After being asked by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski about the alleged misinformation spread by the Joe Rogan Experience podcast and Facebook users, U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy responded with a homily about how “we” must “root out” misleading speech.
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 25, 2022
“We” don’t. Government officials have no role in dictating speech. In fact, they have a duty not to. Murthy’s comments wouldn’t be as grating if it weren’t so obvious that the Biden administration has been pressuring Big Tech companies, who oversee huge swaths of our daily digital interactions, to limit speech. Last summer, Jen Psaki causally informed the press that the White House was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” Can you imagine the reaction from the press if it learned that the Trump White House had been keeping a list of speech crimes? White House communications director Kate Bedingfield also argued that social-media companies “should be held accountable” for ideas on their platforms. Joe Biden, who previously accused Facebook of “killing people,” this week made a “special appeal to social media companies and media outlets: Please deal with the misinformation and disinformation that is on your shows. It has to stop.”
I believe that tech companies should enjoy unencumbered free-association rights. But that position becomes difficult to sustain if corporations that spend tens of millions every year in rent-seeking and lobbying for favorable regulations simply take orders from the government on speech codes.
It’s bad enough that media outlets have abandoned any commitment to upholding liberal ideals regarding open discourse — but now tech companies can be so easily hounded into partisan self-censorship, which is as pernicious as any other variety. But allowing the state to participate in rooting out “misinformation” sets a terrible precedent that can be easily abused. As we’ve learned during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials often pass on bad information — and treat as ‘misinformation’ theories such as the now plausible possibility that our own government helped hide and suppress news about Chinese origins of Covid. Alleged “misinformation” can often turn out to be perfectly reasonable inquiry or theorizing. Certainly, the state should not be final adjudicator of fact.
Health officials have done more to corrode trust in science and government than any conspiracy theorist on social media. As with the media, the best way for Murthy to fight the spread of bad information is to rebuild the credibility of his own institution.