Barone: Facebook’s speech suppression argues for repeal of Section 230 and a Facebook stock price of zero

By Michael Barone |

A lot of people have egg on their face for dismissing the COVID-19 lab-leak theory.

As ABC News’ Jonathan Karl said this week. “Some things may be true even if Donald Trump said them.”

Or if Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said them. “We still don’t know where coronavirus originated,” Cotton said in January 2020. “Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company. I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”

Cotton never said he was certain the virus came from a lab leak and never suggested a leak would have been deliberate. But as a Trump supporter, he was quickly smeared, as liberal writer Matthew Yglesias shows in a painstaking analysis, for pushing “conspiracy theories” (CBS News), “spreading rumors that were easily debunked” (Politico), “repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” (Washington Post), and “repeat[ing] fringe theory of coronavirus origins” (New York Times).

In each case, Yglesias points out, writers mischaracterized what Cotton actually said. “Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle,” writes New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, “and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter.”

One newsroom attitude was revealed by a tweet from New York Times’s COVID-19 reporter Apoorva Mandavilli. “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here yet.” Her assumption, that one could doubt China’s dictatorial and deceptive regime only out of anti-Asian prejudice, shows the vacuous ignorance and vicious bigotry that New York Times management apparently values these days.

Such bias is old news, and the internet allows readers to seek other outlets. But one great threat to the free transmission of ideas remains — social media that routinely suppress free speech. A prime culprit is Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which has become the most effective suppressor of freedom of speech in American history.

That’s something it boasts about. In April 2020, Facebook reported, it slapped “warnings” on 50 million COVID-19 items. The company adds that 95% of readers don’t seek the original content. It boasts that it “reduces the distribution” of information rated as “false” by its “fact-checkers.”

Garbage in, garbage out. Facebook purports to rely on international and national health agencies, such as the China-dominated World Health Organization and America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which originally issued its laughable requirement that summer campers wear masks this year. Facebook’s ranks of fact-checkers are undoubtedly tilted toward recent graduates of woke universities attracted to its headquarters in the no-non-lefties-allowed San Francisco Bay Area.

The result is that, until last week, Facebook had been suppressing for more than a year, a year in which governments and citizens were making difficult decisions, information suggesting the very likely possibility that COVID-19 leaked from China’s Wuhan lab.

Democratic congressmen are constantly pressing Facebook for more speech suppression. They seem to have no doubts which side Facebook’s processes will favor.

Despite Facebook’s boasted bans, doubts about China’s and Facebook’s insistence that COVID-19 came from China’s live animal markets have arisen in politically unlikely quarters.

Among those taking seriously the lab leak theory are:

• Nicholson Baker in New York Magazine last January.

• Longtime New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade on May 2 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

• A group of 18 bioscientists who called on May 13 for a deeper investigation into COVID-19’s origins, including the lab leak theory.

• Former New York Times COVID-19 reporter Donald McNeil on May 17 on Medium.

You may remember that McNeil was forced off the paper for, clearly without intending any offense, repeating a word that offended a rich high school girl during a New York Times-sponsored jaunt to Peru.

Then, on May 26, the Biden administration announced it was actively investigating the lab leak hypothesis, meaning that it was reversing its shutdown of the inquiry initiated by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Only after the close of business east of the Rockies did Facebook waddle in (at “3:30 PT”) and announce it would “no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.”

So, for nearly 16 months, Facebook denied readers information about a serious theory whose timely exploration might have reduced the number of deaths and infections. Nice work, Facebook!

Facebook has been licensed to censor by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was intended to, and for some time did, encourage the free flow of information. It does that by relieving websites of liability for information they transmit or refuse to transmit.

Facebook’s conduct is in line with liberals’ retreat from their once strong support of free speech, which, as lefty reporter Matt Taibbi writes, “has been abandoned in favor of a politics that embrace making use of technology and extreme market concentration to suppress discussion of whose topics.”

Case in point: last fall’s New York Post story on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, stifled on laughably baseless charges of “Russian disinformation.” Didn’t see that on Facebook, did you?

The commercial result is that Facebook has grabbed advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. The civil result is that Zuckerberg enjoys what the interwar Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said was the aspiration of Britain’s press lords: “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

There’s increasing talk, among Republicans and Democrats, of repealing Section 230 “to force Big Tech to take more responsibility for the editorial decisions they take.” Tech moguls say that would benefit “a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies,” which is already the situation today. More likely, they fear that repeal would, as left-wing economist Dean Baker predicts, cut into profits by requiring “a huge commitment of personnel” to monitor content and a nationwide legal staff to prevent trial lawyers from hauling Bay Area billionaires before local juries. Another possibility: “a massive migration to old-fashioned bulletin boards and other sites where people could post what they wanted without review.”

Facebook’s record on conspiracy theories has been wretched. It was happy for years to spread media stories on Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia, “a truly idiotic conspiracy theory,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim put it, for which no evidence ever emerged. And Facebook was happy, for months, to stifle any mention of the theory that COVID-19 emerged from a lab leak in China. That’s zero for two, on two huge stories, with both errors pointing in the same political direction.

Section 230 was supposed to give us a free flow of information, but instead, it’s given us efficient speech suppression. Repeal of Section 230 could destroy Facebook’s business model, but from society’s point of view, it’s beginning to look like the optimal stock price for Facebook is zero.

Michael Barone is the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, a resident fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, and the longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

2 Responses to Barone: Facebook’s speech suppression argues for repeal of Section 230 and a Facebook stock price of zero

  1. Mr. Discernment June 9, 2021 at 12:09 pm

    I was at a crossroads with a percentage of my friends and an aspect of human society that I continue to communicate with and encounter in my community. My research has touched on the many variables of possibilities within a plethora of topics that I choose to explored. “If one refuses to look at what could be possible (open mindedness), one might overlook what is probable (right in front of us)”. It is likened to collecting items and storing them with the thought that it will have fundamental value at some time in life. We have an amazing amount of storage within our subconscious. I continue to encounter what I have come to categorize as “Human” and “MAN KIND”. Events being reported in this day and age seem to be too fantastical. I have for years practiced the addition of a daily routine that being positive self-talk to counter the barrage of negative messaging that is saturating our senses. Think of it as working out to stay tone. Just enough time spent to ward off the mental fatties. So, in conclusion I choose to continue to communicate what knowledge/wisdom I have decerned over time accepting that my role is that of a translator. Every time I communicate, I am practicing my communication skills. To accomplish this, it requires another person. The good thing about this is that society has plenty of participants. I know this is a short thought but it popped into my head and I took a moment to share. Allen Iverson said one time to his team regarding not attending team practices, “We’re talkin about practice”. He thought to be skilled enough not to have to attend. Practice, Practice, Practice.
    Rather than get caught up in the drama of what one cannot control, the journey is to acquire what one can (personal choice of what matters) and be prepared for what unknown events come your way. I saw a bumper sticker that said it true, “Fear is the virus”.

  2. Angry Viking June 7, 2021 at 9:10 am

    Zuckerberg and Dorsey have more political power than anyone in America. If they were neutral politically and honestly exposed trickery wherever it was encountered, everyone would love them, or everyone would hate them. That is exactly right for a media watchdog, which if memory serves, is their job description under the 1st Amendment.

    Never before has this much power been consolidated into the hands of so few. It is wrong and it requires governmental regulation.

    If their efforts benefitted only the Right, I’d still agree. They eliminate the electoral voice of We, the People and it must stop.


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