Removing False Information Only Works if the Information Removed is False
I applaud social media’s attempts to keep it real. Bad science and bogus news poisons our ability to make informed decisions based on the best evidence, and an attempt to remove dangerous or confusing information is welcome. Many of us have dedicated substantial time to countering digital detritus, but at best we can offer science sober life saver in a sea of aggressive falsehoods. So thanks to Facebook, Twitter and others for at least trying to keep it real.
But what if the mesh on that information filter is a little too fine? Can good information be tossed into the rubbish bin? Worse, can malicious interests exploit reporting mechanisms to target the posts of fact-bearing experts they wish to remain unheard?
I’m a scientist in molecular biology that has appreciated biotechnological innovation. From curing sickle cell disease, to creating corn that requires less insecticide, to relieving food insecurity, I’m a huge fan of how technology can help people and the planet.
I post useful information whenever I encounter bad science. I call the balls balls and the strikes strikes, based on the current evidence. some people don’t like that.
In 2015 the internet was awash in tales of the dangers of the herbicide glyphosate. Lawyers were stoking participation in a lucrative class-action suit, and the anti-biotech folks were loving every minute of it. Glyphosate is one of the herbicides that is used to control weeds in fields with biotech crops. While vilified in the media and among anti-biotech groups, scientific regulatory evaluation after scientific regulatory evaluation says it carries no special risk when used as directed.
That year an article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and it was wildly cited by the foes of biotech. It was not a research article, but instead an opinion by Drs. Philip Landrigan and Charles Benbrook (physician & economist) two guys that have trashed biotech for ages and are generally wrong. When they are near correct it is distortion or omission of actual data.
The opinion piece was nothing special, but was viewed as anti-glyphosate and the position of the NEJM. That’s good enough to those that need conclusions without reading, and was described as a endorsement of the anti-glyphosate position by a prestigious medical journal.
But that’s not true. So I posted a non-inflammatory, simple note with links to reality. My post was in response to aggressive and false posts by “Ted Miner” and “Debbie Owen”, two well-known social media usernames connected with profuse anti-biotech rhetoric. They posted something negative about me and the NEJM article on my town’s Facebook page. Here’s what I posted in response:
This was in 2015. Last night, June 19, 2021 I get a notice from Facebook that my aging post “violates community standards”.
And it looks like a proper scientific statement from 2015 will have me off to Facebook Jail if the behavior continues! Guess what? A huge part of my thread is debunking, so if they are only in 2015, wait until they get to COVID19!
One of two things is happening:
- Facebook is looking at any discussion as overly confrontational, and rather than thinking through it they just remove the message and ban the messenger.
- Old posts that counter anti-biotech claims are being reported as spam by the same folks that spam the internet with false information. Facebook can’t tell if it is really spam or not, so they remove the post.
Either way, this is a serious problem. A simple scientific clarification that counters a false claim has been removed from social media, which now ironically makes society more vulnerable to bad media.
Facebook screwed up big time, and if they indiscriminately remove appropriate scientific content, or succumb to the devious false reporting of activists, the general public is at risk. They will be systematically poisoned by one-sided falsehoods that will only make Facebook a deeper cesspool of fabrication than it already is.
They should not be banning me — they should be sending me a freakin’ gift basket for performing the public service of correcting bad information in their media space. Instead, they will likely remove me from doing the job they are failing to properly do.
Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. is an academic research scientist, strategic communications coach, and science communicator. The views expressed here are his own and are not those of the University of Florida, its administration, faculty, staff or students. Send hate mail directly to him and not to his employer.