There is growing controversy in San Diego after the county board of supervisors introduced a proposal to declare “health misinformation a public health crisis” and enact measures to try to “combat” views deemed untrue or misleading. As a free speech advocate, I do not share some of the objections made to the proposals. However, one item is deeply concerning.
On its face, the proposal calls for government agencies to combat bad information with better information on Covid. I have no problem with such informational programs. Even if people disagree with the government’s view of vaccines or mandates, they are free to voice their opposing views in the exercise of free speech. For example, while I opposed the Big Gulp laws and laws barring certain foods or advertising, I have always recognized the legitimate (and often positive) role of the government in highlighting what it views as good science or good practices.
What concerns me is this item:
“e). Partner with federal, state, territorial, tribal, private, nonprofit, research, and other local entities to identify best practices to stop the spread of health misinformation and develop and implement coordinated recommendations.”
There is a difference between countering and stopping misinformation. The latter has been a focus of Democratic members in Congress in seeking to censor opposing views on subjects from election fraud to climate change to Covid. Direct censorship from “federal, state, territorial” offices would be subject to First Amendment challenges. However, the proposal also makes specific reference to private and other entities which would be enlisted to combat misinformation.
As previously discussed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared at a key hearing in which he followed up his apology for censoring the Hunter Biden story by pledging more censorship. One of the most chilling moments came from Delaware Senator Chris Coons who demonstrated the very essence of the “slippery slope” danger.
Dorsey: Well, misleading information, as you are aware, is a large problem. It’s hard to define it completely and cohesively. We wanted to scope our approach to start to focus on the highest severity of harm. We focused on three areas, manipulated media, which you mentioned, civic integrity around the election, specifically in public health, specifically around COVID. We wanted to make sure that our resources that we have the greatest impact on where we believe the greatest severity of harm is going to be. Our policies are living documents. They will evolve. We will add to them, but we thought it important that we focus our energies and prioritize the work as much as we could.
Coons: Well, Mr. Dorsey, I’ll close with this. I cannot think of a greater harm than climate change, which is transforming literally our planet and causing harm to our entire world. I think we’re experiencing significant harm as we speak. I recognize the pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm, but I’d urge you to reconsider that because helping to disseminate climate denialism, in my view, further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world. So thank you to both of our witnesses.
Notably, Dorsey starts with the same argument made by free speech advocates: “Well, misleading information, as you are aware, is a large problem. It’s hard to define it completely and cohesively.” However, instead of then raising concerns over censoring views and comments on the basis for such an amorphous category, Coons pressed for an expansion of the categories of censored material to prevent people from sharing any views that he considers “climate denialism”
There is, of course, a wide array of views that different people or different groups would declare “harmful.” Indeed, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal seemed to take the opposite meaning from Twitter admitting that it was wrong to censor the Biden story. Blumenthal said that he was “concerned that both of your companies are, in fact, backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” Accordingly, he demanded an answer to this question:
“Will you commit to the same kind of robust content modification playbook in this coming election, including fact checking, labeling, reducing the spread of misinformation, and other steps, even for politicians in the runoff elections ahead?”
“Robust content modification” is the new Orwellian term for censorship.
The focus of the government needs to be combating what it views as bad speech with better speech, not trying to prevent or silence those deemed to be misleading others.
Here is the proposal: Board Letter