Intellectual Freedom and Harmful Conspiracy Theories: Where do we draw the line?

Censorship, First Amendment, News Literacy, Social Media

By: Jacqui Higgins-Dailey

Conspiracy theories, bunk science and misinformation cause unmeasurable damage during a crisis. People want to grasp onto something aligning with their worldview – even absurdities. Maybe this is human nature and why we love to read fiction. We look for juicy news confirming something hidden in plain sight, a mystery. We get to indulge in the fringes or liminal spaces we are too afraid to go ourselves. So when a video like “Plandemic” pops into our feeds we are drawn in by the slick production and “experts” offering new outlooks on an oversaturated global pandemic so horrifying it’s more like the movies.

“Plandemic” is political propaganda posing as social documentary. It makes unscientific claims about the origin of Covid-19 and proposes the virus was lab-created, claims that flu shots have been infected with coronaviruses for years, suggests that a cure for autism exists but has been hidden by corporations, and even claims that wearing a mask will suppress our immune systems and somehow infect us with the virus. These claims (and many others) have been debunked by various reputable sources, including Factcheck.org. Whatever the reason this video went viral, there is no question that it spreads harmful misinformation.

As a result, social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook censored the content and removed the video for violation of their community standards. As private corporations, such censorship is within their right. Companies must weigh the costs and benefits to hosting such content then decide whether viewpoints align with their overall goals. In the case of “Plandemic,” the harm it could cause to public health (and subsequent exposure to litigation) outweighed the issues of freedom of speech.

I approached a few colleagues for their interpretations on removal of the video from these platforms. The consensus was clear – videos like “Plandemic” spread misinformation rapidly, even when debunked and YouTube is not compelled to host anything it does not want on its platform. However, we do have the right to ask these organizations to post explicitly clear community standards and failure to do so exposes them to over-simplified criticism for not adhering to First Amendment principles. Just because they don’t have to adhere to these principles does not mean they are immune to being called out for bias. (Presumably, “Plandemic” violated YouTube’s “Harmful or Dangerous Content” standard.) Being aware that YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms do indeed have inherent bias – whether it’s political, economic or otherwise, is important.

Let’s take a look at the concept of freedom of speech. What is and is not protected speech in the First Amendment is under constant debate and scrutiny – both in the lower courts and at the level of the Supreme Court. But what is clear, is that this constitutional amendment was put in place to prevent government from controlling citizens’ speech. This means ideas, opinions and day-to-day speech cannot land us in jail. It does not mean we have the right to say whatever we want, wherever and whenever we want. 

I recently came across a piece in Medium about the bias of certain corporations, algorithms and how this regulation of content could affect what type of information we see on these types of platforms. But isn’t that happening already? I find that my Facebook feed is a constant echo-chamber of bumper-sticker language, un-vetted memes and news stories that mirror (mine) and my friend’s political and social beliefs. Is that not a form of both algorithmic and self-censorship? I think what we miss here is that censorship is a way of life. We self-censor all the time by avoiding news and opinions we don’t like. We decide who influences us in our lives, both interpersonally and professionally.

The problem is not corporate censorship, it’s the idea that we can find all the reliable information we need on the internet with no guidelines or knowledge how to vet information or discriminate fact from fraud. Censorship becomes an issue when government entities start to take part – and this is why eliminating censorship within the construct of libraries is so important. Should corporations be allowed to censor information? Yes, but criticizing these corporations for their use of censorship is also valuable and important. Should libraries censor information? No – and ALA makes clear its views on intellectual freedom, censorship and freedom of speech.

If someone comes up to me at the reference desk and wants to know how they can find the video “Plandemic,” I must help them find it. I must buy the new Judy Mikovits book (the scientist behind much of the misinformation and conspiracy in “Plandemic”). As libraries, it is our job to provide all the information possible and to leave discernment up to the individual. We can (and should) teach about reliable resources and what is appropriate to cite, use in research and trust. This is a difficult and nuanced task. Both public and academic librarians are looking for new, stimulating and informative ways to do this all the time. It’s ever-evolving and why librarians are crucial to the information landscape. But taking on the role of paternalism is not beneficial to those we serve – both in the public library and academic.

For more information on how to determine what is and isn’t a conspiracy theory, I will leave you with a piece that a colleague of mine shared with me that is featured on TheConversation.com: Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the Seven Traits of Conspiratorial Thinking. I hope it helps you inform your patrons on the importance of critical thinking in a post-truth world.

What are your thoughts on the role of libraries in mitigating the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience? Have you found it hard to help a patron who asked for content that you found objectionable? How did you handle it?


Jacqui Higgins-Dailey

Jacqui Higgins-Dailey has been a public librarian for 10 years and has been an adjunct faculty librarian for the last two. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and a masters in library science. She currently selects the children and teen materials as a collection development librarian for Phoenix Public Library. She loves to read, write, figure skate and travel.

One thought on “Intellectual Freedom and Harmful Conspiracy Theories: Where do we draw the line?

  • I am a conservative who spends more than a fair share of my time engaged in debate with my counterparts. Much of that time is spent parrying the disparaging and hateful epithets coming from those who are apparently convinced that name-calling and empty platitudes win the day. The author herein has eloquently stated her position with more than a modicum of civility and respect. She needs no validation from me, but I am inclined to make a couple of remarks—not for the purpose of debate, but as a matter of observation.

    The art or, more appropriately, skill of debate is to cogently and succinctly proffer your position in such a manner as to illicit equally thought-provoking responses. When all is said and done, the topic at issue should be coherently articulated with a reveal of intellect that brings about fresh clarity. This can only happen when all parties participate in civil discourse. The author has clearly demonstrated such civility.

    My other observation is her clarification of the role the public library plays in this struggle. My wife and I are, and always have been, great supporters and frequent patrons of the library. We are both voracious readers and have been in withdrawals since the SIP mandates closed down our library. The idea that Hollywood, academia, theme parks and looting reprobates have deemed historical and classical literature to be destroyed, removed and relegated to the trash bin of history because they don’t comport with their narrative, is beyond the slippery slope—it smacks of the annihilation of a civilization. They are the foundation of our past and the window to a future. Never allow our libraries to follow that evil path The author underscores this truth. Kudos to Jacqui Higgins-Dailey.

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