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Why businesses are lousy at censorship (and shouldn’t try)

Mark Milke: Corporations and their staff cannot know everything, and should avoid banning free expression and robust debates.
Pan Xunbin /

Facebook recently lifted its ban on postings that allege that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (in China) may have had something to do with the nearly 18-month disruption to our lives, families, and businesses because of the Coronavirus.

For Facebook, this is embarrassingly late. In January, the U.S. State Department released a fact sheet that “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation.”

The State Department detailed how it knew that several researchers at the Wuhan lab became sick in the fall of 2019, with what we now know are Covid symptoms. It also noted how accidental virus releases have taken place at other labs; that Wuhan lab research might well have included research on Covid—19 type viruses; and how the transparency on all this was lacking.

For good measure, the U.S. State Department noted that worldwide, two million people are dead due to the Coronavirus, this while the regime in Beijing fiddled and engaged in dissimulation and propaganda.

A year back, when some suggested the coronavirus might have originated in viral lab in Wuhan, and not in a bat cave and from there made it to a “wet” market in Wuhan, those who suggested the lab possibility were labelled conspiracy theorists. And when the U.S. State Department issued its Fact Sheet, the presidency was still held by Donald Trump.

I was never a fan of Trump, nor am I enamoured with what I label as grand conspiracy theories.

However, for Facebook to shut down debates and postings on a legitimate scientific question about the origins of the Coronavirus even before more recent deeper and wider skepticism emerged about China’s claim of a bat-induced virus, was to assume a role Facebook is not capable or assuming: a deity-like arbiter on matters beyond the capability of its staff.

Facebook is not like you and I: It’s a near-natural monopoly

Before detailing that problem, let’s be clear that there is a difference between government censorship and what a private company prevents others from doing with that company’s property. I don’t allow comments on my personal website and The Orca doesn’t provide for comment possibilities on its website.

That is a restriction but hardly the same as a US$ 879 billion social media behemoth provider with 2.85 billion users (I don’t have the time or desire to parse and police website comments for nuttiness, libel, and vileness; I’d rather watch a movie.) In contrast, Facebook has what in economic terms is known as a natural monopoly, or at least the nearest thing to it in the social media world.

One reason why Facebook and other social media giants should avoid policing much content beyond calls to violence and violent and pornographic content, which is traditionally what justifies restrictions on expression (see: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty), is two-fold.

First, Facebook, with its elephantine-like status does not have the expertise—no one does or can—and second, it takes them away from what they indeed need to do: police the revolting stuff.

On the first, it is presumptuous of Facebook’s C-Suite and staff to think they can accurately police fake news accurate news or parse through scientific debates. That would require God-like omniscience about every conceivable topic from science and cause-and-effect relationships on specific matters, i.e., brokering debates between one evolutionary biologist and another, but multiplied by every discipline with every dispute.

Then add in debates over history, proper government policy, morality and much else. This assumed omniscience is actually arrogance.

That this should be blindingly obvious was made clear a few years back when The Verge published an insightful but horrific analysis on how Facebook was using 15,000 contract staff and others sitting at home to do the initial sift of what constitutes legitimate content.

15,000 people are not omniscient

Facebook’s censors were cheaply-paid millennials, but it wouldn’t matter if they were million-dollar scientists in their seventies. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet, and many of those have some expertise any blocker-for-hire will not. It is simply not possible for any human or even 15,000 of them to parse through the billions of possible claims and idea and policy debates and coverage in traditional or new media for accuracy—especially as there are plenty of non-settled debates out there.

Let me give you a clear example from my career, on a topic I’ve researched and written about for 20 years.

Plenty of people think it’s a good idea for governments to police election spending by so-called third parties. In fact, it’s a poor idea. All that does is give incumbents and political parties a near-monopoly on debates—on what is “acceptable” to raise during elections.

Restrictions on third-party spending are actually often restrictions on civil society, on groups as diverse as environmental activists to taxpayer groups to the Raging Grannies. For a government to tell civil society groups that they cannot participate during an election—or with a fraction of the cash a party might spend – is an obvious control-freak approach to a much wider and deeper debate that would otherwise occur.

Fact is, I doubt any one of the 15,000 content controllers at Facebook have done the research on government bans on civil society advertising during elections. And even if they did, we might still arrive at different conclusions.

Now imagine some Facebook moderator decides the issue is settled—in favour of governments, and I’m the one spouting misinformation. Welcome to the posting ban.

Rather than try and police content, or debates, or parse scientific claims, Facebook is better advised to narrowly focus on keeping the vile and violent flow off its product, as they already try and do—and more power to them on that critical job. Beyond that, they should adopt the John Stuart Mill principle of staying away from trying to police ideas and claims. Better to let Facebook posters debate such matter endlessly themselves.

Back to Wuhan and the possible origin of the Coronavirus, a perfect example of Facebook’s flub, why it never should have banned postings about a possible Wuhan lab origin.

In early May, a very lengthy piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the group that's been around for decades with the Doomsday clock) detailed all the science, data and theories. Their short version: The author (with past connections to Nature, Science, and the New York Times), posited that there is no evidence that the virus went from bats to “intermediate hosts” to people.

For that reason and many others detailed, he argued that it’s more likely the virus came from the Wuhan lab.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Atomic Scientists analysis, the debate should never have been short-circuited and banned from Facebook. Neither Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or his 15,000 content moderators have the expertise to wade in on what scientists and others have been debating. Nor do they have the omniscience on the billions of other claims out there.

It is better for Facebook and all of us to be more modest. No one is omniscient.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.