Read that headline a couple times. There was a time when such a headline would only appear on The Onion, but it is true. Facebook has long banned anyone who discussed the evidence that a worldwide pandemic killing millions and destroying the global economy may have been released from a government lab in Wuhan, China. Facebook would not allow the theory to be discussed as “debunked” despite widespread criticism that Facebook was, again, engaging in corporate censorship. The false claim that this theory was “debunked” was pushed by various media platforms as part of the criticism of then President Donald Trump and his Administration. Now however Dr. Anthony Fauci and others have acknowledged that there is a basis to suspect the lab as the origin of the outbreak. So now Facebook will allow you to talk about it.
Since February, Facebook has been banning posts claiming the virus was man-made or manufactured “following consultations with leading health organizations, including the World Health Organization” who had “debunked” the claim. It was ridiculed at the time as entirely divorced from actual science. While the theory was not proven, it was never disproven. Many (including Fauci) maintain that natural evolution is still the most likely explanation but the lab could be the original source for the outbreak.
Now, Facebook has declared
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps. We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”
Putting aside the lack of a basis for the earlier ban, the statement reflects that assumption that, of course, Facebook should be the arbiter of what can be discussed by users. I previously wrote about how Facebook is running a campaign to convince young people to accept “content modification” as part of their evolution with technology. This reframing of expectations has been fostered by Democratic leaders who have pushed social media companies for more censorship to protect people from errant or damaging ideas. Last year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) warned Big Tech CEOs that he and his colleagues were watching to be sure there was no “backsliding or retrenching” from “robust content modification.”
This censorship craze is not just limited to the lab story or to Facebook. Indeed, last year, House Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney of California wrote a letter to cable carriers like AT&T to ask why they are still allowing people to watch Fox News. The members stressed that “not all TV news sources are the same” and called these companies to account for their role in allowing such “dissemination.” Thus, it is not just specific stories but whole sources of information that need to be banned to protect innocent, gullible citizens.
In all of these exchanges, the underlying portrayal of the public is the same: they are unwitting dupes who must be protected from harmful thoughts or influences. It is safer for them to have these members and these companies determine what they can hear or discuss.
Facebook’s decision to allow people to discuss the theory follows the company’s Oversight Board upholding a ban on any postings of Trump, a move that even figures like Germany Angela Merkel and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) have criticized as a danger to free speech. Even Trump’s voice has been banned by Facebook. Trump remains too harmful for Facebook users to hear . . . at least until the company decides that they are ready for such exposure.
Facebook’s announcement is meant to assure that it will not abuse its power as the overseer of any political or social discussions. It is similar to the benign dictator pitch where a government argues that, despite authoritarian powers, it uses such powers in a benign and tolerant fashion. There is an alternative. It is called free speech.
I have long described myself as an Internet Originalist. There was a time when the assumption was that the Internet is a forum for largely unimpeded free speech. This was particularly the case with social media. Users of Twitter and Facebook state a desire to hear the views of other individuals or groups. Yet, companies like Facebook started to assert the right to monitor those exchanges and decide if it approves of the views or representations being made. What began with censoring out violent threats has morphed into censoring “misinformation” or “harmful” thoughts on subjects ranging from climate change to gender issues to Covid-19 to election fraud.
It is a familiar pattern as speech controls become insatiable and expansive. We would never tolerate a company like Verizon intervening in telephone conversations to correct or cut off arguments. However, Facebook now regularly censors views and is running a glitzy television campaign to get people to love the company for its paternalistic limits on what they can see and discuss.
I do not know if the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab. However, it is less likely that we will find an answer with companies actively preventing people from sharing information and views on the subject. Yet, it is probably more important to understand how a little free speech escapes from Facebook. The fact is that it did not escape. It was a controlled release. Facebook and other companies have turned a rolling ocean of free speech on the Internet into a swimming pool of censored and managed expression. Worse yet, according to its ubiquitous commercials, Facebook wants us to love it for the loss of free speech. So rejoice, Facebook and its censorship board will now allow us to discuss whether China is responsible for the release of this virus . . . for now.