A year ago there was persistent speculation that a new coronavirus had been created in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and that Covid-19 had somehow broken free. Many of these claims have been dismissed as wild conspiracy theories, and as a result Facebook and other social media platforms have removed all such claims that Covid was man-made.
Since February 2020, Facebook has said it will delete posts that claim the virus was man-made, while the social network has also begun deleting posts spreading misinformation about vaccines or other false claims that have been debunked by health officials.
Now, this week, the social network has made an “oh face” and announced that it will no longer remove posts on its platform that take a similar stance on the origin of Covid-19.
“In light of the ongoing investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove claims that Covid-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN Business on Wednesday.
“We continue to work with public health experts to keep up with the changing nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge,” the statement added.
So what has changed?
First, the statement came after President Joe Biden announced that he had directed the U.S. intelligence community (IC) to determine the origin of Covid-19, including the possibility that it may have been created in a Chinese laboratory.
The U.S. intelligence report already includes the names of three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who fell ill and went to the hospital in November 2019 with flu-like symptoms. This has led to speculation that these researchers may have somehow contracted the virus, although the timing of their illness is more than a month before the Chinese government revealed the existence of Covid-19.
The evidence is far from conclusive as to the origin of the pandemic – but it was enough to make the social network change course.
“Facebook went for this change because the evidence, or lack thereof, of how the Covid virus came to be has changed. From that perspective, it’s an understandable adjustment,” said technology and telecommunications analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.
“This position is consistent with what the administration is doing now to investigate the truth behind this allegation,” added Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.
“There has never been enough evidence to prove the source of the virus, so the claim that it was natural is still relatively difficult to support,” explained Enderle, who covers trends in the world of technology, including on social media platforms.
Enderle said Facebook may have been wrong to gloss over the spread of the Covid origin debate.
“The behavior of China, which not only was not the cause of the ‘wet market’ – it remains open – but also concealed what happened (by resisting a full investigation), suggests that Facebook was premature in its previous decision,” he added.
Social media is not news media
More Americans than ever before continue to rely on social media platforms for news and information, but as seen in last year’s election, misinformation and even disinformation spread just as easily and quickly – perhaps even faster than the real coronavirus.
“The problem for Facebook is that the truth is often volatile when there is no evidence, so moderating it is problematic,” Enderle warned.
“There were three critical elements: reports that security at the facility was inadequate for the type of research being done, which made the problem likely, three people who worked at the facility got Covid-19 symptoms earlier than all other reported cases, and China is not closing wet markets to prevent other pandemics, which suggests that they didn’t think this was what would happen, regardless of what they said publicly,” Enderle said.
Facebook may have tried to do a “good thing” by stopping what it considered “misinformation” a year ago, but in the process it may also have silenced the real debate.
“Facebook is still learning, but the problem here is that they made the first decision prematurely ahead of the incumbent, who in this rare case may have been right,” Enderle said. “The problem is that, in many cases, people take tough positions when the data don’t yet support them reliably. Trying to determine the truth without a gold standard of truth will always be problematic.”
In recent months, social media platforms have found that there are times when they need to intervene to control the conversation – primarily to preserve civility, but also to stop the spread of dangerous speech or simply misinformation.
“When it comes to free speech, we have to remember that the First Amendment protects us and Facebook from government interference in our speech,” Entner said. “It doesn’t protect us from private interference. It’s Facebook’s platform, and it has complete freedom to allow any speech it deems appropriate or not, just as you and I can determine what speech is allowed in our home.”
In other words, “Their platform, their rules,” Entner said.
“Does that mean you consume content, information and news through the lens of Facebook,” he reflected. “Yes, of course, but the same thing happens if you read or watch CNN, Fox News, BBC, Xinhua or Russia Today. Some publications are more credible and have a different angle than others.”