Is social media your chosen physician?

Facebook recently declared it would refuse to air advertisements that discourage people from being vaccinated.

Facebook recently declared it would refuse to air advertisements that discourage people from being vaccinated. Facebook senior executives Kang-Xing Jin and Rob Leathem explained their policy is intended to improve overall vaccination rates. Just to be clear: I fully support vaccination programs.

While we wait and hope for a COVID-19 vaccine, our response has been to suppress the spread of the virus through PPE, social isolation and lockdowns. The official narrative claims these actions will save lives and minimize the cost of treating the virus.

Those who dissent have been silenced, unable to get their message into the mainstream. Facebook and others moderate the content they release and block attempts to discuss opinions other than the official ones. 

Moderate is code for censor. Facebook and others such as Twitter claim their moderation algorithms select what to release based on individual reader preferences, in turn, based on a reader’s prior searches and clicks. They say the goal is to increase viewing and reduce bounce ratios. Whether they also promote a political agenda is conjecture, but many people believe they do.  

If a dissenting view does not appear in a search, then one cannot click on it or view the content. That is censorship, not moderation.

The current pandemic highlights the issue of internet censorship. “The only thing spreading faster than the coronavirus has been censorship. Facebook will not only remove posts; it considers misinformation about the coronavirus but will issue warnings to those who “like” such postings.” 

Three well-respected physicians wrote a dissenting opinion on COVID called the Great Barrington Declaration. It calls for a cessation of lockdowns, social distancing, and PPE except for high-risk individuals. In that way, we can stop the virus with herd immunity, restore our economy to vitality, and return our children to school.

Shortly after the Great Barrington Declaration was posted, it was taken down and discussion was blocked.  A massive outcry forced Facebook to repost it. At this time, thousands of physicians have added their names to this alternate plan.

Should a social media platform be vetting opinions about your medical care? Should Facebook be acting as your doctor? 

Facebook is a social media platform. Some use it to acquire information and Facebook executives want to foster the belief their content is reliable.  

The outlets who distribute news–including print, broadcast, and internet platforms–curate what they publish. They check for accuracy and completeness. 

Articles considered unreliable or inaccurate are not published. Readers expect such verification of articles. Publishers do not curate advertisements as Facebook did with the anti-vaccination ad, and readers do not expect publications to “curate” (verify) ads. Whether a hair restorer, wrinkle remover, or non-stick cooking pan actually work is not a publisher’s concern. Americans know they must live by caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

Social media outlets do not or should not claim to be outlets for verified information. They provide a means for social discourse — true, false, spun, accurate, fabricated, and everything in between. We decide which is which, not Facebook.

Americans do not like internet censorship. Research shows that 73 percent of Americans believe social media sites such as Facebook intentionally censor political and other speech that the site editors do not like. A different study showed that many believe both broadcast and internet news is preselected and “biased.” Members of the public say they want the same information that others get, not what Facebook moderators think a specific individual should see.

One internet provider justified censorship by saying, “The First Amendment is very specific: It protects all of us as Americans from the government limiting our speech, … [Internet] companies have the ability to decide what speech they will allow. They’re not the government.” No, they’re not.

The First Amendment commands, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” That is not specific, nor is it limited to the federal government. The First Amendment and the principle underpinning it applies to everyone. It protects speech from being “abridged” (curtailed) whether the person is a government employee or private citizen and whether the speech is political or medical.  

The First Amendment protects almost all speech, but there are exceptions. Speech prohibited by law includes sedition (Sedition Act of 1798), obscenity and child pornography, fraud and calls to illegal acts. Some may be surprised to learn that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, as long as there is no call to violence.

Regardless of attempts at exoneration by internet providers (after all, they mean well), internet providers of social discourse should not censor, moderate, or limit content in any way except as proscribed by law.

Americans did not choose Facebook as our physician. 

Deane Waldman, M.D. MBA, is Professor Emeritus of Pediatric, Pathology, and Decision Science; former Director of Center for Healthcare Policy at Texas Public Policy Foundation; and author of “Curing the Cancer in U.S. Healthcare: StatesCare and Market-Based Medicine.” 

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