The PJ Tatler

Time Editor Calls for Facebook to 'Shut Down the Anti-Vaxxers'

It’s the kind of headline that makes you look twice. Is this guy for real? Is this from The Onion? Then you realize that indeed Time editor at large Jeffrey Kluger actually wrote “Facebook Must Shut Down the Anti-Vaxxers”:

[They] do their work at the grass-roots, retail, one-on-one level. Convince Mother A of the fake dangers of vaccines and you increase the odds that she won’t vaccinate Child B – and perhaps Children C, D, or E either. And every unvaccinated child in her brood increases the risk to the neighborhood, the school, the community – the entire herd…

One thing that would help – something [Facebook head Mark] Zuckerberg could do with little more than a flick of the switch, as could Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and the other bosses of other sites – is simply shut the anti-vaxxers down. Really. Pull their pages, block their posts, twist the spigot of misinformation before more people get hurt.

The very idea of muzzling any information – even misinformation – will surely send libertarians to their fainting couches. Similarly, people who believe they understand the Constitution but actually don’t will immediately invoke the First Amendment. But of course they’re misguided. Is Facebook a government agency? No, its not. Is Zuckerberg a government offical? No, he’s not. Then this is not a First Amendment issue. Read your Constitution.

Of course, Kluger is right about the First Amendment. Facebook’s banning or blocking of any user for any reason is not a free speech issue in the constitutional sense. That’s an important point to make in a context where mishandling of constitutional rhetoric is commonplace.

Be that as it may, Kluger’s suggestion remains a free speech issue in the cultural sense. The reason we have a First Amendment is because we believe on principle that ideas should succeed or fail in open discourse on their merits. To wield a platform on the scale of Facebook to mute one side of a conversation on public policy violates that principle, even if it doesn’t violate the law, and even if such action remains Zuckerberg’s unquestioned right.

Indeed, we might apply Kluger’s argument to any form of discrimination. For instance, we could say that white restaurateurs should be able to deny service to black customers. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similar state laws notwithstanding, such discrimination remains constitutional for the same reason Facebook banning anti-vaxxers  would be. Restaurants aren’t government agencies either.

Yet, we rightly balk at the notion of such discrimination, and most of us would socially censure anyone who engaged in it. The same free association right which Kluger urges Zuckerberg to employ against anti-vaxxers can be employed by others against Kluger and Time. It’s offensive to suggest that people need to be silenced, and offers one of the weakest of possible arguments against their position – the argument from intimidation.

Kluger and Time ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing this piece, and Zuckerberg would do well to ignore it.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)