Today’s news, that YouTube is deleting all conspiracy theory videos linking coronavirus to 5G, exemplifies the social media giants’ ongoing dilemma.
They have to navigte the ongoing tension between being an open platform, and policing information on the internet that could harm people’s lives.
First, full disclosure. I was involved in managing communications around early rollout of masts, when public concerns first appeared, and worked on submitting evidence to a parliamentary enquiry – around 20 years ago – on mobile phones and health.
You could also say I have a privileged, insider’s view of the issues faced by telecoms companies when seeking planning consent for mobile phone masts. In 30 years of corporate life, however, I was never asked to do or say anything I believed was wrong. On the contrary, I was encouraged to challenge the prevailing wisdom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not believe there is a link between 5G and the coronavirus. Furthermore, the DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP, is absolutely right to condemn people for attacking phone masts and threatening telecom workers.
However, no-one is going to change any minds by repeatedly describing people who believe anti-5G messages as being taken in by ‘crackpot theories’. Insulting the people you disagree with is never a good way to persuade them to listen to your argument.
Many people are basing their opinions on articles or videos featuring extensive lists of references that appear to come from scientific sources. They are often hosted on websites which are beyond the jurisdiction of social media companies.
Arguing against this kind of misinformation has greater merits than banning it. Admittedly, it is difficult to do at scale, especially when one party may have access to hidden resources that enable them to drown out or undermine their opposition. This scenario gets worse in the light of concerns in the UK that state-backed international news organisations are deliberately disseminating false narratives about COVID-19.
There are valid circumstances where, as a society, we already collectively agree to restrict free speech. Putting pressure on YouTube to remove the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theorists will probably help control disinformation in the short term.
However, governments have a responsibility to fully explain the counter arguments. Only by treating the public with respect can they truly convince them that that they have their best interests at heart.