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How Are Social Media Companies Supposed To Handle Government-Sponsored Misinformation?

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The trouble with anointing Twitter and Facebook as gatekeepers of coronavirus truth. This is not a post about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on COVID-19 being wrong. It is a post about the possibility that the CDC could be wrong—as any government agency or respected private authority might be—about some aspects of the coronavirus, and about how we address government-sponsored misinformation on social media.

In the past few years, a lot of Americans have decided that it’s the responsibility of popular tech platforms and apps to police the truth for their users. In a fog of notions about Russia and right-wing trolls, many left-leaning lawmakers, pundits, and politically active social media users demanded that Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk “fact-check” certain types of information, prioritize content from selected media and government sources, and downplay or entirely suppress content that counters experts’ claims.

In the run-up to the 2020 election and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, these sorts of pushes have only intensified. Many people are sure that the way to correct the record and stave off mass hysteria is for tech platforms to play ultimate arbiters of truth, deciding not which version of things is correct but which version can even be discussed.

The impulse is understandable. The sharing of insane conspiracy theories and bad data on social platforms is cross-partisan, often apolitical, and effectively knows no bounds. But censoring bad ideas and “fake news” has never made them less credible to their believers, and can make them even more popular. Besides, not all unpopular or wild ideas are untrue, and not all government data or recommendations are right.

We needn’t even look back to previous crises to confirm this. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, government health authorities recommended against people wearing masks.

President Donald Trump has made a slew of questionable coronavirus claims throughout the pandemic, with many Democrats advocating for Twitter and other platforms to affix fact checks to the president’s posts or delete them entirely. Meanwhile, these same factions have pushed for tech companies to prioritize data and recommendations from officials Trump appoints and agencies his administration oversees. It’s bizarre.

This week, two respected public health experts—Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation—wrote in The New York Times that CDC guidelines on testing asymptomatic people exposed to the coronavirus are wrong and should be ignored.

Earlier this week, CDC information on COVID-19 deaths was widely misinterpreted—including by Trump—to mean that the agency was overcounting coronavirus deaths by about 94 percent.

All of this highlights is how precarious our grasp on good information is—and how it can only be bettered by allowing open debate, instead of deferring to experts and demanding that tech algorithms do, too.


QUICK HITS

• The White House is preparing some sort of pandemic-related moratorium on evictions:

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“Those seeking eviction relief will still be required to pay as much rent as they can afford,” said Bloomberg reporter Saleha Mohsin on Twitter. “The move could impact ‘close to’ 40 million renters, Mnuchin said earlier today.”

• In Massachusetts, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, “the most powerful Democrat whom progressives challenged this year,” looks to be safe (he was facing a challenge from a much younger and more left-leaning Democratic candidate). And, as of this morning, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III is losing in his bid to take Sen. Edward J. Markey’s Senate seat. “Kennedy may become the first member of his storied family to lose a race in Massachusetts,” the Times points out.

• “August 2020 saw more gun sales than any other August on record as Americans continue to rush to gun stores at a record pace,” according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis of FBI data.

• In response to Australian government regulations, Facebook is “threatening to stop allowing Australians to share news articles on its platforms, including on Instagram.”

• There aren’t enough eye roll emojis in the world for this:

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• Dan Drezner maps out “the multiple tribes who think the [2020 presidential] race is narrowing, why they think that and how seriously to take their arguments.”

• No, the idea that politicians are being controlled by a shadow government didn’t start with QAnon:

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• Los Angeles is really going through with disconnecting people’s utilities if they violate social distancing orders:

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• Yale Law School successfully sued to allow the publication of an unredacted version of former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan’s 2011 memoir about terrorism and torture.

• R.I.P. Scooby-Doo creator Joe Ruby.

Reason picked up some new Los Angeles Press Club awards!

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About The Author

Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Founded in 1968, Reason is the magazine of free minds and free markets. We produce hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, technology, culture, policy, and commerce. Reason exists outside of the left/right echo chamber. Our goal is to deliver fresh, unbiased information and insights to our readers, viewers, and listeners every day. Visit https://reason.com

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