At first reading, Instagram’s decision to slap a “false information” label on Jelena Djokovic’s post sharing a 5G coronavirus conspiracy video seems eminently sensible and responsible. After all, the news media is awash with stories of people attacking 5G masts and in some instances even threatening engineers in the belief that there’s some connection between the new communications system and the spread of the coronavirus.
At present there is no credible reason to think that any causal connection exists between a high-frequency communications system and a novel virus variant that attacks the respiratory systems of its victims. I for one am not expecting any such information to emerge any time soon.
Be that as it may, Instagram have made a big mistake in this instance and it’s a decision they will one day come to regret. The social media giants have been under increasing scrutiny over the past couple of years, especially when it comes to their arbitrary and politically motivated decisions to suppress some users while allowing others to continue using their platforms. Facebook has already tied itself in knots trying to explain its decision to remove completely legal posts by some users and not others; and the US Senate is starting to take the matter of online censorship much more seriously.
By deciding to effectively pass a value judgement on Jelena Djokovic’s personal opinion, Instagram has followed Facebook’s lead and started to assume the role of an editor as opposed to that of a neutral platform.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act rightly affords legal protection to online platforms like Instagram. Just as the phone company can’t be held responsible for what somebody might say at any given time, so social media companies can’t be expected to take responsibility for what some random person might share or post in the next hour, day or week. In no way does that absolve social media companies of the responsibility to ensure their resources are not used for illegal purposes, although opinion is divided as to how well they execute that duty of care.
All this means that, like it or not, conspiracy theories and just simply being wrong are perfectly legal pastimes and social media companies have no business poking their noses into the more outlandish opinions of their users. After all, nearly everyone would feel uncomfortable if the phone company listened in and terminated a private call discussing how the moon landings were faked.
Stupidity and excess are the inevitable by-products of freedom, but censorship has never once made anyone smarter. Besides, crack open any history book and you’ll quickly discover how ideas that are mainstream today were once considered kooky, outlandish and even dangerous not so very long ago. It quite often turns out that today’s lunatic is tomorrow’s visionary, but we never seem to learn that lesson.
Like all authoritarians, Instagram doubtless believes that it’s acting for the greater good, but all it’s done is to make a rod for its own back. Even now, many sensible people are questioning just how virulent and dangerous the coronavirus really is due to conflicting information from “reliable” sources. Some of these people will be proved right while others will be mistaken.
Will Instagram be censoring their accounts too?