President Obama wants Big Tech to stop misinformation
by Vinay Prasad Apr 25, 2022
Recently, President Obama spoke at Stanford campus, and made the case that big tech needs to regulate information in order to protect democracy. Of course, any thinking person will admit that sometimes people, especially those on the internet, say things that aren’t true. Sometimes those misunderstandings can lead to tremendously bad outcomes.
At the same time, sometimes information is gray or has two or more points of view, but may wrongly be considered misinformation. Lab leak was actively censored by big tech, when it turned out it was a dialogue that needed to be had. Myocarditis after mRNA vaccines was once considered misinformation, but now is a salient safety concern. And, the effectiveness of masking, is continually debated. Cloth masks have no evidence supporting their community use, and yet this point of view was actively censored at the height of the pandemic.
Although I respect President Obama, I’m concerned with the idea that a political figure would be demanding that big tech determine what is true and false. Of course this will be ripe for abuse. Whoever holds the power can exert influence on speech.
I was recently telling a friend that this is the prevailing definition of misinformation and fake news:
Misinformation (noun) information that helps Republicans win.
Fake news (noun) information that helps Democrats win.
If we move to a world where political figures like Obama are able to pressure big tech in order to police information, it will be natural that the technology company will go which way the wind is blowing. If it appears the Republicans are slated for landslide victory, they will want to appease them. If instead, the Democrats are on the rise, vice versa. That would be a terrible world to live in.
The more you control information the more you can reinforce political power. The views and attitudes among employees, and executives in the company may play a large role. It is no secret that big tech companies are full of young liberals. But silicon valley also has a libertarian streak and this may make an appearance. Politicians should be cautious that they know which way the power will be consolidated. It might not go the way they want.
The best way to know whether power is valid is to ask yourself: Would you feel comfortable if the party you disagree with holds this power? If the answer is no, we need checks and balances.
President Obama says that in the current environment we can’t tell the difference between a peer-reviewed paper by Anthony Fauci or the opinion of a huckster. Of course, anyone who’s actively selling you a supplement is likely to be distorting the truth, but the peer reviewed opinion of Anthony Fauci may also be wrong.
Fauci notoriously lied at least twice, by his own admission. First about the efficacy of masking. He says he lied the first time when he said it didn’t work, but I think he lied the second time when he oversold the certainty that it did work. But regardless, one of those two statements was a lie.
He also lied about herd immunity. He kept raising the threshold, and told Don McNeil that he was doing so to encourage vaccination. Ultimately, the CDC abandoned the entire idea of herd immunity, a threshold above which the virus would be extinguished.
When it comes to any issue that matters, where people have diverse points of view, it is natural that both the facts, and the interpretation of those facts will be disputed. This is the nature of argument. The nature of a rhetoric. Of course, I too wish I lived in a world where we could all agree on the facts. But we can’t. When it comes to something like say myocarditis, the denominator you use is key to determining the rate. But different people can disagree on what the denominator should be. I happen to think that many of them are wrong, but my job is to persuade them that they’re wrong, or persuade others that they’re wrong. Not to use brute force to silence them.
Obama is absolutely wrong. Big tech needs to be regulated so that it does less to tamper with what we see and hear. So that there are more competing platforms, and no one platform has monopoly power. But when it comes to regulating the ideas themselves politicians, big tech, even other scientists, are not suitable for playing the role of God.
The more you give politicians the power to regulate information, the more they will use that power to do only rational thing: use that power to preserve their leadership positions. While Democrats may think this will help them, very likely, the shoe will be on the other foot quickly and it will be used against them. The person who is most savage will win this battle. Power begets power, it does not beget truth.
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