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Censoring Misinformation Could Threaten Free Speech

Government using private companies to restrict speech is a threat to free speech

In the wake of declining COVID-19 vaccination rates, the Biden administration is accusing Facebook of not doing enough to combat misinformation on the platform. The administration has even gone so far to flag Facebook posts and demand the company take those posts down.

“We are in regular touch with the social media platforms and those engagements typically happen through members of our senior staff and also members of our COVID-19 team — given as [Surgeon General] Dr. Murthy conveyed, this is a big issue, of misinformation, specifically on the pandemic,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. 

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy now claims that misinformation is a threat to freedom. Misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings. It’s led them to turn down proven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated. This has led to avoidable illnesses and deaths,” said Murthy.

President Joe Biden even said that Facebook is “killing people” before he backtracked on that statement. 

While misinformation is a real problem on social media, it is a terrible idea for the government to pressure social media companies to ban it. It could open the door for the government to go around the First Amendment and use private industry in order to censor speech.

In fact, we already have government agencies calling for people to be banned on social media. New York City Health Department commissioner Dr. David Chokshi wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey urging that the so-called “dirty dozen” social media posters who are allegedly responsible for 65% of all vaccine misinformation be kicked off of social media

Even the White House has chimed in on whether or not people should be kicked off of social media. Press Secretary Psaki says that if you have been banned from any social media platform for spreading misinformation, you should be banned from all of them. That is despite the fact that such coordination between Big Tech companies would surely trigger antitrust legal action since the companies would be acting as a cartel. 

The government isn’t just flagging social media posts and using the bully pulpit to encourage social media companies to ban them. Some in the legislative space have even suggested making social media companies legally liable for them

It is easy to see where a state-encouraged crackdown on “misinformation” would go. It is naïve to believe that such a move would end with COVID-19.

It is not out of the realm of possibility to see the government encourage social media companies to crack down on climate change “misinformation.” After all, climate change is seen as a national emergency that is as big or even bigger than COVID-19 by some in government. It is not hard to see the government encouraging social media companies to crackdown on climate change related content that differs from the official narrative.

Another issue we could see a theoretical campaign against misinformation on is gun control. Already New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared gun violence an emergency. Once again, it’s not hard to see the government encouraging social media companies to ban any content that differs from the official narrative.

By blaming misinformation by random social media users, the government is avoiding the one of the biggest spreaders of misinformation which is itself. For example, one of the biggest providers of COVID-19 misinformation has been none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci himself. Fauci has flip-flopped or provided incorrect information on everything from lockdowns to masks. Should we then ban Dr. Fauci from social media as well?

In a free society, the best cure for misinformation is the truth.

Why isn’t the government encouraging people to talk to their doctors to decide if the vaccine is right for them? Doctors and other healthcare professionals should use their platforms to correct the record and spread the most accurate information about the virus. 

There is no question that misinformation has been a problem in encouraging people to get vaccinated. There is no question that much of it has come from the conservative media, which is clearly constitutionally protected, in addition to social media. 

But the answer is not for the government to work around the First Amendment by outsourcing censorship to private companies. It could lead to even more abuses of power by government on other issues.

Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer with bylines in numerous publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinBoyd and find more of his work on his Substack