I’m uncomfortable about censoring anti-vaccine propaganda on social media

Vials and syringe on white table with blue background

You might think I’d be happy about the censoring of anti-vaccine propaganda by social media. Over the years I’ve written extensively and in scathing terms about the ignorance, arrogance, and immorality of the anti-vax movement. There is no scientific evidence to support its claims; its promoters are quacks and charlatans; and it harms the most vulnerable among us.

And yet … I’m deeply uncomfortable.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The remedy for false speech is more speech, not enforced silence.[/pullquote]

I’ve also acknowledged the critical role played by social media in the rising popularity of what is basically a superstition. Just as there is no empirical support for fearing the number 13, there is no empirical support for the phobia around vaccination, a corollary of needle phobia.

The anti-vax movement has been around since the inception of vaccination over 200 years ago. It has been active in the US since colonial times. But, let’s face it, it’s a lot harder to spread conspiracies when you have to mimeograph crudely typed claims. It’s so much easier — an more persuasive — to congregate in the virtual space of social media to give support and encouragement to even the most bizarre beliefs.

And yet … I fear the consequences.

I have no doubt that censoring anti-vax propaganda on social media will be effective and will probably save lives. A sense of solidarity with others is critical for anti-vaxxers in defying nearly all doctors, scientists and public health officials in the world.

And yet … I worry that the cure might be worse than the disease.

Why? Because social media companies should not be in the business of deciding what people can read and say. Today it may be anti-vax propaganda; tomorrow it may be climate science, abortion science or something equally controversial.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are private companies and therefore have complete discretion over the content they allow on their platforms. There is no question that it is legal for social media companies to censor speech.

I recognize that this is entirely different from government censorship, which is largely forbidden because of the First Amendment.

I’m generally not a fan of slippery slope arguments, yet I worry that we are at the top of a slope that is very slippery indeed.

Wait! Isn’t anti-vax propaganda unique in that it represents a public health problem? We’ve observed that rising fears around vaccination have led to declining immunization rates. We know that when rates decline below a certain point (different for each disease), the diseases will begin to reappear. We predicted the current outbreaks of measles and pertussis right down to the locations where they were most likely to appear.

But can we really argue that anti-vax propaganda represents a bigger health threat than climate change denial? Anti-vax propaganda makes it difficult to protect the most vulnerable among us — infants, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Climate change denial makes is nearly impossible to protect nearly ALL of us who are going to be profoundly impacted (possibly with deadly effect) by man made climate change. Yet Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest aren’t thinking about censoring climate denial.

Can we really argue that anti-vax propaganda represents a bigger public health problem than gun violence? To date, anti-vax propaganda sickens hundreds and kills very few. Widespread availability of guns kill tens of thousands of vulnerable, defenseless Americans (many of them children) EVERY year. Yet no social media platform is thinking about censoring gun rights talk.

So anti-vax propaganda is NOT unique as a form of speech that threatens public health.

Indeed, anti-vax propaganda is a subset of the massive industry of “alternative” health. Just about everything that travels under the imprimatur of alternative health is also propaganda — lacking scientific support, fabricating claims, harming individuals directly as well as by keeping them from getting real medical care.

If social media platforms are censoring anti-vax propaganda, shouldn’t they also be censoring fake cancer cures, outlandish restriction diets, and invocations to ingest supplements that are useless in the best case scenario and deadly in the worst case? If the justification for censoring anti-vax propaganda is that it is both unscientific and harmful, shouldn’t social media platforms be regulating ALL unscientific and harmful speech?

Who decides what is harmful enough to merit censorship? Who decides what is unscientific enough to merit being suppressed?

I suspect that I would have these concerns regardless of who was president, but if Donald Trump has done anything, he has alerted us to how very thin the veneer of democratic civilization really is.

Trump has made the previously theoretical risk of autocracy into an all too real risk. He has engaged in political vilification of disfavored people, disfavored political beliefs and disfavored public health organizations. If he were to “encourage” social media platforms to censor disfavored political speech under threat of tax or other financial penalties on the grounds that it is “harmful”, how would we differentiate that from censoring anti-vax propaganda?

Anti-vax propaganda is not hate speech but I wonder if we should treat it similarly. First Amendment advocates have always argued that the remedy for hate speech (which arguably harms, maims and kills more people than anti-vax propaganda) is MORE speech. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the concurrence to Whitney v. California:

…[N]o danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Brandeis was writing about what the government should and should not do, not private entities. As I acknowledged above, they are legally entitled to censor anti-vax propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that they should or that we ought to encourage them to do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that censoring anti-vax propaganda on social media will improve public health. My fear is that it will imperil intellectual freedom in the process.