TrialSite News is a politically neutral platform, with some of our main aims being transparency and free discussion in the clinical-trial space. Yet we do stand for free speech rights, as without those, scientific advancement is seriously hindered. On May 24, Project Veritas published a troubling report about an assault on free speech by internet behemoth Facebook. Veritas is an ultra-conservative group known for “stings” in which they catch liberal or progressive groups embarrassing themselves. While this group is considered biased due to a tendency to edit subjects to make them look worse, and we do not condone such behavior, we find them credible in this case. This was not a sting, but anonymous interviews and documents from two Facebook insiders. The documents clearly show that high-level players at the firm have approved and implemented (as to a 1.5% selection of the nearly four billion people who use a Facebook product) algorithms designed to hide any criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, with the goal of convincing skeptics and other non-vaccinated folks to roll up their sleeve. We understand that some misinformation is legitimately censored by internet firms, for example, advice to drink bleach to beat COVID or that some drug is a miracle cure for COVID-19. But this project by Facebook casts a much wider net, even including simple true things, such as the fact that mass vaccination inevitably carries with it risks, and that some people in rare cases have died from a COVID-19 vaccine.
Truth is No Defense
The two insiders presented internal documents showing a design or algorithmic feature to curb “vaccine hesitancy” (VH) globally. One aim is to “drastically reduce user exposure” to VH commentary; another is to cause a “decrease in other engagement of VH comments including create, likes, reports [and] replies.” One of the whistleblowers advised that the firm uses a “tier system” to decide how to bury or censor comments. Comments including “shocking stories–or facts that can raise safety concerns” are demoted under this system. True facts that raise any concerns about COVID vaccines are demoted and/or hidden, “despite their authenticity or capacity to contribute to the public good.” Facebook has designed the tier system based on how strongly the comment, “questions or cautions against the COVID-19 vaccination.” E.g., Tier 2 is for any “Indirect Discouragement” of vaccination; such comments are severely “suppressed.” As noted, truth or falsity is not even considered. One of the insiders noted that “It doesn’t match the narrative—The narrative being, get the vaccine, the vaccine is good for you. Everyone should get it. And if you don’t, you will be singled out.” All of this with a goal of, “drastically reduc[ing] user exposure to vaccine hesitancy (VH) in comments.” Unfortunately, to date, only other conservative news sources like the New York Post have reported on this story. Perhaps the more liberal outlets have doubts about this story, but the documents available to all in the Veritas report and links look awfully authentic. These documents include that, “reducing the visibility of these [VH] comments represents another significant opportunity for us to remove barriers to vaccination that users on the platform may potentially encounter.” They also noted that at present this algorithm is the only tool they have to deal with, “the high prevalence of vaccine hesitancy in Health comments.” Facebook told the Post, somewhat cryptically, “We proactively announced this policy on our company blog and also updated our help center with this information.”
TrialSite regrets that only one end of the ideological spectrum has deemed Facebook’s manipulations as newsworthy. From our perspective, open debate is critical for scientific advancement. And the problem of censorship is much wider than this one story. For example, the debate about the utility of ivermectin during our pandemic has been hindered across the “liberal” social media. We look forward to the day when these firms practice true liberalism in the traditional sense, a key feature of which is the idea that free people can handle the facts. In sum, Facebook apparently thinks we are too simple to hear folks’ opinions and still make the right decisions. TrialSite is in no way “anti-vax,” but we do support free and open debate about all aspects of public health.