A year ago, there was persistent speculation that the new coronavirus was made in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and that Covid-19 somehow managed to escape. Many of these claims have been dismissed as savage conspiracy theories, and as a result Facebook and other social media platforms have removed any such claim that Covid was created by man.
As of February 2020, Facebook has announced it will remove posts suggesting the virus was fabricated, while the social media platform has also started pulling posts spreading misinformation about vaccines or other false claims exposed by public health officials.
Now this week, the social network has made an “approximate face” and announced that it will no longer remove posts on its platform that take such a stance on the origins of Covid-19.
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of Covid-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that Covid-19 was artificially produced from our applications,” a Facebook spokesman said. CNN Business through a statement on Wednesday.
“We continue to work with health professionals to keep pace with the new nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge,” the statement added.
So what has changed?
The first statement came after President Joe Biden announced he had instructed the U.S. intelligence community (IC) to determine the origin of Covid-19, including the possibility that it was created in a Chinese laboratory.
A U.S. intelligence report has already identified three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who fell ill and sought hospital treatment in November 2019 with flu-like symptoms. This has led to speculation that these researchers may have somehow contracted the virus – while the timeline lists their illness more than a month before the Chinese government discovered the existence of Covid-19.
The evidence is not far from conclusive about the origin of the pandemic – but it was enough for the social network to change direction.
“Facebook made that change as evidence or lack thereof as the Covid virus emerged as changed. From that perspective, it’s an understandable adjustment,” said technology and telecommunications analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.
“This view is in line with what the administration is doing now to investigate the truth behind this claim,” added Rob Enderle, chief analyst at Enderle Group.
“There has never been enough evidence to prove the source of the virus, and the claim that it is natural remains relatively difficult to support,” explained Enderle, who covers trends in the technology world, including social media platforms.
Enderle said Facebook may have made a mistake in silencing the spread of the debate over Covid’s origins.
“Chinese behavior also suggests not only that the cause is not the wet market – it remains open – but the cover-up of what happened (resistance to full investigation) suggests that Facebook was premature in their earlier verdict,” he added.
Social media is not news
More Americans than ever continue to rely on social news and information platforms, but as seen in last year’s election, disinformation and even misinformation is spreading quite quickly – perhaps even faster than the actual coronavirus.
“Facebook’s problem is that the truth is often fluid when evidence is lacking, so moderation is problematic,” Enderle warned.
“There were three critical elements, reports that protection at the facility was inadequate for the type of research being conducted, which was a likely problem, three people working at the facility received Covid-19 symptoms before any other reported incidence, and China did not close down the wet market to prevent other pandemics by suggesting that they did not think it came either, despite what they said publicly, ”Enderle said.
Facebook may have tried to do “good” by stopping what it saw a year ago as “misinformation,” but in the process, it may have silenced the actual debate.
“Facebook is still learning, but the problem here is that they passed that the first verdict overcame the presiding president too soon, which in this rare case may have been right,” Enderle said. “It’s worrying that people in many cases take difficult positions when the data still doesn’t reliably support them. Trying to moderate the truth without a gold standard for the truth will always be problematic.”
Social media platforms have revealed in recent months that there may be times when they may need to step in to control the conversation – first to keep things civil, but also to stop the spread of dangerous speech or just misinformation.
“As far as freedom of speech is concerned, we must keep in mind that the First Amendment protects us and Facebook from government interference regarding our speech,” Entner said. “It doesn’t protect us from private interference. It’s a Facebook platform and has complete freedom to allow any speech it deems appropriate or not, just as you and I can determine which 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 a Facebook prism,” he mused. “Yes, of course, but the same thing happens if you read or watch CNN, Fox News, BBC, Xinhua or Russia Today. Some outlets are more reliable and have a different angle than others.”