Amid growing controversy, claims, and counterclaims regarding the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, Facebook has announced plans to add labels carrying information from the World Health Organization to all posts on this subject. The move coincides with multiple European countries suspending use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine following reports of serious blood clots occurring. With 2 million pages of social media content already said to have been removed from Facebook and Instagram since their list of banned claims was expanded last month, the new policy is seemingly at odds with the company’s mission statement of enabling people to “share and express what matters to them.”
Facebook also says it will be reducing the distribution of content from users who violate its policies on COVID-19 and vaccines, or who repeatedly share content marked as ‘false’ by its so-called ‘fact-checking’ system. The site’s fact-checking bots work with individuals certified by the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Notably, the Poynter Institute has previously received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supposedly “to improve the accuracy in worldwide media of claims related to global health and development.” Its major funders currently include Facebook itself, the Google News Initiative, and the George Soros-financed ‘Foundation to Promote Open Society’. While claiming to champion ‘freedom of expression’, in the era of COVID-19 the Poynter Institute is arguably becoming one of the internet’s biggest censors of this human right.
Around the web there is much discussion over whether the growing use of censorship might cause more people to begin migrating away from the likes of Facebook and Google. While there are certainly plenty of alternative social media sites and search engines to choose from, breaking the stranglehold of America’s ‘tech titans’ won’t be easy. At the beginning of February 2021, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (Google’s holding company) were collectively worth $6.1 trillion – a sum equivalent to around 18 percent of America’s entire S&P 500 stock market index. Special interests have a lot of money tied up in ensuring the continued economic dominance of these companies.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Facebook’s dominance is the possibility that US regulators might break up the company. At the end of 2020, the US government and more than 40 states filed an antitrust suit against it, seeking to break it up for monopolistic practices. A similar case has been brought against Google, while a congressional report has also recommended taking apart Apple and Amazon. But none of this would be easy. Untangling Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook has been described as a “technical nightmare” that could take years, for example. And the interests behind America’s ‘tech titans’ have deep pockets.
In the coming years, online censorship of alternative thinking in the field of health could potentially become one of the biggest challenges to healthcare reform. But even in its most draconian forms, censorship cannot destroy new ideas. As US president John F. Kennedy once put it: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” Censorship has always been the last resort of those who fear the truth.