A scattering of protests aimed at state lockdowns erupted across the country last week, sparked not by social distancing guidelines but by politicians’ unilaterally dictating what products citizens are permitted to purchase in box stores, attempting to shut down drive-in Masses at churches and closing parks and beaches, among other ill-conceived and gratuitous intrusions.
Like any protest movement, this one is a mixed bag: Some of the protesters are acting in bad faith, some are idealists, and some are merely terrified of losing their livelihoods, their homes and their careers while waiting around for a government check that might never come.
In reality, the economy is going to reopen only when most people either feel safe enough to emerge from isolation or calculate that the risk of emerging is worthwhile. Arbitrary deadlines mean little. I suspect that the best way to temper anger surrounding the lockdowns would be for local leaders to stop acting like a bunch of petty authoritarians when the vast majority of citizens are already voluntarily doing what the government is asking to protect themselves.
Instead, officials are upping their game. The otherwise hapless New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was happy to eschew social distancing measures altogether until much too late in this crisis, has now created a hotline enabling denizens of his beleaguered city to rat out their neighbors to the authorities. Other mayors are deploying Chinese-made drones — fitting, I suppose — to catch those who violate government orders. “If these drones save one life, it is clearly worth the activity and the information they’re sending,” is a real thing that the mayor of Elizabeth, New Jersey, told MSNBC.
Meanwhile, Facebook is reportedly removing the posts of those organizing anti-quarantine protests in conjunction with state governments, calling them “harmful misinformation.”
There is some confusion over the exact nature of the social media giant’s policy on self-censoring. This morning, it was reported that the company was removing all posts advertising protests against social distancing regulations, as well as posts deemed to spread “harmful misinformation” about the virus.
The head of Facebook communications retweeted a CNN report that the social media company was consulting with governments in California, New Jersey and Nebraska to shut down the organization of “anti-quarantine” protests on its platform. Yet, after pushback, a company spokesperson clarified that Facebook was working with states to delete only posts advertising events that violate government orders and guidelines.
While I’ve long defended the right of social media companies to dictate and enforce their own speech codes without interference from politicians, it’s difficult to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt here. Government has some leeway in protecting public health, but it has no right, not even during an emergency, to work to preemptively prevent Americans from expressing their political beliefs.
If Facebook removed advertisements for protests at the behest of state and local governments — as initial reports suggested it might have — it would be an clear assault on expression, made all the more appalling by the fact that the protests were aimed at the very public policy that allows the state to undercut the ability of citizens to organize a demonstration in the first place. But even if Facebook was merely working with such governments to decide what millions of Americans can say to each other, that would be a big problem for both philosophical and practical reasons.
For one thing, we can’t trust Facebook to competently weed out “harmful misinformation.” Only last week, the company started deleting hundreds of thousands of “false” coronavirus missives, and then redirecting users to “accurate information” offered by the propagandists at the World Health Organization, which allowed this pandemic to mushroom into a crisis to begin with by wasting precious weeks echoing the deadly misinformation campaign of the Chinese Communist Party.
Instead of touting such a group as a reliable source of information while crippling the ability of largely powerless Americans to voice their concerns over public policy, Facebook would be better served treating political content dispassionately and allowing users to curate their own experiences — even at the risk of upsetting government officials.