A lawsuit brought against YouTube and parent company Google by 15 QAnon social media stars could end up in the Supreme Court and transform the meaning of online free speech in America.
by Raul Diego
The welding of American politics with social media may be the defining moment of a sea change that is taking place at the very top echelons of power in the United States and the world. In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. elections, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all revealed their inescapable ties to the establishment when they launched an information warfare campaign against their own users and content creators in a bid to shape perceptions and control national discourse on the government’s behalf.
As the most contentious election in living memory drags on days after the vote, itself, the massive purge of profiles and content deemed politically dangerous carried out by the most popular social media platforms just over two weeks before Election Day, went practically unnoticed by everyone other than those who were actually de-platformed and their followers.
In mid-October, Google-owned YouTube and other social media giants purged the accounts of the most popular QAnon channels, spurring a class-action lawsuit against the video streaming platform filed in the Northern District of California later that month.
A total of eight QAnon YouTube stars and seven more unnamed plaintiffs brought a first amendment suit against Google and its subsidiary YouTube on October 26, alleging a violation of their constitutional right to free speech and of the companies’ own terms of service (TOS) agreements.
Among those named in the complaint are Polly St. George, who despite being fairly new on the scene has accumulated a considerable following and Dave Hayes, a.k.a Preying Medic, who is one of QAnon’s more popular “Q drops” interpreter, deciphering the supposedly coded messages for the masses of Q followers.
After a curious request by the plaintiffs for a change on the bench, the trial came to a quick conclusion on November 3, when the judge dismissed the complaint on the grounds that they were unlikely “to succeed with claims that YouTube violated its terms of service.”
Given how the trial unfolded and other notable details surrounding the case, it is more than likely that the QAnon cohort suing YouTube was looking for a quick and unfavorable result in the district court in order to pursue its constitutional argument in a higher court on appeal; a tactic developed by legal teams funded over decades by a network of conservative billionaires, like Charles Koch, to change the laws in favor of their business enterprises at the expense of the common interest.
Despite the extensive arguments made in the complaint over free speech and of YouTube’s infringement on First Amendment rights, the filing only sought an emergency injunction to compel the company to reinstate the deleted channels and content.
Their true intentions, however, became manifest when the plaintiffs divorced their constitutional arguments from the current legal action, prompting the judge to rule on a different basis and allow the QAnon stars to pursue these “at a later time.”
Classified as a civil rights case, the lawsuit centers around the timing of YouTube’s QAnon channel purge, which followed a resolution condemning QAnon specifically and called for the FBI and all federal law enforcement agencies to “focus on preventing” the proliferation of “fringe political conspiracy theories” such as QAnon.
H.R. 1154 was passed by the House Judiciary and Intelligence committee on October 2. Several days later, all the major social media networks began removing QAnon-related content from their platforms. As far as the plaintiffs in the case are concerned, this constitutes “state action” by YouTube, which capitulated to “government coercion to terminate” their accounts and, therefore, a violation of their constitutional right to free speech.
The plaintiffs further argue that YouTube breached its own TOS agreement when it suspended their accounts without cause and failed to provide a reason in accordance with their TOS. It was upon these secondary allegations that the judge based her decision to deny the group of QAnon stars the emergency restraining order to have their channels reinstated.
“Upon reviewing YouTube’s TOS agreement in totality, the court agrees with [Google],” Judge Beth L. Freeman wrote in her decision, which couldn’t have come as a surprise to the prosecution given Freeman’s penchant for siding with Big Tech. Nevertheless, Freeman, who had the case reassigned to her by the plaintiff’s own request, left the main thrust of the lawsuit intact and the door wide open for a new action.
The Rise of the Uniparty
Denver Riggleman is one of five co-sponsors of House Bill 1154, and one of the most outspoken in the media about QAnon, expressing his low opinion of the phenomenon on corporate news outlets on many occasions. “I might as well piss everyone off,” Riggleman told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “The fact that we’re trying to appeal to them is ridiculous. I guess I scratch my head, as a former intelligence officer, Chuck — is what are we doing here?”
The former intelligence officer should not be surprised that he just lost his congressional seat to another Republican whose views more closely align with the momentum far-right positions have gained throughout a sizable portion of the country’s population. Public offices from Utah to North Carolina are being filled with politicians who either sympathize with, or pay lip service to, QAnon followers.
In the wake of his recent defeat, Riggleman says he might run for governor of Virginia but claims to be unsure whether that will be as a Republican or as an independent. The ousted congressman believes QAnon will destroy the two-party system and muses about the emergence of a new centrist “third” party.
The former representative might be correct about his prediction, but with a few exceptions. That new, centrist party is already here as the Donald Trump effect brings the worst of the neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans together under the still uncertified Biden administration in which people like Mitt Romney and are floated as serious contenders for a cabinet position in a Democratic White House.
The examples cited in the bill sponsored by Riggleman and four others that underlies the free speech case brought against YouTube range from plotting an armed raid to blocking traffic and making accusations against a political figure – namely Joe Biden.
Based on these incidents, and a strong emphasis on the anti-Semitic undercurrents of the QAnon quasi-ideology, the resolution goes on to condemn QAnon, but also “all other groups and ideologies, from the far left to the far right,” and singles out QAnon to be probed by the American intelligence community to identify “any foreign support, assistance, or online amplification” of its message.
There is an outside chance that the plaintiffs don’t pursue their cause in a different court. But, the re-assignment of the judge in this case at the plaintiff’s request strikes as a prelude to just that.
Judge Virginia K. DeMarchi, who was originally assigned to the case seemed like a perfect choice for the prosecution. A Trump-appointed Magistrate judge who had shown a soft spot for White supremacists when she released a Sonoma chapter president of the Hells Angels criminal organization on bail in an ongoing murder trial.
Her replacement, an Obama appointee, made quick work of the initial complaint by stripping the case of any challenge to Google’s corporate right to ban, remove, or de-platform any user they wish. All that remains is a constitutional argument with no teeth, which the plaintiffs are very likely to chase all the way to the Supreme Court if they can.
Their lawyer, M. Cris Armenta from Armenta & Sol, PC, knows a thing or two about high profile, high publicity social media trials. She is one of the lawyers representing hundreds of Hollywood actresses in the first class-action lawsuits brought against Harvey Weinstein and the launching pad of the #MeToo hashtag social media movement, as well as plaintiffs in the Innocence of Muslims film case against Google in 2015.
Feature photo | A Trump supporter holds a QAnon sign during a rally in Rochester, Minnesota, October 30, 2020. Carlos Barria | Reuters
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