Mark Zuckerberg and his harem of ‘fact-checkers’ copped an earful last week from The British Medical Journal.
The editors from one of the world’s ‘oldest and most influential general medical journals’ wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg on December 17, criticising the behaviour of Facebook’s anonymous third-party ‘fact checkers’.
An article published in The British Medical Journal on November 2 was commissioned by the publication to investigate leaked material from an employee of Ventavia – a contract research company that had been assisting Covid vaccine producer Pfizer with its trials.
Dozens of documents, photos, emails, and audio recordings were shared with The British Medical Journal which, according to them, revealed a troubling array of sub-standard clinical trial research practices that took place at Ventavia. Further, these had the potential to impact patient safety.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received a direct complaint concerning Ventavia a year ago in 2020, but Ventavia’s trial sites had not been inspected at the time The British Medical Journal wrote their article.
This matters, because the FDA was responsible for granting Pfizer’s Covid vaccine emergency approval.
The British Medical Journal ran their article after it had undergone strict legal review.
Despite these precautions, on November 10, social media users reported that they were having difficulty sharing the article online. Other uses had their posts containing the article link flagged as ‘Missing context … Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.’ Users who tried to post the article direct to Facebook were informed that it contained ‘false information’ or ‘partly false’ resulting in Facebook’s algorithms pushing the post down the news-feed – effectively burying it.
This happened because Facebook contractor ‘Lead Stories’ ran an article titled: Fact Check: The British Medical Journal Did NOT Reveal Disqualifying And Ignored Reports of Flaws In Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Trials and have since stood firm behind their claim, despite protests from The British Medical Journal.
The ‘fact-checkers’ dismissed an article in The British Medical Journal as ‘flawed’.
“Pfizer and the FDA were made aware of the allegations about the contractor in 2020. Medical experts say the claims aren’t serious enough to discredit data from the clinical trials, which is also what Pfizer and the FDA say they concluded. The FDA says its position is unchanged. The benefits of the Pfizer vaccine far outweigh rare side effects and the clinical trial data are solid.”
It is hard to imagine another scenario where the FDA, or an ethical drug company, would so casually dismiss evidence of sub-standard practices related to clinical trial data – especially for a vaccine that has a safety record significantly worse than non-Covid vaccines. Given that Covid vaccines have been mandated in most parts of the world, any suggestion of poor practice should be treated with extreme seriousness.
The FDA failing to change its position after this came to light says more about the FDA than it does about The British Medical Journal. Pfizer says that it has investigated and dismissed the claims, but asking a company to investigate itself is rarely acceptable in matters of consumer health and safety. People do die from side effects related to Pfizer vaccines – many others end up in hospital.
Lead Stories essentially came to a ‘greater good’ conclusion – that despite the claims of The British Medical Journal – the risk outweighed the concerns contained in the leaked files (and that both Pfizer and the FDA agree). What Lead Stories has not done is contradict or prove false the assertions in The British Medical Journal.
How can something be ‘fact-checked’ as ‘false’ if its contents is true?
Lead Stories made some errors of its own, incorrectly labelling The British Medical Journal as a ‘news blog’ while engaging in what could possibly be described as defamatory commentary against The British Medical Journal.
Facebook was contacted directly about the behaviour of Lead Stories with a request to remove the ‘fact-check’ and associated censorship.
It is not the place of social media companies to exercise editorial control over third-party content by engaging in ‘fact-checks’. Aside from the laughable idea that an entity which began life as a creepy stalking tool for college boys to rank the attractiveness of their female classmates, Facebook is a platform. Under the US Communications Decency Act of 1996, it is prohibited from engaging in editorial oversight in exchange for legal immunity from third-party content (Section 230 Immunity).
If Facebook wishes to perform ‘fact-checks’, it should be immediately reclassified as a ‘publisher’ and forced to face the consequences of its ‘fact-checking’ and subsequent defamatory labels. That way, journals like The British Medical Journal would have some ability to challenge Silicon Valley’s control over ‘the truth’.
Editor in chief Fiona Godlee’s open letter to Facebook was not ignored, it was mocked by Lead Stories.
“It is ironic to read that the BMJ.com objects to the headline on Lead Stories’ fact check of a BMJ.com article when the original BMJ piece carries a scare headline that oversells the whistleblower and overstates the jeopardy. Their November 2, 2021, headline Covid-19 Researcher blows the whistle on data integrity issues in Pfizer’s vaccine trial’ is the reason BMJ.com’s article has appeared in hundreds of Facebook posts and tweets, many by anti-vaccine activists using it as ‘proof’ the entire clinical trial was fraudulent and the vaccine unsafe. Likely unknown to the BMJ was the fact that the publication of their article happened to coincide with a hugely viral story making the rounds in anti-vaccine circles falsely claiming the CEO of Pfizer was arrested for fraud. The combination of these two factors lead to enormous engagement by Facebook users on the BMJ article.”
The astonishing comment appears to show Lead Stories targeting The British Medical Journal not because its content was untrue, but because they didn’t like the engagement figures on Facebook critical of Pfizer.
Here is the crucial point; medical journals do not exist to protect drug companies.
Social media giants cannot claim to be the arbiters of ‘truth’ if they set out to distort, hide, discredit, or otherwise censor factual reports because they become inconvenient to big business and the ‘official narrative’.
So what if an article is reblogged by people who don’t like vaccines? Facebook is used to share articles from the Flat Earth society, is that cause enough to have Facebook shut down?
If the information is true, then it must stand – doubly so if it relates to public health and safety.
If the information is not true, that is matter for someone else. Platforms are meant to be passive sharing facilitators, not extensions of a dystopian Big Brother.