Joe Biden tells us that Facebook is literally killing people by allowing disinformation about vaccines to be spread on its pages.
Well, yes, and Mr President?
A serious question there, not just some flight of rhetoric. So, this is true – imagine it is true at least – and so what are we going to do about it?
Joe Biden says social media platforms such as Facebook “are killing people” for allowing disinformation about coronavirus vaccines to be posted on its platform, as the administration continued criticising the company.
“They’re killing people. … Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people,” the US president told reporters at the White House on Friday, when asked about disinformation and what his message was to social media platforms such as Facebook.
Covid19 vaccination in Delhi, India – 01 Mar 2021
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Manish Rajput/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock (11780992s) Senior citizens wait to receive the Covishield vaccine at Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital. India begins phase 2 of Coronavirus Vaccination Drive Inoculating over 60s at Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital in New Delhi, opening registrations for people above 60 years and those aged 45 in the second phase of the inoculation drive which began on January 16. Covid19 vaccination in Delhi, India – 01 Mar 2021
Covid-19 disinformation has proliferated during the pandemic on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube. Researchers and lawmakers have long accused Facebook of failing to police harmful content on its platforms.
The obvious call here is for Facebook to make sure that such harmful information isn’t posted. And that is what the call actually is, what in fact Facebook is doing too. Wander around claiming that having a vaccine will turn you into something hideous like a Democrat and you’ll be off the platform as fast as Joe himself can forget his lines. Which isn’t, in itself, a problem. For vaccines are good things, being a Democrat is not, so we shouldn’t confuse the two issues.
It’s also true that we are in a pandemic, we’d prefer not to be, vaccination is our way out and so on.
The problem comes at a level higher than this, one level more meta. Once we do decide that harmful information should not be published – and we do, always, insist upon that, incitement to violence is a crime and so on, we do insist that harmful information not be published for some definition of “harmful” – then we’ve got to have a definition of what is harmful as applied to information and then, one step beyond that, who decides?
Which is where our problem comes in. We can imagine people being pushed out of that public square for insisting that all, not just black, lives matter. This has happened just recently. We might really stretch the bounds of believability and think that someone might get deplatformed for insisting that sex is genetic and innate while gender can be whatever flight of fancy society constructs it to be.
Or perhaps a losing politician gets banned for insisting that the election was stolen. Well, no, that’s obviously going much to far into idiocy, no one would ever believe that.
So, what is this definition of harm then? Minimum wages don’t cause unemployment? Society is systematically racist? 30 million Americans live in poverty?
Well, that all rather depends upon who it is that gets to define what is harmful, doesn’t it? As a theoretical answer harm will be defined as whatever the establishment doesn’t like. It will, after all, be the establishment defining what is harm. Given the beliefs of our current establishment that’s not holding out great hope for the dissemination of truth now, is it?
Say, something that really does need to be said. Sure, the American west is having wildfires. This is. apparently, all to do with climate change. Except maybe not. That the American west evolved to burn and hasn’t been allowed to burn for a century might have something to do with it. So, is calling for repeated and low level burns sensible free speech of to be banned because dangerous and harmful climate denial?
Do not, whatever else you might end up thinking, believe that any system of controlling harmful speech will not be taken over by such people and their concerns. We have good evidence of this too – just look at what people get Twitter bans for saying. Sure, much of it might even be wrong but that’s not why the bans, they’re saying something against the current orthodoxy.
The process runs against our historic and folk knowledge. The Daily Sport telling us there’s a WWII bomber on he Moon. World Weekly News insisting that the aliens have returned Elvis and he’s now cooking up cheeseburgers in Alabama. This is harmful information, it’s certainly untrue. But as we’ve found out over the centuries it’s only be allowing that freedom to publish that we also provide the freedom, the space, for the WaPo to publish the president sent plumbers into the democrats – and not to clear the drains. Or that the NYT has to room to publish pentagon papers.
Or, as we might put it, a free press really does have to be a free press. For while that does mean giving room to the nutters any system of restriction means we’ll only ever be presented with approved views – and at that point it matters greatly who is doing the approving.