Former Facebook employee and so-called “whistleblower” Frances Haugen testified in Washington this week about how the social media giant, among other things, harms the public by not moderating or censoring content on its platform severely enough.
With Congress threatening social media platforms to get them to remove “fake news” and “misinformation,” it seems that everyone these days is uniting behind the idea that censorship is necessary to protect folks from things they can’t handle.
And while private social media companies, and the so-called independent “fact checkers” they recruit, already police a lot of content aggressively of their own volition, they also respond to substantial political pressure to go down that path or risk being forced to. That includes bipartisan threats to revoke media platforms’ liability protections for what their users post, and Sen. Klobuchar’s (D-MN) bill to punish platforms for hosting what unelected bureaucrats deem to be “medical misinformation.” Unsurprisingly, cries of “misinformation” are typically aimed at news stories painting those in power poorly or questioning the narratives of governments and regulatory agencies.
To be clear, there’s plenty of genuine misinformation and falsehood out there. But what that means isn’t always clear-cut, and we shouldn’t expect or allow bureaucrats, politicians, or social media behemoths to do our thinking for us.
We don’t need new laws or more moderation. We need to start thinking for ourselves. A return to critical thinking, civic and scientific literacy, and personal responsibility would serve us better and leave us more capable of holding those in power to account. Such a revival is critical, especially when the unintended consequences of censorship are so severe.
Take Youtube, for example: When the video-sharing platform used algorithms to remove violent videos, it ended up taking down accounts of journalists exposing human rights abuse. Or take Facebook — the social media site suppressed a New York Post exposé about a stolen laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden for fear that potential misinformation could “interfere” with the presidential election. It was an ironic move given that stifling news stories that hurt a political candidate is arguably election interference by omission. Their censorship stifled debate, and an important one at that.
Or take Twitter, which removed the account of Dr. Li Meng Yan, a researcher who fled Hong Kong and alleged that the Chinese government had created the Covid-19 virus in a lab last year. Her paper drew valid scientific criticism due to its speculative conclusions. But it should’ve been allowed to stand and be judged on its own merits. Today, even the CDC’s Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization czar endorse the possibility of a lab leak origin for the virus — with confirmation rendered impossible thanks to the Chinese government blocking any independent investigation. Should future revelations confirm Dr. Yan’s claims, then Twitter will have contributed to a repressive foreign dictatorship escaping accountability.
It’s debatable whether supposedly independent and unbiased “fact checkers” are great for promoting the truth when they’re likely to rely blindly on the official stances of fallible bureaucratic agencies, like the CDC, which has had to totally reverse its stance on issues like the efficacy of masks due to contradictory evidence. Or the FDA, which inadvertently pushed nicotine vapers toward smoking after falsely linking legal vapes to lung injuries caused by black market THC-based products.
We know that authorities like the CDC and the FDA get stuff wrong. So what makes us so confident in their judgments that we shoot down all opposition? Consider current advice against using prophylactic treatments like Ivermectin for Covid-19. There are meta-analyses that support the efficacy of Ivermectin for treating Covid-19, and there are those that find there’s insufficient evidence to show it helps at all. Government health agencies worldwide remain divided on the topic, with the Indian Ministry of Health contradicting both the CDC and WHO.
The point is that these are all subjects of valid public debate. Official advice could change at any moment in light of emerging evidence. Shielding the public from that debate leaves us in the dark and emboldens anti-vax conspiracy theorists who claim that the “powers that be,” whether they’re “big pharma” or “big public health,” are suppressing anything that isn’t the vaccine.
Worse still, the CDC’s official advice against trying even benign doses of Ivermectin to combat Covid-19 in consultation with medical professionals, something that isn’t mutually exclusive from encouraging vaccination, is likely driving people to take the drug in unregulated and potentially deadly doses without medical advice — such as by purchasing horse de-wormer. Such bizarre consequences call to mind how prohibiting legal and regulated consumption of alcoholic beverages in places with public oversight during the 1920s resulted in alcohol seekers being driven blind or killed after consuming moonshine or bathtub gin.
Not everyone can be expected to navigate complex and nuanced scientific subjects where the evidence is emerging. But even if health officials and the “fact checkers” quoting them are right most of the time and are far more likely to be right than partisan shock jocks or your crazy aunt on Facebook whose keyboard seems to be stuck on caps lock, they aren’t always going to get it right and we shouldn’t expect them to. Better civics and scientific literacy education in schools will provide far better protection to the public from genuine misinformation and dangerous claims than harsher censorship.
Satya Marar is a Washington D.C. and Sydney-based policy professional and tech policy fellow at Young Voices.