In the age of a free internet and press, where should we go to find the unfiltered truth? Not Facebook.
Since March of 2020, Instagram has rolled out a new update, a pop-up feature for the coronavirus. These pop-ups bring users to the COVID-19 Information Center which includes facts and figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Some of the facts in the COVID-19 Information Center include:
“COVID-19 vaccine development was accelerated without impacting safety.”
“Vaccines are thoroughly tested for safety before they’re approved.”
“Vaccine side effects are usually mild.”
While these statements may be true, they show that Big Tech companies and fact checkers have striven to become the authority on all things healthy and wise.
Instagram, now owned by Facebook, has joined the rest of the tech world in increasing the frequency with which the company itself projects information at the users, instead of serving as a platform for users to communicate with each other.
Facebook began as a social media platform where family members could stay in touch and friends could plan events together. Since its founding in 2004, however, Facebook has grown in influence and maintained a powerful position as a major source for news with over 2.6 billion monthly users.
So, who gets to decide what’s fact and what’s fiction, and how unbiased are these decision makers?
Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants in Silicon Valley have come under fire in recent years for what many people view as conservative censorship. In a congressional hearing in 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R‑TX) challenged Zuckerberg on Facebook’s bias toward conservatism and questioned the neutrality of people who were stifling it.
“In your testimony you say you have fifteen to twenty thousand people working on security and content review. Do you know the political orientation of those fifteen to twenty thousand people engaged in content review?” Cruz said.
“No Senator, we do not generally ask people about their political orientation when they’re joining the company,” Zuckerberg responded.
But if Zuckerberg is unwilling to ask his employees about their political views, he need only Google where their allegiance lies to find the answer.
In 2020, the Daily Mail reported that of the $2.9 million donated to political organizations by Facebook employees, 90% of it went to Democrat groups, leaving the other 10%, $222,000, for Republicans.
Fact checkers have not just attacked conservatism, they’ve capitalized on the pandemic and the public’s lack of information, taking charge of what is deemed credible information. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Martin Makary, titled “We’ll Have Herd Immunity by April,” suggests that COVID-19 is under control and a brighter future is ahead.
What are Makary’s qualifications? He is a surgeon and a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, and just slightly more experienced than your average Facebook fact checker.
“Some medical experts privately agreed with my prediction that there may be very little COVID-19 by April but suggested that I not to talk publicly about herd immunity because people might become complacent and fail to take precautions or might decline the vaccine,” his article reads. “But scientists shouldn’t try to manipulate the public by hiding the truth. As we encourage everyone to get a vaccine, we also need to reopen schools and society to limit the damage of closures and prolonged isolation.”
So, what did Facebook fact checkers, in all their medical wisdom, have to say about the article? The Daily Mail reported that Facebook added a “missing context” label to Makary’s piece when it was posted on Facebook by the journal. The label on Makary’s story reads, “Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.”
Moreover, the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that Facebook reportedly said, “Once we have a rating from a fact-checking partner, we take action by ensuring that fewer people see that misinformation.”
Americans over 50 years old, the most at-risk group for COVID-19, make up only 36.5% of the population. As of April 13, 2021, 22.7% of the United States had been vaccinated. While these statistics don’t exactly constitute herd immunity, the country is well on its way to containing the virus. Millions of vaccines are being administered every day, and we’re only halfway through the month. Dr. Makary may not have been entirely correct in his prediction, but neither has anyone since the pandemic began over a year ago — not even the CDC or the WHO. Facebook fact checkers took an active role in shielding Makary’s thoughts from public view. Mackary’s article was deemed so misleading that they chose to stifle it. Trusting science is important to them, until the scientific conversations don’t match Big Tech’s agenda.
Lily McHale is a junior George Washington Fellow studying political economy.