Has Facebook unwittingly become a shill for China?

Its censorship of the lab-leak theory was wrong, immoral and insulting.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Free Speech Politics USA World

In recent months it wasn’t only the inhabitants of China who were forbidden from speaking ill of the Chinese regime. So were billions of others around the world. Thanks to Facebook and its clampdown on any discussion of the theory that Covid-19 might have been ‘manufactured’ or might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, people in America, Britain, France and across the globe were subjected to Chinese-style silencing. They were essentially banned from saying things that might embarrass the Chinese Communist Party. The supposedly woke, chilled overlords of the World Wide Web helped to globalise the CCP’s repression of free thought and open debate.

We need to talk about this. Facebook has now lifted its restrictions on posts that describe Covid-19 as ‘man-made’ or ‘manufactured’ or which say the virus escaped from a lab — the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to be precise. This has paved the way for its 2.7 billion users to freely discuss the possibility that Covid-19 emerged in a science facility rather than in a bowl of bat soup. But this shouldn’t be an end to it. We shouldn’t casually move on from the fact that the supposedly switched-on billionaires of Silicon Valley spent months erasing from their platforms speculation about Chinese malfeasance or recklessness in relation to Covid-19. For this tawdry affair, this unholiest of alliances between the technocrats of California and the autocrats of Beijing, shines a stark light on the folly and dangers of online censorship.

It will shock no one who has been paying attention that Facebook’s lifting of its ban on lab-leak theories coincided with the Biden administration calling for a concerted effort to uncover the true origins of the virus. These things literally happened on the same day. Last week President Biden instructed intelligence officials to ‘redouble’ their efforts to find out where Covid-19 came from — and, hey presto, Facebook said it will no longer erase or add warnings to posts saying Covid-19 was manufactured or came from a lab. You couldn’t have asked for better proof of the creepy, cosy relationship between Silicon Valley and the Democratic establishment. Or to put it more starkly — and accurately — between the people who control the 21st-century public sphere and the most powerful politician on Earth: Joe Biden. That the facilitators of public discussion in the modern world take their cues for what it is acceptable to think and say from Washington should scare everyone who believes in freedom of speech and diversity of thought.

For the past year, anyone who floated the possibility that Covid-19 came from a lab rather than a wet market was denounced as a crank. He or she risked being put into Facebook jail — that is, being banned from posting for 30 days — and being laughed at by the know-alls of the Twitterati. ‘You dumb conspiracy theorist’ was about the level of discussion you could expect if you wondered out loud about Covid leaping from a lab, rather than from a bat, into the general population. Yet now there is an eye-swivelling turnaround. Maybe the lab-leak theories weren’t so mental after all, commentators chime. The lab-leak theory is ‘gaining traction’, says the Independent, a paper that previously listed lab-leak chatter under the heading of ‘’NOT REAL NEWS’.

Of course, it may still be the case that the idea that Covid-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is NOT REAL NEWS. It seems to me that the claim swirling around the fringes of the internet — that China purposely concocted Covid-19 and then leaked it across the Earth to harm its global competitors — is completely bonkers, sustained by not so much as a smidgen of evidence. Even the suggestion that Covid accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab — where it was perhaps being studied, or possibly even modified and intensified — is very far from having been substantiated. In the words of Professor Dale Fisher, a member of the WHO team who visited Wuhan to try to find out more about the birth of this pandemic, there is still little hard evidence for this scenario. ‘The lab-leak theory is not off the table, [but] there’s more research to be done’, he says.

So anyone who’s furiously logging on to their social media to say ‘CHINA INVENTED THIS VIRUS’ is still being a bit of a dickhead. (I defend their right to be a dickhead, of course.) And it is undoubtedly, and sadly, the case that the lab-leak theory has come to be bound up with a broader anti-Chinese sentiment that views that vast and growing nation in the East as an entirely malevolent force, constantly making life miserable for us Westerners. And yet, the absence of evidence for the lab-leak theory is not a justification for silencing or rubbishing it. On the contrary — it is precisely when things are uncertain, unknown, in flux, that we need the freest speech possible to try to determine what the hell is going on.

Silicon Valley’s seeming belief that because something is unproven then it must be censored is regressive idiocy of the lowest form. How do these people think the truth is arrived at? By magic? By decree? By pronouncements from Wuhan or Beijing? Freedom of thought and speech are the means by which we work out the truth of our world. Speculation, investigation, theory, debate, discovery — these are the tools that allow us to weigh things up, to separate fact from fiction, to work out what is false and what might be true. Censorship explicitly grates against this process by stifling free inquiry and reducing the public to the passive recipients of the ‘truth’ as designed by people in power. This is a recipe for dogma, not discovery; for ignorance, not enlightenment.

This is the dark irony of censorship that is designed to tackle ‘conspiracy theories’, which was the justification for the social-media clampdown on the lab-leak theory. Censorship is far more likely to inflame and embolden the conspiratorial imagination than to curb it. Censorship encourages ignorance. In hiding certain facts or ideas or theories, censorship discourages the use of one’s critical faculties to the end of discovering the truth, in preference for saying to us: ‘Be quiet. Be patient. We will tell you what’s what once we’ve worked it out.’ This elitist pacification of public life, this decommissioning of mass inquiry, has the effect either of making people think ‘They must be hiding something’, or of convincing us not to think too hard about certain issues because they are beyond our intellectual pay grade. Neither of these states of fear or passivity is conducive to the quest for truth.

Truth can only be found through freedom. John Stuart Mill knew this. In On Liberty he argued that, ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’. That is, it is only by submitting our theories and beliefs to as broad a discussion as possible — maybe even to ridicule and mockery and stinging criticism — that we can truly test them and improve them and eventually decide that they must be right (or wrong). This is particularly true of science, which relies for its strength on the free and rigorous process of falsifiability. In guarding the lab-leak theory from discussion and debate on its vast platform, Facebook displayed the curious combination of arrogance and defensiveness that is the lifeblood of the deadening creed of political censorship.

I would rather live in a world in which alleged conspiracy theories run riot than one in which some rich bloke or overeducated expert I’ve never met decides I must be protected from such theories. The conspiracy theorist does nothing more than issue me a challenge — the challenge to prove that he is wrong, to muster the facts, to articulate as clearly as possible what I consider to be the real truth of the matter. The censor, on the other hand, insults my very being. He turns me into a child. He says: ‘Don’t think. Don’t inquire. Don’t use your moral and mental faculties to work out what is true and what is false. I will do that for you.’ Give me the irritation of online conspiracy theories over the infantilisation of Silicon Valley censorship any day of the week.

Facebook’s censure of the lab-leak theory was wrong, immoral and insulting. It stymied public intellectual inquiry and it gave the Chinese regime a free pass. Our online networks are governed by people who trust officials in Beijing more than they trust the citizenry of their own nations. That is genuinely chilling, and it cannot be allowed to stand.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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