COVID-19 Origins Debate Undermines the Case for Social Media Censorship

Related articles

As the debate over the origins of SARS-COV-2 rages, the case for silencing social media users grows weaker.

What should social media companies do to stem the spread of “misinformation” on their platforms? News outlets, science journals, universities, public health institutions, and non-profits have spent many years trying to answer that question. Some solutions include hiring 10,000 internet librarians to curate the content we access online and further tweaking algorithms, so that social media users are only exposed to accurate information, among many others.

I appreciate the allure of these ideas. If I were given the power to regulate the speech of anti-biotech activist groups, I just might “curate” their content off the internet forever. But nobody should have that kind of control because none of us are qualified to dictate the truth to everyone else all the time, and such efforts inevitably devolve into political crusades. 

When social media companies take aim at “misinformation,” what they really do is decide who should be allowed to make assertions about the pandemic—who's credible and who's not. This, as we'll see, isn't necessarily driven by evidence.

Censorship and the origins of SARS-COV-2

Facebook recently announced that it would “no longer take down posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured,” and the company's new policy nicely underscores this point about credibility. What was the social media platform's justification for allowing users to discuss the lab-spillover hypothesis? It didn't hire a team of virologists and foreign policy experts to assess the viability of competing explanations for the virus's origins. Rather, as Politico reported,

Facebook’s policy tweak arrives as support surges in Washington for a fuller investigation into the origins of Covid-19 … President Joe Biden said [in May] that he has ordered the intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to find out the virus’ origin and report back in 90 days. Biden also revealed that the intelligence community is split between two theories about Covid-19’s origin … Bipartisan support is also building on Capitol Hill for a congressional inquiry.

In other words, the political establishment decided that investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is a worthwhile enterprise, and Facebook simply followed Washington's lead. The company had censored its users for more than a year based largely on political considerations.

The debate rages

This isn't to say that the Biden Administration was wrong to order a deeper inquiry. The joint study conducted by China and the World Health Organization (WHO) into COVID-19's origins left a lot to be desired, as a team of researchers writing in Science argued last month. “Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident,” they wrote. The WHO director-general readily acknowledged this in mid-February and at the end of March in a briefing on the report. He also endorsed calls for further research into the virus's genesis.

As Science also reported, there are prominent figures who remain convinced that the virus evolved naturally. WHO investigator Ben Embarek told the journal on February 9 that “it was 'extremely unlikely' that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a Chinese laboratory and said the [WHO] team would not investigate that hypothesis further.” Many other experts share that sentiment. Moreover, they suspect the sudden interest in a lab-leak origin will draw attention away from the ever-present risk of natural viral threats, any one of which could spark another pandemic given the right circumstances.

Their critics allege that mainstream virology is too invested in the natural origins hypothesis; the field would look bad if, after all its research into viral evolution, the pandemic was caused by a lab accident, potentially blinding these experts to evidence for the latter hypothesis. Backers of a lab origin for SARS-COV-2 have additionally noted that the Chinese government has been less than forthcoming with investigators. To complicate matters even further, geopolitical experts have also weighed in. Consider the comments of Atlantic Council senior fellow Jamie Metzl, who believes that a lab accident is the best explanation for the origin of the pandemic:

I have no definitive way of proving this thesis but the evidence is, in my view, extremely convincing. If forced to place odds on the confidence of my hypothesis, I would say there’s an 85% chance the pandemic started with an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (or Wuhan CDC) and a 15% chance it began in some other way (in fairness, here is an article making the case for a zoonotic jump “in the wild”).

Metzl recently penned an open letter with 24 other researchers outlining why a fuller investigation is necessary and how it should be carried out. The press was convinced the lab hypothesis was a conspiracy theory and has had a tough time adjusting to this developing situation. As Mediaite reported on June 1:

The Washington Post has corrected a controversial story from February 2020 that referred to the lab leak theory of the origin of Covid as 'debunked.' … The Post correction is the latest in a series of reversals by news outlets on the Wuhan lab leak theory. Politifact retracted a fact-check that deemed the theory 'debunked' after it was pushed by a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. In March, the New York Times corrected a report that described the theory, which was being advanced by the former CDC director, as 'debunked.'

Nobody's perfect?

Considering all this information, we're left with an obvious question: on exactly what scientific grounds did Facebook censor the lab-leak hypothesis as “misinformation”?

Defenders of social media censorship may reply that Facebook couldn't have anticipated that a vigorous debate over the virus's origins would break out; the company could only go on what prominent experts said at the time. That's correct—and it's my point exactly. Under pressure from governments, reporters, and media scholars, Facebook was urged to silence one side of the debate before the relevant facts were available. Someone should also explain why the social media giant was silencing users when there was research published in 2020 calling for a closer look at the lab-leak hypothesis. [1]

A nuanced analysis of the past year would recognize that mistakes happen. No scientist, reporter, government official, or institution was going to be consistently correct while our understanding of COVID-19 evolved almost weekly. The more significant point is that calls for censorship, supposedly motivated by our need to "follow the science," are rapidly being divorced from scientific inquiry. [2]

Just last week, the journal Nature, perhaps the most respected science publication in the world, argued that aggressively pursuing the lab-leak hypothesis was dangerous because it could "feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue." We're treading perilously close to a standard where a handful of corporations (and the political institutions they listen to) dictate what everyone is allowed to say, whatever the facts of the matter may tell us.


[1] Metzl has cataloged many such examples on his website.

[2] Censorship is almost always a bad idea. My point is that the justification for silencing dissenters—"science!"—is now being discarded for political expediency.