“A lot of people have egg on their face” for dismissing the COVID-19 lab leak theory, tweeted ABC News’ Jonathan Karl this week. “Some things may be true even if Donald Trump said them.”
Or if Arkansas Tom Cotton did. “We still don’t know where coronavirus originated. Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company,” he said in January 2020. “I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”
Cotton never said he was certain the virus came from a lab leak and never suggested a leak was deliberate. But as a Trump supporter, he was quickly smeared, as liberal writer Matthew Yglesias shows in a painstaking analysis — for pushing “conspiracy theories” (CBS News), “spreading rumors that were easily debunked” (Politico), “repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” (Washington Post), and “repeat(ing) fringe theory of coronavirus origins” (New York Times).
In each case, Yglesias points out, writers mischaracterized what Cotton said. “Media coverage of lab leak was a debacle,” writes New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, “and a major source of that failure was Groupthink cultivated on Twitter.”
One newsroom attitude was revealed by a tweet from New York Times COVID-19 reporter Apoorva Mandavilli. “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here yet.” Her assumption that one could doubt China’s dictatorial and deceptive regime only out of anti-Asian prejudice shows the vacuous ignorance and vicious bigotry that Times management apparently values these days.
Such bias is old news these days, and the internet allows readers to seek other outlets. But one great threat to the free transmission of ideas remains: social media that routinely suppresses free speech. A prime culprit is Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which has become the most effective suppressor of freedom of speech in American history.
That’s something it boasts about. In April 2020, Facebook reports slapping “warnings” on 50 million COVID-19 items and adds that 95% of readers don’t seek the original content. It boasts that it “reduces the distribution” of information rated as “false” by its “fact-checkers.”
Garbage in; garbage out. Facebook purports to rely on international and national health agencies, like the China-dominated World Health Organization and the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control, with its laughable requirement that summer campers wear masks this year. Its ranks of fact-checkers are undoubtedly tilted toward recent graduates of woke universities attracted to its headquarters in the no-non-lefties-allowed San Francisco Bay area.
The result is that, until last week, Facebook was suppressing for more than a year — a year in which governments and citizens were making difficult decisions — information suggesting the very lively possibility that the coronavirus leaked from China’s Wuhan lab.
Democratic congressmen are constantly pressing Facebook for more speech suppression. They seem to have no doubts which side Facebook’s processes will favor.
Despite Facebook’s boasted bans, doubts about China’s and Facebook’s insistence that Covid came from China’s live animal markets have percolated up in politically unlikely quarters. Among those taking seriously the lab leak theory are:
—Nicholson Baker in New York magazine last January.
—Longtime New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade May 2 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
—A group of 18 bio-scientists calling on May 13 for a deeper investigation into Covid origins, including the lab leak theory.
—Former New York Times COVID reporter Donald McNeil May 17 in Substack. You may remember that McNeil was forced off the paper for repeating a word that offended a rich high school girl on a Times-sponsored jaunt to Peru.
Then, on May 26, the Biden administration announced it was actively investigating the lab leak hypothesis, meaning that it reversed its shutdown of the inquiry initiated by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Only after the close of business east of the Rockies did Facebook waddle in (at “3:30 PT”) and announce it would “no longer remove the claim that Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured.”
So, for nearly 16 months, Facebook denied readers information about a serious theory whose exploration might have led to a reduced number of deaths and infections. Nice work, Facebook!
Facebook has been licensed to censor by Section 230 of the 1996 telecommunications act which was intended to, and for some time did, encourage the free flow of information. It does that by relieving websites of liability for information they transmit or refuse to transmit. Facebook’s conduct is in line with liberals’ retreat from their once strong support of free speech, which, as lefty reporter Matt Taibbi writes, “has been abandoned in favor of a politics that embrace making us of technology and extreme market concentration to suppress discussion of whose topics.”
Case in point: last fall’s New York Post story on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, stifled on laughably baseless charges of “Russian disinformation.” Didn’t see that on Facebook, did you?
The commercial result is that Facebook has grabbed advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers, magazine and television and radio. The civil result is that Mark Zuckerberg enjoys what the interwar Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said as the aspiration of Britain’s press lords: “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”
There’s increasing talk, among Republicans and Democrats, of repealing Section 230, “to force Big Tech to take more responsibility for the editorial decisions they take.” Tech moguls say that would benefit “a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies” is already the situation today.
More likely, they fear that repeal would, as left-wing economist Dean Baker predicts, cut into profits by requiring “a huge commitment of personnel” to monitor content and a nationwide legal staff to prevent trial lawyers from hauling Bay Area billionaires before local juries. Another possibility: “a massive migration to old-fashioned bulletin boards and other sites where people could post what they wanted without review.”
Facebook’s record on conspiracy theories has been wretched. It was happy for years to spread media stories on Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia, “a truly idiotic conspiracy theory,” as The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim put it, for which no evidence ever emerged. And Facebook was happy for months to stifle any mention of the theory that COVID-19 emerged from a lab leak in China. That’s zero for two, on two huge stories, with both errors pointing in the same political direction. Section 230 was supposed to give us a free flow of information, but instead, it’s given us efficient speech suppression.
Repeal could destroy Facebook’s business model, but from society’s point of view, the optimal stock price for Facebook is 0.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.