Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Although Voltaire never said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it until death” – the quote is from a 20th century historian summarizing the beliefs of the 18th century French philosopher century – the sentiment behind the maxim has always been the bedrock on which liberal democracy rests. Without the right to propagate views that the majority disdains without fear of reprisal, our constitutional artifice collapses.
In that sense, it was disturbing to see officials in the Biden administration pressuring social media platforms to ban accounts they believed spread disinformation about COVID-19, and for the President of the United States. to accuse these platforms of “”killing people. “
the backlash came quickly.
“It has been clear for some time that tech giants are looking to the government to determine what coronavirus-related talk to allow,” The Wall Street Journalthe conservative editorial board of nodded. “… [M]Most people would agree that this is not an abuse of Facebook’s authority to remove, say, fraudulent medical advice that goes viral. Yet, as the acute crisis phase of the coronavirus passes, a government agreement with private companies to control the rhetoric about the pandemic seems less salutary. ”
The outrage of the right against Silicon Valley is generally performance art. that of Donald Trump class actions, against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will fail for the same reason Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s law impose fines on social media companies that suspend politicians was immediately blocked: the First Amendment protects us from government censorship. It does not grant free and unlimited access to all platforms on Earth.
But here you can see a slippery slope forming: One administration reducing dangerous disinformation opens the door to the next to stomp dissent. Once a precedent is set, it is more likely to expand than to contract. The more social media companies cooperate with the government, the more their cooperation becomes an expectation.
Let’s face it, however. With the proliferation of the hyper-transmissible delta variant, we are on the verge of yet another wave of COVID-19, this one almost exclusively confined to the a third of the population this refuses to be vaccinated, most of which are conservative.
The White House believes we have hit a vaccine wall due to misinformation circulating on social media. Last Thursday, in his first official health notice, General surgeon Vivek Murthy called the misinformation an “urgent threat to public health”. Press Officer Jen Psaki mentionned Facebook “must act faster to remove abusive posts.”
She referred to a walk report by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) on “The Disinformation Dozen,” 12 quacks and charlatans who he says make up 65% of vaccine-related hokum on social media: Bill Gates microchips your body, the vaccine makes you infertile, etc.
The CCDH has made some serious claims, including that platforms have failed to respond to 95% of reports of COVID and misinformation about vaccines it has received. He called on social media to remove all accounts associated with these 12 people. Last week, the group said 35 accounts linked to it had been closed since March, but 62 accounts, with 8.4 million subscribers, remained.
If I were a cynical person, I would point out that conspiracies generate the kind of engagement that social media companies turn into multibillion dollar profits. Facebook’s reported refusal to share information with the White House about the volume of vaccine misinformation and its rejection of data from the Owned by Facebook CrowdTangle content tracker as inaccurate, according to The New York Times– would only fuel my suspicions.
But since I’m trying to be less cynical I’ll just point out that Facebook says it removed 18 million misinformation about COVID and “connected more than 2 billion people to reliable information about COVID-19 and COVID vaccines.” A Facebook official told NBC News that the White House was “in search of scapegoats for missing their vaccine targets.
Perhaps. They might also be looking in the wrong place.
This is not to let Mark Zuckerberg get away with it. Misinformation reduces vaccination, which makes people more likely to die from COVID. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan emphasizes, “The effect of exposure to questionable anti-vaccine claims on Facebook is likely to be weaker than critics assume, both in terms of reach and effect.”
Skepticism about vaccines predates COVID, of course. By pointing fingers at social media, we could be to confuse symptom for cause, argues Nyhan. Indeed, studies show that the skeptical content vis-à-vis vaccines only 7.5% of page views linked to the vaccine, and most of these pages were intentionally searched by skeptics.
The real culprits are Republican officials and Fox News figures who, by their words and actions, have told their less educated viewers or voters that COVID is not as big a problem as the government’s efforts to contain it: vaccine awareness means forced vaccinations and confiscation of firearms. The pandemic is really about social control. here are some campaign merchandising so that we can make fun of masks together.
They’re the ones driving the anti-vaxx bus. Crazy Facebook Pages are problematic, but they’re more out of the box.
None of this matters from the point of view of the Quasi-Voltaire maxim – not that the alleged misinformation is, in fact, misinformation, nor that misinformation leads people to avoid a vaccine that will save them. life. If we want to preserve dissent, there is no corollary that exempts the very stupid.
The Biden administration’s harsh tactics, while well-intentioned, extend to a line the government should not cross. But this does not exempt private actors from their responsibility. Not just Big Tech, and not just Fox News, but the cable companies that bundle Fox News and businesses that buy ads on social media platforms. And consumers: our choices towards those we frequent are an integral part of freedom of expression.
It is an imperfect solution and public health will suffer. But if we allow the government to be the arbiter of disinformation and expect private companies to follow its dictates, there is no turning back.
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