Though Voltaire never said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — the quote originated with a 20th-century historian summarizing the 18th-century French philosopher’s beliefs — the sentiment behind the maxim has always been a bedrock upon which liberal democracy stands. Absent the right to propagate viewpoints the majority disdains without fear of reprisal, our constitutional artifice crumbles.
In that sense, it was unnerving to see Biden administration officials pressuring social media platforms to ban accounts they say spread misinformation about COVID-19, and for the president of the United States to accuse those platforms of “killing people.”
“It’s been clear for some time that the tech giants look to government to determine what coronavirus-related speech to allow,” the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board opined. “Most people would agree that it’s not an abuse of Facebook’s authority to suppress, say, fraudulent medical advice that goes viral. Yet as the acute crisis phase of coronavirus passes, a government arrangement with private firms to control speech about the pandemic looks less salutary.”
The right-wing outrage directed at Silicon Valley is usually performance art. Donald Trump’s class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will fail for the same reason Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ law fining social media companies that suspend politicians was immediately blocked: The First Amendment protects us from government censorship. It doesn’t grant us free, unrestricted access to every platform on Earth.
But here, you can see a slippery slope forming: One administration curtailing dangerous misinformation opens the door for the next to trample dissent. Once a precedent is set, it’s more likely to expand than contract. The more social media companies cooperate with the government, the more their cooperation becomes an expectation.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. With the hyper-transmissible Delta variant proliferating, we’re on the precipice of yet another COVID-19 wave, this one almost exclusively confined to the one-third of the population that refuses to be vaccinated, most of whom are conservatives.
The White House believes we’ve hit a vaccine wall due to misinformation circulating on social media. Last Thursday, in his first formal health advisory, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called this misinformation “an urgent threat to public health.” Press secretary Jen Psaki said Facebook “needs to move more quickly to remove violative posts.”
She referenced a March report by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate on “The Disinformation Dozen,” 12 quacks and charlatans it says account for 65% of the vaccine-related hokum on social media: Bill Gates is microchipping your body, the vaccine makes you infertile, etc.
The CCDH made serious claims, including that platforms failed to act on 95% of the reports of COVID and vaccine misinformation they received. It called for social media outlets to delete all accounts associated with those 12 people. As of last week, the group said that 35 accounts linked to them had been shut down since March, but 62 accounts, with 8.4 million followers, remained.
If I were a cynical person, I’d note that conspiracies generate the kind of engagement that social media corporations turn into billion-dollar profits. Facebook’s reported refusal to share information with the White House about the volume of vaccine misinformation — and its dismissal of data from its own content-tracking tool, CrowdTangle, as inaccurate, according to the New York Times — would only fuel my suspicion.
But since I’m trying to be less cynical, I’ll simply point out that Facebook says it has removed 18 million pieces of COVID misinformation and “connected more than 2 billion people to reliable information about COVID-19 and COVID vaccines.” A Facebook official told NBC News the White House was “looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals.”
Perhaps. They might also be looking in the wrong place.
That’s not to let Mark Zuckerberg off the hook. Misinformation reduces vaccine uptake, which makes it more likely that people will die of COVID. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan points out, the “effect of exposure to dubious anti-vaccine claims on Facebook is likely to be smaller than critics assume both in terms of reach and effects.”
Vaccine skepticism long predates COVID, of course. By pointing the finger at social media, we might be mistaking symptom for cause, Nyhan argues. Indeed, studies show that vaccine-skeptical content accounts for only 7.5% of vaccine-related pageviews, and most of those pages were intentionally sought out by skeptics.
The real culprits are the Republican officials and Fox News personalities who, through their words and actions, have told their less-educated viewers or constituents that COVID isn’t as big a problem as the government’s efforts to contain it: Vaccine outreach means forced vaccinations and gun confiscation. The pandemic is really about social control. Here’s some campaign merch so we can make fun of masks together.
They’re the ones driving the anti-vax bus. The crackpot Facebook pages are problematic, but they’re more along for the ride.
None of this matters from the vantage point of the quasi-Voltaire maxim — not that the alleged misinformation is, in in fact, misinformation, nor that the misinformation is leading people to avoid a vaccine that will save their lives. If we want to preserve dissent, there’s no corollary that exempts the very stupid.
The Biden administration’s hardball tactics, even if well-intentioned, walk up to a line the government shouldn’t cross. But that doesn’t absolve private-sector actors of responsibility. Not just Big Tech, and not just Fox News, but also the cable providers that bundle Fox News and businesses that purchase ads on social media platforms. And consumers. Our choices about whom we patronize are part and parcel of free speech.
It’s an imperfect solution, and public health will suffer. But if we allow the government to be the arbiter of misinformation and expect private companies to follow its dictates, there’s no going back.