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The Media's Lab Leak Debacle Shows Why Banning 'Misinformation' Is a Terrible Idea

3 169 556
04.06.2021

Media Criticism

Robby Soave | 6.4.2021 7:30 AM

Facebook made a quiet but dramatic reversal last week: It no longer forbids users from touting the theory that COVID-19 came from a laboratory.

"In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps," the social media platform declared in a statement.

This change in policy comes in the midst of heated debate about how to respond to the perception that social media is amplifying the spread of false information. For the last several years, journalists and politicians have pushed to police so-called misinformation through various means. Major news organizations have hired mis- or disinformation reporters. Lawmakers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) have urged social media sites to prohibit speech deemed wrong or dangerous—and have sometimes suggested that this should be required by law. More recently, various groups have asked President Joe Biden to establish a federal initiative to combat online misinformation.

But Facebook's concession that the lab leak story it once viewed as demonstrably false is actually possibly true should put to rest the idea that banning or regulating misinformation should be a chief public policy goal.

It's one thing to discuss, debate, and correct wrong ideas, and both tech companies and media have roles to play in fostering healthy public dialogue. But Team Blue's recent obsession with rendering unsayable anything that clashes with its preferred narrative is the height of hubris. The conversation should not be closed by the government and its yes-men in journalism, in tech, or even in public health.

From False Claim to Live Possibility

Consider that Facebook's new declaration sits atop its About page, just above the site's previous policy on coronavirus-related misinformation—dated February 8, 2021—which was to vigorously purge so-called "false claims," including the notion that the disease "is man-made or manufactured." The mainstream media had deemed this notion not merely wrong but dangerously absurd, and tech companies followed suit, suppressing it to the best of their abilities.

"Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked," read a February 2020 Washington Post article that criticized the Arkansas senator for departing from the prevailing narrative. Similarly, Politico both mischaracterized Cotton's claims and said the rumor was "easily debunked within three minutes."

But in recent weeks, the lab leak theory—the idea that COVID-19 inadvertently escaped from a laboratory, possibly the Wuhan Institute of Virology—has gained some public support among experts. In March, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chief Robert Redfield said that he bought the theory. (His admission earned him death threats; most of them came from fellow scientists.) Nicholson Baker, writing in New York, and Nicholas Wade, formerly of The New York Times, both wrote articles that accepted the lab leak as equally if not more plausible than the idea that COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans in the wild (or at a wet market). Even Anthony Fauci, the White House's coronavirus advisor and an early critic of the lab leak theory, now concedes it shouldn't be ruled out as a possibility.

This has forced many in the media to eat crow. Matthew Yglesias, formerly of Vox, assailed mainstream journalism's approach to lab leak as a "fiasco." The Post rewrote its February headline, which now refers to the lab leak as a "fringe theory that scientists have disputed" rather than as a debunked conspiracy theory. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait noted that a few ardent opponents of lab leak "with unusually robust social-media profiles" had used........

© Reason.com


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