation” that “provides specific guidance and resources for health care providers, educators, librarians, faith leaders, and trusted community members to understand, identify, and stop [its] spread.”

Critics argue that such calls, which have been echoed by President Joe Biden, do not merely make the public aware of genuine falsehoods but are primarily intended to suppress and discredit legitimate information and open debate about the proper response to COVID-19, particularly on aspects of the pandemic and the ensuing policies that Democrats and their allies have been wrong about, including lockdowns, masks, COVID vaccines, natural immunity, and the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origins.

“While Murthy himself has no power to compel disclosure of that information, the companies have strong incentives to cooperate, since the Biden administration can make life difficult for them by filing lawsuits, writing regulations, and supporting new legislation,” Reason’s Jacob Sullum wrote. “Murthy’s [2021] advisory, which defines misinformation to include statements that he deems ‘misleading’ even when they are arguably or verifiably true, says the battle against it might include ‘appropriate legal and regulatory measures.’”

In recent months, administration members and their allies have begun to concede some points that were previously deemed “misinformation.” In January, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention abruptly halved its recommended isolation period for the COVID-infected. White House COVID czar Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted “if you look at the children who are hospitalized, many of them are hospitalized with Covid, as opposed to because of Covid.” Former U.S. Food & Drug Administration commissioner (and current Pfizer board member) Scott Gottlieb admitted that “cloth masks aren’t gonna provide a lot of protection.” More recently, Democrat consultants have privately urged the party to distance themselves from heavy-handed COVID restrictions.

Critics further argue that those entrusted with identifying “misinformation” actually abuse that power to peddle their own. Facebook “fact-checking” partner Lead Stories, for instance, has been criticized by the British Medical Journal as “inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible” in its defense of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer against a BMJ report identifying severe data integrity issues with a clinical trial for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine conducted by Ventavia Research Group.

Some argue that government officials openly calling for action against disfavored speech on social media complicates social networks’ presumed status as mere private entities exercising their own speech and property rights by effectively turning them into extensions of the government, which is constitutionally barred from infringing on freedom of speech.

Last July, author​​ Vivek Ramaswamy made the case in The Wall Street Journal that this argument has a sound basis in Supreme Court precedent that government “may not induce, encourage, or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish” (Norwood v. Harrison, 1973), and that state-issued immunity, threats of prosecution or “adverse regulatory action,” “willful participa[tion] in joint activity,” or even just “significant encouragement” can suffice to turn private censorship decisions into the functional equivalent of state action.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will be persuaded that the Biden administration’s various appeals to Big Tech rise to that level.