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OPINION | MICHAEL BARONE: Facebook goes 0-for-2

by Michael Barone | June 7, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

"A lot of people have egg on their face" for dismissing the covid-19 lab leak theory, tweeted ABC News' Jonathan Karl recently. "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" (The Washington Post), and "repeat(ing) fringe theory of coronavirus origins" (The 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, 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 percent 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. Centers for Disease Control, with its laughable requirement that summer campers wear masks this year.

The result is that until recently, 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.

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."

There's increasing talk, among Republicans and Democrats, of repealing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Act, "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," 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.


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