Aug 04 2016

Skepticism – Banned by Facebook

Facebook - GMOFacebook, despite its critics and many competitors, remains a robust social media platform. The SGU has a Facebook page with over 1 million likes, and we use it to drive traffic here and to Science-Based Medicine.

There are pages on Facebook promoting just about any point of view you can imagine. It is a true marketplace of ideas. Like any marketplace, there is the expectation that its rules are fair and its regulation is rational and reasonable.

Earlier this year Facebook came under criticism when it was discovered that some of their employees may have been systematically biased against conservative leaning news items. This sparked a discussion of whether or not an outlet like Facebook has a responsibility to be neutral. They are a private company, they can do what they want. Newspapers and TV news programs can have a biased editorial policy. What is important is transparency, and Facebook was putting their thumb on the scale on the sly. They have responded by initiating a training program for their employees to teach them to recognize their own bias – so they at least understand the benefit of the perception of being unbiased.

Recently the Facebook page, We Love GMOs and Vaccines, was permanently taken down by Facebook and its founder, Stephan Neidenbach, was banned from Facebook for 30 days. What offense did he commit to warrant such draconian treatment? None. He was simply using a Facebook page to promote a pro-science and skeptical attitude toward GMOs and vaccines, specifically to counter the gross misinformation about these technologies by anti-science fringe groups.

Facebook banned the page because of too many complaints. That’s it. They don’t give any evidence of having investigated the page themselves, and they don’t cite any specific examples of posts that violated specific policies.

This is an alarming situation. It means that an online lynch mob can target specific Facebook pages with complaints, because they disagree with the editorial content of the page, and Facebook will obligingly take down the page.

Facebook is perhaps unwittingly getting into the middle of an online scuffle. The deeper issue here revolves around tactics used by both sides to promote their point of view.

Both sides, of course, accuse the other side of using horrible tactics, painting themselves as victims, and professing their purity. I am not implying equivalency here, just pointing out that this is the story both sides are telling. You have to delve into the details to see what is really going on.

Here, for example, is the view from the anti-GMO side from GMWatch. Reading the article is like entering bizarro world. What the author is doing is ignoring or downplaying all the dirty tactics used by the anti-GMO side, while grossly overstating and cherry picking what the pro-science side is doing.

The online world of social media is the wild west. You will find nasty comments by anonymous commenters everywhere. If you are willing to cite such comments as representative of the side they support, you could build a case against any activists.

Anti-GMO activists have slandered companies and individuals, harassed scientists, spread demonstrable misinformation, and vandalized scientific experiments. They have targeted Kevin Folta, who I know personally and is one of the nicest people I know, and a very dedicated and talented science communicator. They have harassed him with FOIA requests so they can go on a fishing expedition in his e-mails looking for anything to distort. They have broken into his office, apparently also looking for incriminating evidence.

The GMWatch article, however, paints Folta as a villain. It is truly bizarre. In response to harassment by the Food Babe, Kevin wrote to his readers:

“First, some rules. Please do not retaliate or harass her. Respect her privacy for one reason– I can tell you personally how horrible it is to have someone not respect mine. I do not want her to feel the way I do, because of her. There’s some Sunday irony. Thanks.”

He has deliberately taken the high road. For that he is portrayed as a villain and a shill coordinating an army of “followers” to attack anti-GMO activists. It’s simply not true.

Skeptical activity is entirely a grassroots operation. All of the people you know because they have a blog, make videos or podcasts, write books, or speak at conferences came to skeptical activism on their own. There is no coordination, other than the spontaneous sort of activity that happens within groups.

I don’t know Neidenbach personally, but as far as I can tell he is just another pro-science activist acting on his own and in his own style. He has chosen to turn the tables on the anti-GMO activists, by submitting his own FOIA requests, for example. He notes:

“GMWatch, run by Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson, was quick to applaud the requests submitted by US Right To Know. When the tables were turned they lashed out like a rabid dog backed into a corner.”

I understand the impulse to use similar tactics against the anti-GMO crowd, and certainly they have nothing legitimate to complain about as they used the tactic themselves, but I do think it is problematic. I agree with Kevin – we need to be obsessively above board. As they say, you don’t want to mud-wrestle with pigs, you will just get dirty and the pigs like it. I personally don’t think we should be fighting their game in their arena. I think we should be trying to elevate the conversation, to change the venue to respectful and rational discussion about science.

As the GMWatch deceptive article illustrates, once you start playing their game, then it becomes all about who was meaner to whom and who is the bigger villain/victim, and not about the science.

The anti-vaccine and anti-GMO crowd cannot win in the arena of objective science. That is why they desperately try to make their activism about accusing people of being shills, conspiracy theories, and mean tweets. We need to keep it about the science. It’s fine to point out the horrible tactics used by the other side, but we should not “fight fire with fire.” If we do that, I think, then we are surrendering the high ground. We are abandoning a winning strategy in order to fight a fight we cannot win.

In any case, despite differences of style and tactics, Neidenbach has every right to use Facebook to promote his position. Many of his articles are well-written, well-researched, and informative. We frequently link to them from our own Facebook page.

I would not recommend targeting anti-GMO or anti-vaccine Facebook pages with the same tactics they used. Rather I would target Facebook for criticism. They should not permanently ban an activist page because it was targeted by its ideological opponents. This sets a horrible precedent and they are potentially opening themselves up for a disaster.

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