At American Council on Science and Health (“promoting science and debunking junk since 1978”), Cameron English reflects on the handwringing among social media companies about how to crack down on “misinformation” on COVID-19. Given the number of authoritative statements made and suddenly reversed, tt seems that any such crackdown would largely be driven by politics. For example:
Facebook recently announced that it would “no longer take down posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured,” and the company’s new policy nicely underscores this point about credibility. What was the social media platform’s justification for allowing users to discuss the lab-spillover hypothesis? It didn’t hire a team of virologists and foreign policy experts to assess the viability of competing explanations for the virus’s origins. Rather, as Politico reported,
“Facebook’s policy tweak arrives as support surges in Washington for a fuller investigation into the origins of Covid-19 … President Joe Biden said [in May] that he has ordered the intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to find out the virus’ origin and report back in 90 days. Biden also revealed that the intelligence community is split between two theories about Covid-19’s origin … Bipartisan support is also building on Capitol Hill for a congressional inquiry.”
In other words, the political establishment decided that investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is a worthwhile enterprise, and Facebook simply followed Washington’s lead. The company had censored its users for more than a year based largely on political considerations.Cameron English, “COVID-19 Origins Debate Undermines The Case For Social Media Censorship” at American Council on Science and Health (June 3, 2021)
English reminds us that, at Nature, a researcher was quoted as saying that she didn’t want the lab leak theory further investigated because that might “feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue.” (May 27, 2021) In short, politics trumps accurate information. At the same time, the same researchers want science to beat the disease…
More recently, English detailed the case of a researcher who was threatened with a ban from Facebook for chiding anti-pesticide activists who made, in his view, misleading statements about glyphosate, a weed killer:
On June 19, the company flagged a 2015 post written by University of Florida geneticist Kevin Folta. What was his offense? Folta took two anti-pesticide activists to task for making misleading statements about the weed killer glyphosate. They falsely claimed the herbicide causes cancer and alleged that the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) acknowledged the causal link between the two.
In reality, the journal published an opinion piece by two authors, one of whom was caught taking $100,000 from organic food companies to conduct “studies” that would make their products look good. That’s very different than the NEJM taking an editorial stance on the health effects of glyphosate. For pointing out this obvious distinction, Folta was told his post violated Facebook’s “community standards” and warned that his account may be suspended if he committed another offense.Cameron English, “Social Media Censorship: Scientist Corrects Anti-GMO Silliness, Facebook Threatens To Ban Him” at American Council on Science and Health (June 22, 2021)
English comments, “As we’ve reported in recent months, such efforts by tech companies like Facebook are crippled by partisanship and double standards. The result is that some users (usually major media outlets) are allowed to botch the science with impunity, while others are silenced for committing the slightest of offenses, real or imagined.” See also: Is Facebook anti-science or is that just a bad mood it was in?
Putting the machines in charge isn’t working out
Some of this may be due to the flagging of posts by algorithms. For example, in another recent incident, internet commentator Manny Marrotta is in the habit of posting historical events as if they were news, in order to, as news writer Matt Taibbi puts it, “remind us that the past was once news, that stories we now remember as ossified, fixed narratives captured in black and white were once fresh, suspenseful events, that filled contemporaries with excitement, and uncertainty.”
No one minded when he treated the Prohibition debate in this fashion but then he made the mistake of documenting Hitler’s rise to power as it would have appeared to contemporaries who had no crystal ball. That included an Instagram “news story” from 1921(!) Well, Instagram removed the post, as violating “community guidelines.” Taibbi reflects that many of these decisions are made with assistance from content-flagging algorithms:
But asking computer programs to sort out the subtleties of different types of speech — differences between commentary and advocacy, criticism and incitement, reporting and participation — has proven a disaster. A theme running through nearly all of the “Meet the Censored” articles is this problem of algorithmic censorship systematically throwing out babies with bathwater.
Whether it’s YouTube cracking down on videographer Ford Fischer for covering events involving Holocaust deniers or white supremacists, the same platform zapping footage of the January 6th riots shot by Jon Farina of Status Coup, or Matt Orfalea being punished for violating a “criminal organizations policy” for a spoof coffee commercial involving a mass-murderer, Internet carriers have consistently shown they cannot or will not distinguish between, say, being a Nazi and criticizing one, joking about one, even warning about one.
The frightening thing about the 100YearsAgoLive incident is that it’s not hard to see this becoming a trend, where history itself is deemed to violate common decency.Matt Taibbi, “Meet the Censored: Hitler” at TK News (July 30, 2021)
Given the prevalence of “trigger warnings” accompanying sensitive discussions in education, we are not far from there. Taibbi argues that eventually it becomes a war on knowledge, with the past as “one of the first casualties.”
Perhaps we should not assume that Silicon Valley would be inconvenienced.
You may also wish to read: Why did the New York Times discredit the lab leak theory? The Times led the way in zealously discrediting the quite reasonable COVID-19 lab leak theory. But what underlay its zeal? David Rindsberg, author of The Gray Lady Winked, reveals some eye-opening financial ties between the Chinese Communist Party and the Times.