Tim wrote yesterday about the wider media hypocrisy around the lab-leak story (the idea that the Coronavirus was accidentally released from a science laboratory in Wuhan, China, rather than occurring naturally in a wet market) but this particular element of the global about-face on the idea is worth some dedicated discussion:
“Facebook will no longer take down posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured, a company spokesperson told POLITICO on Wednesday, a move that acknowledges the renewed debate about the virus’ origins.
Facebook announced in February it had expanded the list of misleading health claims that it would remove from its platforms to include those asserting that “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.” The tech giant has updated its policies against false and misleading coronavirus information, including its running list of debunked claims, over the course of the pandemic in consultation with global health officials.”
In other words, if you are paying attention to the bit in bold (my emphasis), you will note that it is now permissible to debate the origins of Covid 19 because Facebook has decided that it is acceptable.
Since the outbreak of Coronavirus, no facts have changed. Nobody went back in time to change the events of late 2019. All the information that is currently being discussed as part of this “renewed debate” was always there, in plain sight.
The only thing – the only thing – which has changed is that the people who have the power to censor global debate have decided that this particular debate should no longer be censored. Which is, of course, an admission that censorship was in place – and remains in place on other topics – for the duration of the pandemic.
The restrictions on debate during the pandemic – and indeed restrictions on debate more generally – are, of course, based on good intentions. People with the power to “moderate” the internet feared, and fear, that “conspiracy theories” are driving people to extremism. And, believing that they are smarter, and better informed, than the average pleb on the internet, believe that they are doing good by stopping people sharing “crackpot” ideas.
Of course, these people – social media moderators, journalists, and so on – are also, by and large liberal and progressive. So, when Donald Trump, of all people, shares a theory, they quickly, and almost reflexively, dismiss it as crackpot. That is what happened in the case of the lab leak theory. Now that it seems not crackpot after all, and respectable people (by which, of course, we mean liberal journalists) are talking about it, the rest of us may discuss it too.
There has perhaps never been a clearer example of the risks of this kind of censorship.
The problem with restricting speech, and cracking down on crackpot ideas is, and has always been, that sometimes the crackpots are right. After all, Galileo was a crackpot, at one stage.
The wider cultural problem here is that liberalism has never been more dominant, and yet seems to consider itself under permanent siege. The great fear is that the public will become seized of “misinformation” and use that misinformation to propel a largely mythical “far right” into power, which will then undo all the societal gains of the past century. This fear is based largely on the notion, at least in the west, that this was the root cause of the election of Donald Trump, and the UK vote for Brexit. The public, you see, was deceived by misinformation. A “properly informed” public would never, freely, vote against the ideas of liberalism, and this is why information must be controlled. That, in a paragraph, is the case that underlines most modern social media censorship, and it is why it has become so popular since 2016.
The problem, of course, is that it is not working. Forbidden theories like the lab-leak hypothesis get discussed anyway. Anti-vax sentiment circulates via whatsapp, or text message. New platforms spring up, which draw people away from mainstream social media pages, where they marinate only in the company of the like-minded. This, in turn, makes extremism worse, not better.
And after four years of a campaign of censorship, liberals have never felt more insecure, you might argue. The constant fear now is what is being said on places like Telegram, where they fear to tread, and what might be circulating out of sight. Controlling the debate has become an all-encompassing paranoia, and it is not necessarily delivering the expected result.
Free speech, of course, is messy, and requires tolerating people with absurd ideas, and terrible arguments. It requires accepting that other people are often stupid, regularly wrong, and worst of all, sometimes stupid, wrong, and popular. It requires accepting that for every good idea, there might be three bad ones, and trusting the public to sort the wheat from the chaff.
But that process has served humanity well since the enlightenment. By abandoning it, we risk more and more entirely valid points being censored, and taking a step back, into the darkness. All for the sake of sating liberal insecurity.