Not so long ago, a “Ministry of Information” was an institution unique to socialist “utopias,” which required rigorous establishment and enforcement of official truth to maintain state power. As absurd as such an institution may have once seemed to us in the West, we are unfortunately seeing signs that it can indeed happen here.
On July 22, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ben Ray Lujan announced the “Health Misinformation Act,” proposing an exemption to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The bill stipulates that “[f]eatures that are built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, with social media platforms incentivizing individuals to share content to get likes, comments, and other positive signals of engagement, which rewards engagement rather than accuracy.”
The initiative came in the wake of statements by President Joe Biden and Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who have been less concrete (but certainly as belligerent) in intending to hold tech platforms accountable for the public proliferation of medical “misinformation.”
The bill’s announcement comes in the midst of the more general push to do something about Section 230. As the power of tech platforms to affect the spread of information has become undeniable, the struggle to control them by means of the lever of their exemption from legal liability under Section 230 has come into full swing.
What this particular bill would allow politicians to do, thanks to its limited and seemingly uncontroversial scope, is to question whether liability for tech platforms is a good idea. After all, “medical information” is a topic generally discussed in terms of hard data and science.
The interesting thing, however, is that we’ve already seen, in the past year, how a prohibition on medical “misinformation” might work. In consultation with the CDC and other health authorities, platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have removed content or peppered “informative links” wherever their users dared to express their views on issues related to COVID-19 or vaccines.
Discussion of possible cures or treatments has been aggressively discouraged, as has been speculation about the virus’s origins. The vaccine-as-panacea narrative has been dutifully pushed, and all skepticism as to vaccine safety or effectiveness suppressed until evidence of their collateral risk could be made to fit the narrative, procrustean-style.
Meanwhile, the party line on mask-wearing seems to change quarterly, as official recommendations shift from no-mask, to mask, and back again. Disputes about the role of aerosols in transmission, a theory now quietly accepted, went on mostly in the background.
In themselves, shifts in predominant belief among experts are not problematic. After all, science starts with admitting there is something we do not know, and our understanding may be revised repeatedly before we reach any level of certainty. What has not helped matters, however, is the all-too-human tendency to be invested in positions one has taken, which makes it difficult — perhaps especially for authoritative experts — to change one’s view in light of new evidence.
In addition, and more troubling still, we have seen during this pandemic scientific experts consulted to decide on the acceptable bandwidth of online debate, experts who were, for example, professionally and financially invested in rejecting examination of their fellows in Wuhan. Given the dry run we’ve just had, it is difficult to believe Klobuchar’s bill has anything to do with furthering the discovery and proliferation of lifesaving medical information.
In times of fear and insecurity, the pull to appeal to authority might feel irresistible. But if we keep our wits about us, we will recall that we in the West have largely resisted this fallacious approach, both in science and politics, since the time the Catholic Church censored Galileo. (As if Socrates being forced to drink hemlock wasn’t enough!)
Are we now ready to feign amnesia once again and to obediently accept a truth proclaimed from the top down? Or is intense debate and controversy — ah, those uncomfortable disagreements that we experience in abundance in a pluralist society — an integral component of the scientific mindset, and approach which has brought us unprecedented wellbeing?
Interestingly, Klobuchar’s bill calls out algorithms favoring “engagement over accuracy.” Here she echoes others who have complained about online platforms’ algorithmic manipulation and monetization of controversy. Today’s polarized society demonstrates that accuracy is not the only casualty of these algorithms, which have so far escaped serious scrutiny.
In the case of actual rights violations and damages due to algorithms, the proper means of redress is litigation brought by private individuals, such as those brought by former President Donald Trump. The rest should be left to a free market to decide. Government officials telling private companies to censor disfavored viewpoints on vital issues is the stuff of totalitarian regimes, not of a free country built on the homage of reason.