There is clearly a need to police the police

By: Howard Feldman, Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis

Last year in April, when we were young, I was asked to be part of a panel that addressed fake news and COVID-19. It was a formidable bunch and was one of the occasions when I suffered imposter syndrome. Covid was relatively new in South Africa and I had, a few weeks prior, launched a Sunday Covid podcast with Dr Anton Meyberg, which we decided would steer clear from politics, speculation and theories. Rather, we decided, it would focus on the medical aspects, the prevention and the latest treatments. The podcast is still running and remains popular, I believe, for that reason.

Towards the end of the discussion, back last year when we were young, the panel was asked if we believed that there was any chance that the virus came from a laboratory. Remember, Donald Trump was still in office and he had been suggesting this. No one on the panel gave the theory any credibility, and I got the sense that we were meant to roll our eyes when we answered. So much so that I felt pressure to laugh when I answered, as though it wasn’t a serious question. But when it was my turn, back then when we were young, I responded that I had no idea if it was possible.

How could I know?

How could anyone?

And yet, Facebook and Twitter decided that they did know. Which is why in December 2020 they made the decision to prevent the publication of articles that suggested that the virus had leaked from a laboratory. The ban was put in place until the end of May 2021 when they reversed this decision, following President Joe Biden’s statement that the USA would be looking into the possibility that the COVID-19 virus was leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. “As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,”

What followed was an about turn from Facebook who said that “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 from our apps,”   They went on to say that “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

This was as close to an apology as they were going to give.

The reversal of the decision is a positive one. But is also something that is worthy of interrogation.

Why did Facebook, a social media platform ban the discussion in the first place? It is probable that because the theory was promulgated by the then US President Donald Trump, that was viewed with the sceptism with which they viewed much of what he said. If that is the case, then this highlights a significant concern about the power that the large technology companies have over our information. It is also possible, if one follows this logic that their distrust for Trump and subsequent decisions to remove the conversation from their platform seriously impacted on the investigation into the cause of the virus. 

Why would it? Because if main stream media publications receive the message, overt or subtly that an investigative article will not be published as the content will be considered to be a dangerous conspiracy theory, then what are the chances that they will have a journalist or team investigate it? None. None at all. No resources will be allocated and the subject will not be aired. 

And that is very scary.

What makes matter worse is that there seems to be an acceptance of the control that Twitter and Facebook have over our information. News outlets seem to have all but accepted that the law according to these giants is the law and that they simply have to accept the wisdom of Silicon Valley. Of course there are times when they might get it right and when we applaud their decision, but there are others when they don’t.

And this seems to be one of them.

There is very clearly a need to police the police. In this case the social media networks. They need to be made to be more transparent in their operations and decision making process and they need to be answerable. They are too large and too powerful to hide behind the defence that they are simply one platform and users can choose to go elsewhere. Especially when we saw what happened following Trump’s removal from their platforms.

I have no idea if the virus was leaked from a laboratory. I have no idea how much of what Trump said was fact or fiction. What I do know is that having Facebook decide it for me, is not an option that I would like to live with.