Tom Slater

Covid has emboldened our modern censors

Covid has emboldened our modern censors
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The past year has accelerated all kinds of trends that were already moving through our societies. Social atomisation, the decline of the high street and communities, the rise of the nanny state — Covid and lockdown have brought all of these to the fore. Among the most concerning is the rise of Big Tech censorship, and the way in which a handful of Silicon Valley oligarchs have come to set the terms of debate and even rule on what is true.

This week representatives from Facebook and Twitter were brought before parliament to discuss their firms’ censorship of discussion around Covid. Two particularly pertinent cases were raised — though there are many more. The first was a statement by Martin Kulldorff, a professor at the Harvard Medical School and one of the key authors of the anti-lockdown Great Barrington Declaration. His tweet last month, suggesting that not everyone needed to be vaccinated, particularly those who had previously been infected, was labelled ‘misleading’ by Twitter. Tweeters were rendered unable to interact with it and were instructed that 'health officials recommend a vaccine for most people'. Similarly, in November, Facebook labelled a Spectator article on the efficacy of masks, penned by Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, as ‘false information’.

Here we have two social-media giants effectively intervening in scientific debate. Kulldorff, Heneghan and Jefferson are not snarling conspiracy theorists or bluffers wading into things they don’t understand. They are dissenting scientists and medics who hold positions at esteemed institutions. On what basis could Facebook or Twitter simply declare their arguments null and void? The answers provided to parliamentarians were chilling. Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy at Twitter, essentially said anything that contradicts official guidance from public health authorities is deemed misleading by the platform. She told the committee: 

What we want to do is when people see [Kulldorff's] tweet to really quickly direct them to authoritative sources of information like the CDC, the NHS or the Department of Health so they can see what the official guidance is and make up their own mind.

Ms Minshall's comment is, ironically, misleading — Twitter isn't inviting people to 'make up their own minds', it is labelling statements as incorrect and banning users from interacting with it. Given that public health authorities across the world have got a lot wrong during this pandemic — this time last year UK health authorities were advising against masks and until last summer Public Health England wasn’t even counting the deaths properly — this seems a dodgy standard. Later on, Facebook’s representative told the Lords that an army of fact-checkers, most of whom will not have had any medical or scientific training, essentially have the final say on what is or isn’t deemed ‘false’ on the world’s biggest social network.

Social media censorship is nothing new of course. For years now Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been gradually tightening their policies around hate speech and misinformation in response to various moral panics about bigotry, bile and bunkum on their platforms. But the Covid pandemic has pushed them well beyond what even they would have previously been comfortable with. There was an elitist assumption at the beginning of the pandemic that people are idiots and so shouldn’t be left to navigate the Covid debate for themselves. This led to incredible pressure being piled on social media giants to filter, fact-check and censor. As recently as 2018, Mark Zuckerberg insisted that Facebook would not censor conspiracy theories, even Holocaust denial, because it was not Facebook’s business to rule on what is true. Now Facebook, Twitter and the rest are censoring not only Covid-denying loons but also eminent scientists who just so happen to dissent from official orthodoxy. 

This is a disaster for freedom of speech. These corporate giants essentially own the modern-day public square. What’s more, at a time when citizens are being asked to put up with unprecedented restrictions on all their other liberties, freedom of speech must not be compromised. Even where there is a strong consensus on a specific course of action — like lockdown — dissent is still vital. If nothing else, it forces the powers that be to present their evidence and refine their arguments. In times of crisis, free speech matters more not less. And yet Big Tech took the precise opposite message from the pandemic. Covid became a pretext on which it has further tightened its grip.