In a remarkable turnaround, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) published an open letter last week to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop “surfacing and recommending products and content that discourage parents from vaccinating their children” and Amazon complied within hours. According to Caroline O’Donovan of Buzzfeed, popular anti-vax documentaries were promptly removed from search results and Amazon Prime Video streaming.
Following similar calls by Schiff amid an outbreak of measles in Washington: Youtube, Pinterest and Facebook have all acceded to demands to crack down on anti-vax content. The World Health Organization has listed anti-vax sentiment as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019.
Social media businesses who sort and recommend content by algorithm face unique ethical challenges: do they have responsibilities for harm facilitated by content they host or promote? Algorithms designed to better serve users by recommending similar content could exacerbate tendencies towards conspiracism, driving them ever further into a bubble without alternate viewpoints.
However, there is no evidence that censorship of conspiracy theory content solves the problem and plenty to suggest that it worsens it. Contrary to the popular conception of the crazy lone conspiracy theorist, studies have shown that conspiracy thinking is driven by natural impulses rather than mental illness and over half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.
A study comparing reactions to censored vs. uncensored video with suicidal content found no difference in how they were received and actually found that both reduced suicidality.
Another study in BMC Medical Ethics on combating vaccine hesitancy recommended against “coercive public policies” in favor of “increasing citizen engagement on vaccination to help inform a parent-centered approach and legitimize public policy measures.” Since conspiracy thinking hinges on distrust of authority and feelings of powerlessness, censorship compounds the root causes where the best prescription would be open dialogue that emphasizes personal freedom.
Conspiracy theories can also be true. Until the Chicago Police outlined evidence that Jussie Smollet conspired with two Nigerians to fake a hate crime, the conspiracy was just a theory.
Likewise, Schiff is a conspiracy theorist in his own right as the standard-bearer for the conspiracy theory that President Donald Trump conspired with Russia to rig the 2016 election. There is no evidence of such a conspiracy to date, but there is hard proof of a Clinton campaign conspiracy to propagate a Russia collusion narrative through millions of campaign dollars funneled through a law firm to a foreign spy.
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