Facebook has ramped up its efforts to control the flow of information since Biden’s proclamation two weeks ago that it was “killing people” by allowing people to post “misinformation” about Covid-19 and vaccines. Now not even job posts that mention the need for potential employees to be tested or vaccinated can escape the dreaded “Visit the COVID-19 Information Center” banner. It’s gotten to the point where they are no longer just suppressing incorrect facts, but unapproved opinions as well.
Because of this, many people are reaching a point where they consider official disapproval to be a mark of truth. Conspiracy theorists – who have always posted and shared made-up crap under the radar – held this view for years. I suspect that the modern flat Earth movement came into being when someone was talking to their conspiracy theorist buddy and argued that “Not everything the official sources say is necessarily false. Just because they say the Earth is round, that doesn’t mean you can really believe it’s flat.” To which the conspiracy theorist replied, “hold my beer.”
If we can accept the possibility that at least on rare occasions official sources might get something right, then we need to evaluate official claims on the strength of their evidence. Ideally, social media could be a great place for that process. Someone posts a claim, someone asks for evidence, the original poster or someone else posts evidence, someone replies to that with conflicting evidence or pointing out problems with their evidence, and so on, and if we could do this in a civilized manner, we might get closer to the truth. Conversation is necessary for understanding, scrutiny is the source of scientific knowledge, and opposition is the forge of experience.
Scrutiny often dismantles falsehoods, which is why – back in the days when there were lots of conspiracy theory groups on Facebook – they were careful to block any dissenting voices from their page. Rational, evidence-based discussions are the bane of both conspiracy theories and government propaganda, which is why censorship of rational discussions empowers both. Censorship doesn’t hurt conspiracy theories much, what they lose in Facebook traffic to their pages they more than make up for with the strange new credibility the censorship has given them and the “secret hidden knowledge” they can implicitly or explicitly promise.
Social media censorship often decreases the reach of true stories the mainstream media/DNC disagrees with, like the Hunter Biden emails or Covid-19 Wuhan lab-leak theory, but not so much that we haven’t heard of them. The most damage is done to open, skeptical discussion and exchange of intellectually diverse materials and ideas. Conspiracy theories can be marketed as “the video THEY don’t want you to see,” but the truth usually doesn’t get the benefit of that exciting heading.
Facebook censorship empowers not only conspiracy theories, but run-of-the-mill rumors. For example, I recently came across a claim that a conservative boycott of Coca-Cola over their noted support of critical race theory had successfully damaged their business.
This claim could be true, but I was skeptical, if only because of the fact that conservatives are notoriously lousy at following through on boycotts. The top-down control approach to baloney like this is to hide it, make it blurry to the audience, and/or to reduce its reach. But maybe there’s evidence. The rational, decentralized, libertarian approach is to ask for a source, which I did.
Facebook blocked my comment which was asking for a source because social media censorship is designed to prevent all controversial conversations. Any possibility of pointing out the need for a source or trading evidence with the original poster is automatically ruled out.
Of course, social media companies and news organizations are private companies and can legally censor whoever they want, as many libertarians will constantly remind everyone who will listen (though the government’s finger is clearly on the scale at this point). But libertarians should also know better than anyone else that you can’t derive morality from legality. And you can’t derive efficacy or practicality from either.
Rumors, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines continue to thrive, despite (or possibly because of) social media’s censorship. But without the censorship, we might have a rational discussion about how necessary the vaccine is for certain populations or the need for mask mandates, and that’s even more unacceptable. Without censorship, we might be able to discuss the issue, to trade evidence, and maybe to convince each other of the right position. Or we might not, as humans often let their emotion override their reason. But it’s better than letting falsehoods go unchallenged by having no discussion at all.