“We must remind those like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Susan Wojcicki that they should not silence ideas from the get-go because they fear that people are incapable of evaluating information for themselves.”
ince its founding in the early 1980’s, the Internet has largely been an open and interactive environment, where users could freely express their views and opinions. Not surprisingly, the virtual world was considered to be a refuge of liberty, a land of freedom. However, as the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads rapidly throughout the world, Silicon Valley technology companies have been moving towards taking tighter control over what types of content can be readily accessed online. Using a version of the longstanding argument that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, technology companies have pushed forward constraints on speech under the guise of tackling “misinformation.”
Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and YouTube issued a joint statement on March 16th and updated their guidelines, writing that “ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency, we’ve been working to connect people to accurate information and taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading. […] We remove COVID-19 related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm.”
Yet, the question remains: Is this a good idea? Will these restrictions on speech help curb the spread of the pandemic? Despite their intentions, these types of controls on free expression routinely generate more harm than good.
The Thin Line Between Right and Wrong
There’s often a gray area between information and misinformation. For instance, Facebook blocked videos of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro endorsing hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Yet, at around the same time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mastercard were investing $9.2 million in hydroxychloroquine clinical trials.
Twitter, in turn, locked the account of The Federalist after it linked to an article published on its website that suggested herd immunity was the best method for combatting COVID-19. “It is time to think outside the box and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.” The Federalist’s account tweeted minutes before the account was locked down. But what Twitter considers utterly unspeakable, Sweden reckons to be the most feasible solution to COVID-19, as the Scandinavian nation opts against implementing lockdown policies.
Then, YouTube removed videos of a press conference in which two doctors in California, who have been working on the frontlines with COVID-19 patients, recommended lifting shelter-in-place orders.
The fact is that individuals, groups, and even governments can disagree deeply on what measures should be taken to fight COVID-19. There is no problem with that; the problem lies in closing down the marketplace of ideas.
Who Possesses the Truth?
The reasoning behind regulating online content is straightforward: If people receive the wrong information, they can hurt themselves, hurt others, and hinder necessary efforts to combat the virus. This is a legitimate concern. However, is it sufficient for allowing technology companies to adjudicate what is or is not trustworthy?
Technology company CEOs have been arguing that we must trust science-based knowledge at this moment, which basically means putting the WHO in charge. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that the WHO stated in the middle of January that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” (that was key misinformation) and insisted until the middle of February that no country should enact travel restrictions on China. This helped to enable the virus’ spread further beyond Chinese borders (that was very harmful).
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that some observers are not buying that the WHO is some sort of oracle of truth. We should never acquiesce to technology companies—or anyone—deciding what we are allowed to see, not even to get rid of bad ideas and not even during extraordinary times. Besides, science is not about monopolizing the truth; science is about asking questions, refuting non-verifiable consensuses, formulating hypotheses, and proceeding with systematic exploration. At the end of the day, as a society, we have two options: We can trust people’s intelligence and use social media as a tool to empower users to express different opinions on how to approach the problems we need to solve. Or, alternatively, we can grant technology companies the authority to enforce restrictions on speech, a road that leads us—however well-intended it is—towards a kind of censorship where information is evaluated based on its adherence to a current orthodoxy.
Now, it is important to note, as Dan Sanchez, editor-in-chief of FEE.org, reminds us that the constitutional right to free speech protects citizens from government censorship. Given that the properties of these technology companies are private platforms, if the government coerced their owners into keeping certain content online against their will, “that would be much more a violation of the First Amendment.” As such, using laws or the apparatus of the State to compel these companies to re-open their platforms to a diversity of ideas would be a terrible idea. However, we can use our most powerful weapon: free speech. We can urge them. We can remind them of their founding principles. We can convince them. In Sanchez’s words: “While the decision [of banning ‘anything that would go against World Health Organisation recommendations’] is not unconstitutional, it is unwise.”
We are facing the most overwhelming challenge of our time. Therefore, we need as much help as possible. We need every idea and to explore and discuss every possibility. We must remind those like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Susan Wojcicki that they should not silence ideas from the get-go because they fear that people are incapable of evaluating information for themselves. Indeed, in the past, many of these very executives used to make the case for freedom of expression, such as when Zuckerberg asserted in October of last year: “In a democracy, I don’t think that we want private companies censoring. […] As a principle, people should decide what is credible and what they want to believe.”
Free speech: “the More the Merrier”
Of course, some might argue that free speech is normally desirable, but, in extreme cases such as during a pandemic, we should suppress harmful views. For instance, questioning social distancing can be quite dangerous; doing so may incite people to socialize and, as a consequence, spread the virus.
However, as John Stuart Mill teaches, this notion that we should suppress an opinion because it is false or harmful assumes the infallibility of the suppressor making that judgment. It happens that we are all fallible creatures; human beings do not have unfailing access to the truth. For this reason, all of our beliefs, even the ones we think of as securely founded, must remain open to discussion and revision. If not, true ideas will be suppressed because they are—wrongly—thought to be false or harmful.
In his tremendously influential 1859 work On Liberty, Mill reasons that truths, for the most part, are only half-truths. Thus, unity of opinion is—on the whole—undesirable. Diversity, therefore, is far from an evil and is a good—to make humankind more capable of recognizing all sides of the truth. Needless to say, most opinions are neither completely true nor false. That is why free speech is so important: It allows for the airing of competing ideas and preserves the partial truths within each one of them.
Finally, even if a belief is ultimately found to be false, the fact that it is being articulated can still drive us to secure the truth by refuting the error. Debate tends to lead to greater understanding. For a true idea to keep its vitality and power, it needs to be confronted and probed. With no active defiance, we risk losing the real meaning of the ideas we adopt. It is, therefore, essential to hear counterarguments—unless we prefer to hold onto dead dogmas, rather than living truths.
So yes, free speech can help us fight COVID-19 by fostering ideas that will allow us to get through this health crisis. However, we must open our ears and eyes to as many voices and opinions as possible. In this sense, the most harmful idea is the idea that “censorship,” even in a time of crisis, is the preferable alternative to the ever-important need for free speech.
Jean Vilbert is a freelancer writer in Brazil.