The dishonest broker

Fake news” and “anti-vax” are attack terms reserved for those who question the official medical line, especially in these Covid-crazy days. But there’s only one way we will ultimately know whether something is fake or true—and that’s with the passing of time. Until we have that perspective, it’s all so much censorship or propaganda.

Right now, social media platforms are relying on position statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) as their lodestar for navigating through the waters of Covid and vaccination-related posts and videos.

But even without the benefit of time, we know they can be false friends. Journalist Jeremy R. Hammond has had Facebook posts about vaccines judged as being “unreliable” by the platform’s fact-checkers, and yet they are based in fact.

In one example, he posted that vaccines could cause encephalopathy, or brain damage, which was branded as fake news—but the statement is true. Merck’s own manual lists it as a possible adverse reaction to one of its vaccines, and the US government includes it as a harm under its Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

In another fact-check, Hammond’s post that the WHO’s chief scientist had lied about vaccine safety was branded as false—although it’s documented that after making reassuring noises that vaccines are administered around the world “without risk,” Dr Soumya Swaminathan later stated in a WHO meeting that “we cannot over-emphasize the fact that we really don’t have very good safety monitoring systems in many countries” and that the risk of a serious adverse reaction from a vaccine is “always there.”

Facebook supporters (and shareholders) might argue that the platform is an independent and dispassionate outlet without an axe to grind—but it has a public duty not to spread untruths and panic, especially in a crisis, echoing the much-quoted legal judgment that we have freedom of speech just as long as we don’t falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.

And if you aren’t an expert, you turn to recognized sources such as the CDC or the WHO to validate statements. So far, so ho-hum, but there’s a further twist to the tale. It seems Facebook hasn’t been quite the honest “we know nothing” broker it purports to be.

Instead, it appears to have been coerced by the US government. It buckled under a threat made by Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, who, in February 2019, was planning legislation to remove Facebook’s immunity under the Communications Decency Act unless it implemented algorithms to suppress “vaccine misinformation” and advertising.

Seeing the legislation as a mortal blow to its vast advertising revenues, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called on the CDC and the WHO to help identify “misinformation” posts that might cause vaccine hesitancy among parents.

This unseemly trade-off has been revealed by attorney Robert F Kennedy Jr, who is suing Facebook for the very reason that it is a government mouthpiece and not an independent information clearing house.

His nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, which provides legal support to parents whose children have been harmed by vaccines, had its donations button removed from its Facebook page because it was deemed to have spread “misinformation” about vaccinations and the new 5G cell phone network.

As an agent of government, it is unconstitutional for Facebook to censor free speech—and more critically, “valid and truthful speech,” Kennedy argues in his submission.

The framers of the American Constitution were fully aware of government controls in England that had “managed” a free press throughout the seventeenth century, granting printing licenses only to the friendliest of voices. The First Amendment was an attempt to block similar moves by Congress, and, Kennedy argues, Facebook is essentially a modern-day printing press that is doing the government’s bidding.

By describing his group’s posts as valid and truthful, Kennedy also circumvents the counterargument that they are irresponsible and untrue—that, even if the theater isn’t on fire, the wiring looks very faulty, and it’s a hazard at the very least.

Such is the function of those who take an opposing view to established voices. They help shine a light on the dark corners that governments and corporations would rather you didn’t see, and steer initiatives onto a safer path that causes the least harm to its citizens.

In so doing, the so-called “fake news” merchants and “anti-vaxxers” become part of the complex patterns that eventually create the truth, as time always tells.