Tech giants should not be arbiters of truth
Monday, a group calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” staged a press conference outside the steps of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., in order to speak out about their belief that the medication hydroxychloroquine was an effective tool to fight COVID-19.
The star of the show was Dr. Stella Immanuel, a physician at Rehoboth Medical Center in Houston, who spoke about her own experience treating patients. Said Immanuel, “In the past few months, after taking in over 350 patients, we have not lost one. Not a diabetic, not somebody with high blood pressure, not somebody with asthma, not an old person.”
The video of the press conference was loaded onto social media channels quickly, where it was shared widely by many people, including, of course, President Donald Trump.
Of course, the statements made by Immanuel were contrary to the official position of both the Food and Drug Administration as well as the National Institute of Health, both of which say that hydroxychloroquine is not beneficial in the treatment of COVID. Thus, reporters began looking into her background and left wing outlets had a field day ridiculing her as someone who believes in “Alien DNA and Demon Sperm.”
That’s when Facebook, Twitter and Youtube jumped into our story by removing the video from their platforms.
The justification for the removal of the video was pretty simple. The tech giants all claimed that the video spread dangerous misinformation, and contradicted the scientific consensus in the medical community.
By my estimation, they are almost certainly right that Immanuel and friends were peddling misinformation, but even if the claims in the video were utter nonsense, that should have been no justification for social media companies taking it down.
The concept of free speech is about so much more than just the Constitutional protection afforded to citizens against government restrictions on speech. It is in fact a bedrock American principle that rightly holds that the free expression of ideas, even if you are wrong, and even if no one agrees with you, is vital to the healthy functioning of our republic.
Yes, even if you are wrong. Because in a free society, progress is always made by those who reject the majority opinion. Scientific advancement is made by those that break the established order, and carve a new path.
That means that a lot of liars, hucksters and morons will have to be heard. We have to tolerate that to ensure that we are able to hear the geniuses and the revolutionaries that are telling us things we aren’t ready to hear, but one day will be.
Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician, and was an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures in medicine. Observing that the mortality rate for women in his ward in Vienna went radically down if he simply washed his hands prior to treating patients, he ultimately published a book of his findings.
Unfortunately, his observations conflicted with established scientific and medical opinions among his contemporaries, and suggested doctors were causing deaths. Thus many in the medical community rejected his advice, condemning untold numbers of women to death.
Of course Semmelweis isn’t alone. Aristarchus and then later Copernicus had their theories of heliocentrism widely opposed and dismissed in their time. Gregor Mendel, who conducted pioneering work on genetic inheritance was not taken seriously until more than three decades after his observations were published. The list goes on.
The point of this isn’t to suggest that Immanuel is Copernicus. Quite the opposite, as I am rather certain she is no sage of truth.
But that doesn’t matter. The point is that when adherence to consensus opinion becomes the thing that allows you to be heard, while contradicting it gets you suppressed and silenced, we are living in a terrifying period in American history.
The answer to “troubling speech” is not to shut it down. Rather it is “more speech.” Respond. Reflect. Debate. Engage. But don’t erase, and suppress.
Besides, trying to silence unpopular or heterodox opinions just makes that “troubling speech” far more popular.
Today, trust in authority figures and experts has eroded. They’ve misled us too often, and it seems like their own personal agendas always twist and warp everything.
So when agents of the status quo take action to suppress contrary opinion, even if they are ultimately right, it inspires heightened interest in the thing being hidden. Any teenager who has ever been told that they can’t watch a certain movie or listen to an album is well acquainted with this phenomenon.
Tech giants should not be making themselves the arbiters of what is true, and what isn’t.
Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.