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Facebook doubles down on ‘good’ censorship

Social media giant Facebook has announced it will be shadow-banning accounts that repeatedly share stuff it doesn’t approve of.

A post by Facebook titled Taking Action Against People Who Repeatedly Share Misinformation stated, “Starting today, we will reduce the distribution of all posts in News Feed from an individual’s Facebook account if they repeatedly share content that has been rated by one of our fact-checking partners.”

Leaving aside the awkward fact that many of those fact checkers depend in Facebook itself for funding, the whole fact checking industry is largely discredited at this stage. It is, of course, absurd for any organization to position itself as the ultimate arbiter of truth, but the Covid pandemic has persuaded social media to decide what information is acceptable for sharing and what is ‘misinformation’.

The term is used so interchangeably with ‘disinformation’ that it’s clear few people understand the difference. US dictionary Merriam-Webster defines misinformation as ‘incorrect or misleading information’, while it says disinformation is ‘false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.’ Clearly the latter attributes malevolent intent where the former doesn’t.

Facebook’s focus on misinformation is clear evidence of a censorious slippery slope at work. It’s hard to argue against its efforts to combat state-sponsored influence operations, however overblown their presumed effects may be. But this seems to have established the precedent for Facebook to poke its nose into everything everyone shares on the grounds that it may constitute misinformation, something that is defined by its own fact checkers.

One of the many issues this raises concerns the fact checking of matters on which there is little hard evidence one way or the other. For some time Facebook banned posts suggesting Covid may have originated from a research lab in Wuhan, as opposed to the no more plausible hypothesis that is was caused by zoonotic transmission from bats.

Recently there has been growing consensus that the lab leak hypothesis is looking increasingly plausible. While it was proposed by the Trump administration it was largely dismissed, but now that President Biden has officially stated it shouldn’t be ruled out, suddenly the US media is being forced into a humiliating U-turn.  Most ridiculously of all Facebook is now having to un-ban posts on the matter.

You would think such a brutal illustration of how flawed its censorship policy is would induce a moment of quiet reflection on Facebook’s part but clearly the opposite is true. And it’s not like this was the first time. Earlier this year an Australian MP was banned from Facebook for sharing ‘unproven’ claims about potential Covid mitigations, despite mainstream opinion remaining very much divided on the matters at hand. And, of course, former President Trump remains banned from Facebook for reasons even its own oversight board doesn’t seem to understand.

Perhaps Facebook was emboldened by the EU’s decision to clamp down on disinformation. “We need to rein in the infodemic and the diffusion of false information putting people’s life in danger,” said Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market. “Disinformation cannot remain a source of revenue. We need to see stronger commitments by online platforms, the entire advertising ecosystem and networks of fact checkers. The Digital Services Act will provide us with additional, powerful tools to tackle disinformation.”

Ridiculous neologisms like ‘infodemic’ just serve to highlight the conflation of censorship and safety that that been accelerated by the pandemic. Throughout history despots have used safety as a pretext for restricting freedom and increasing their own power and, it seems, politicians can increasingly count on the support of internet platforms in pursuing that strategy.

The thing about censorship is that it can only ever be subjective. Even algorithms are a product of the bias of those who write them. It has been shown that the most supposedly objective fact checkers routinely make mistakes and, of course, it’s impossible to know the motivations behind a given social media post.

In short, there’s no such thing as ‘good’ censorship, no matter how well-meaning the censor may consider themselves to be. The only type of censorship internet platforms should be doing is that demanded by law, and that process should be completely transparent. So long as companies like Facebook try to pick winners in the information war they will continue to make themselves look both sinister and foolish.


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