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Privatizing government censorship

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What if Congress doesn’t need a law to stop freedom of speech? What if they can outsource this function by getting private “fact checking” organizations to silence or discredit any speech that doesn’t comply with state-approved narratives? You don’t have to imagine that scenario because we’re living it now.

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Three years ago, Barbara Joanna Lucas wrote a long article about FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, citing a Rasmussen poll that only 29% of respondents believe the media’s fact-checking. Regardless of the skepticism of the general public toward these organizations, they provide an excuse for elected officials and media outlets to discount the opinions of people who have supposedly been discredited by the fact checkers. Lucas points out that both of these organizations have tens of millions of dollars of funding behind them. Clearly, there’s more money to be made in shaping narratives than in doing genuine local reporting.

The last 15 months of COVID-19 have exposed a whole new level of censorship as tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube repeatedly echoed state-approved messages and shut down any voices of dissent. Since they’re not officially government organizations, they can forego quaint concepts like “probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation” (Fourth Amendment), “due process of law” (Fifth Amendment), or being “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” (Sixth Amendment).

I can vouch that Twitter follows none of these; they effectively canceled my account for nine days at the end of May. I posted a Tweet on May 14, showing that the Florida COVID-19 case fatality rate for young age groups (<12, 12-15, 16-17, and 18-24 years of age) proves that there is at least a 99.99% survival rate, and I asked parents to consider the low risk of COVID-19 before they “decide to put an experimental vaccine” in their kids. Twitter demanded that I delete the Tweet because it was “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information.” (They had already removed the Tweet, anyway, so the requirement that I delete it accomplished nothing.)

The fatality rates were computed directly from Florida Department of Health data, so I was left to assume that their beef was with the “experimental vaccine” comment. But that is a FACT. All of the COVID vaccines are administered under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). The Pfizer-Biontech vaccine fact sheet specifically says it is “an unapproved vaccine” and is in “an ongoing clinical trial” and “has not undergone the same type of review as an FDA-approved or cleared product.” In short, it’s experimental.

Twitter claimed I would retain access to my feed and to direct messages with my followers while suspended, but I did not. After appealing the decision (which received no response at all), I was locked out of my account until I finally deleted the Tweet, nine days later.

Other media companies are worse. Facebook and YouTube demonetize the pages of people and organizations who go against their approved narratives. The censorship has gotten so blatant that critics from both left (Bill Maher) and right (Daniel Horowitz) point it out. Last month, when the Wuhan lab-leak theory was finally allowed to be discussed openly, BlazeTV host Steve Deace asked whether the enforcement of state-approved narratives by private companies is effectively a violation of the First Amendment.

More recently, Matt Taibbi wrote a column entitled “If Private Platforms Use Government Guidelines to Police Content, is that State Censorship?” He traces recent “content moderation” history and warns of a new type of regulatory capture: intellectual capture, where private firms push government guidelines for regulatory relief and the “broader preemption of public criticism.”

Side-stepping the First Amendment is nothing new. In 1977, Lee Grace complained: “With increasing regulation, as big brother looks closer over our shoulder, we grow timid against speaking out for truth and our beliefs against falsehoods and wrong doings. Fear of IRS audits, bureaucratic strangulation or government harassment is a powerful weapon against freedom of speech” (quoted in Milton and Rose Friedman’s book Free to Choose).

One of the newer entrants into the fact-checking business is NewsGuard. The company started in 2018 and has 2 CEOs, a 19-person leadership team, a 22-person staff, and 18 contributors. (Fact checking is big business!) They license ratings to social media and search platforms and admit that they take requests from and issue regular reports to government officials and the World Health Organization. NewsGuard has special pages dedicated to COVID-19 “misinformation” for the U.S. and Europe. Their own site says that NewsGuard has been “summarizing the new myths on the platforms in a series of reports also requested by regulators of the digital platforms in the UK, US, Germany, France and Italy, as well as legislators on Capitol Hill.”

Recently, Alachua Chronicle was contacted by NewsGuard. They asked about our ownership, revenue, and information about our staff. They questioned us about “false or misleading information” and listed five specific articles: two letters to the editor (here and here), two opinion columns by guest writers (here and here), and a news story (here). They said there were statements in each article that contradicted information issued by various health organizations or experts in AP articles; in the case of the news story, which was about pathogens found on face masks, they quoted an AP article from June 2002 stating that “there’s no evidence of masks leading to fungal or bacterial infections of the upper airway or the lower airway as in pneumonia.” However, our article never made any claims about bacterial infections in the wearers of the masks.

When we pointed out that their complaints were mostly about letters to the editor and opinion pieces, NewsGuard said they evaluate statements they consider to be false “regardless of how it is labeled.” In their follow-up email, they complained about my column, “Power corrupts experts, too.” The specific complaint was the line “false assumption of asymptomatic spread.” While I linked to two sources showing statistically insignificant levels of asymptomatic spread, NewsGuard says that conclusion disagrees with the official stance of the WHO and CDC. (Since I didn’t graduate from journalism school, I wasn’t aware that all published information must line up with approved narratives from government agencies.)

One of my sources was an article published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). NewsGuard tried to discredit the article by using an Associated Press fact check (is there anyone not in that business?) that says a JAMA spokesperson denied publishing “findings that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, does not spread without symptoms” and that UF researchers said it was a “misrepresentation” of their findings. Talk about “misrepresentation”: the concluding sentence of the study said, “Prevention strategies, such as increased mask-wearing at home, improved ventilation, voluntary isolation at external facilities, and targeted antiviral prophylaxis, should be further explored.” However, the study did not evaluate the efficacy of any of those mitigation measures.

What the study did do was look at the household secondary attack rate for SARS-CoV-2 and find 2-tailed confidence intervals for various groups. For asymptomatic index cases, the result as published was “0.7%; 95% CI, 0%-4.9%.” My summary of the study translated the math: “The asymptomatic/presymptomatic secondary attack rate is not statistically different from zero, and the confidence interval is technically 0.7 ± 4.2, resulting in a range of -3.5%-4.9%, but attack rates cannot be negative, so it is truncated at 0.” Anyone who has taken a basic statistics course (which I’ve taught multiple times) should know that if a confidence interval for a value contains zero, you cannot conclude that the value is statistically different from zero. That’s math, not opinion and not misinformation. It just happened to contradict the approved government narrative because the assumption of asymptomatic spread was the justification for mass lockdowns, social distancing, and face masks.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech; which is the Right of every Man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control the Right of another: And this is the only Check it ought to suffer, and the only Bounds it ought to know.” (Silence Dogood Letter No. 8, July 9, 1772)

Fact-checking organizations and social media platforms are not inherently bad, but when they try to censor or cancel voices simply because those voices disagree with government-sanctioned positions, the First Amendment and all of our liberties are at stake.

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