It looks like something plucked straight out of another age, a foreign culture where freedom of expression is always subject to a censor’s whims. Not only is it labelled ‘False Information’ but the accompanying image is greyed out, a design no doubt honed by the ‘user response experts’ at Facebook to dissuade users from clicking on it.
But this is the UK in 2021 and the post is an UnHerd article from yesterday that has now been labelled as misinformation by Facebook.
First, the article itself. Ian Birrell, a multi-award-winning investigative reporter and former deputy editor of the Independent, has been closely following the question of the origins of the Covid-19 virus within Wuhan for much of the past year. He was unimpressed with the hastily concluded World Health Organisation investigation, and the way in which some potential explanations were thrown out with the encouragement of the Chinese regime. Considering the WHO’s recent history in this regard, this kind of journalistic scrutiny is vital.
So on what basis is the article censored? We registered our objection to Facebook’s decision but, as usual with the tech giants, there is no genuine appeals process. There is no visibility or accountability on who made the decision, nor the rationale behind it — once again, the atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of undemocratic regimes. Who do they think they are protecting with this? The WHO? China?
Earlier in the pandemic, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that anything that deviated from WHO guidelines would be removed from the platform — and one of UnHerd’s videos last summer was temporarily taken down on that basis. No doubt it is a similar sensitivity here.
But really it’s a perfect case study of the philosophical knots the tech elite are tying themselves into: eager to please a new Democratic administration, they are trying to enforce a particular world view by making it sacred and unquestionable instead of simply persuading people of its merits. Supposedly authoritative and apolitical bodies like the WHO are crucial building blocks of this official version of truth. But if you can’t scrutinise or question it, what chance does it have of remaining true?
In the UK, this is all going to become very relevant this year, as the Government is currently in the pre-legislation phase of the ‘Online Safety Bill,’ a response to Theresa May’s ‘Online Harms’ white paper. Partially aiming to crack down on serious harms like terrorism and child abuse online — which most right-thinking people would support — it also strays into the dangerous zone of policing ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.
I’ve been assured that the policy approach will be mindful of the need to protect free speech, and avoid creating structural incentives for media and tech platforms to err on the side of censorship. But, since the harrowing experience of this pandemic which has turned many people’s politics upside down, expect a battle. It will pit the renascent authoritarian Tory instinct to protect (see Priti Patel’s call only yesterday for social media networks to censor anti-vaxx posts) directly against the Tory instinct to preserve freedom. The Government will need to decide which is really the greater danger to our society: allowing some whackos to spread crazy theories, or entering a world in which a journalist’s awkward questions about the Chinese Communist regime are pre-emptively censored from British readers?
It’s a chance for Britain to lead the way in rebalancing powers against the big tech hegemon — we’ll see if the Government takes it.
Update — Facebook has apologised for wrongly accusing Ian Birrell and UnHerd of spreading misinformation: ‘This was a mistake on our part. A fact-checking label was wrongly applied to this post yesterday & it was removed earlier this morning. We’re very sorry for any inconvenience or confusion caused.”