How Are Social Media Companies Supposed To Handle Government-Sponsored Misinformation?
The trouble with anointing Twitter and Facebook as gatekeepers of coronavirus truth. This is not a post about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on COVID-19 being wrong. It is a post about the possibility that the CDC could be wrong—as any government agency or respected private authority might be—about some aspects of the coronavirus, and about how we address government-sponsored misinformation on social media.
In the past few years, a lot of Americans have decided that it’s the responsibility of popular tech platforms and apps to police the truth for their users. In a fog of notions about Russia and right-wing trolls, many left-leaning lawmakers, pundits, and politically active social media users demanded that Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk “fact-check” certain types of information, prioritize content from selected media and government sources, and downplay or entirely suppress content that counters experts’ claims.
In the run-up to the 2020 election and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, these sorts of pushes have only intensified. Many people are sure that the way to correct the record and stave off mass hysteria is for tech platforms to play ultimate arbiters of truth, deciding not which version of things is correct but which version can even be discussed.
The impulse is understandable. The sharing of insane conspiracy theories and bad data on social platforms is cross-partisan, is often apolitical, and effectively knows no bounds. But censoring bad ideas and “fake news” has never made them less credible to their believers, and can make them even more popular. Besides, not all unpopular or wild ideas are untrue, and not all government data or recommendations are right.
We needn’t even look back to previous crises to confirm this. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, government health authorities recommended against people wearing masks.
President Donald Trump has made a slew of questionable coronavirus claims throughout the pandemic, with many Democrats advocating for Twitter and other platforms to affix fact checks to the president’s posts or delete them entirely. Meanwhile, these same factions have pushed for tech companies to prioritize data and recommendations from officials Trump appoints and agencies his administration oversees. It’s bizarre.
This week, two respected public health experts—Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation—wr
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