Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have long lists of restrictions to limit the information about the coronavirus that they deem to be misleading on their sites. YouTube took it a step further last week with a fairly broad ban on videos that question the effectiveness or safety of approved vaccines, including measles.
These rules may be meaningful to you. But they can also appear as an attack on expression and an insult to our intelligence.
Most people who watch YouTube videos (incorrectly) claiming that an animal dewormer can cure coronavirus will not swallow their pet’s pills, and most people who worry about the side effects vaccines are not vaccine fanatics. Are we not able to speak freely on the Internet and decide for ourselves? Isn’t it counterproductive and anti-American to declare certain discussions banned?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But I want to share how my perceptions have changed a bit after speaking with Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College who studies misperceptions about politics and healthcare. Nyhan made me think differently about misinformation online – it’s not about you.
Nyhan suggested that we view internet business rules as designed for the small number of people who strongly believe or are inclined to believe in things that can be proven wrong and potentially dangerous. Let me explain.
The conversation resonated because it came to something that bothers me about the umbrella term “disinformation”. It conjures up a world where everyone is a neo-Nazi, anarchist, or crooks selling fake health potions or where people are susceptible to such hoaxes.
We know this is nonsense. But Nyhan said it was crucial that we have rules on the internet to determine who speaks and who listens.
“A lot of people will be exposed to disinformation and it will have no effect,” Nyhan told me. “But even if a few people believe that false claims such as an election were illegitimate or that this vaccine causes autism, a more aggressive approach may be needed.”
Nyhan isn’t saying popular websites should restrict any discussion that includes extreme or unpopular views. (He himself wrote that the types of online limits on COVID-19 talks shouldn’t apply to most political expressions.)
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