When I got kicked off Twitter for expressing an informed opinion about the potential efficacy of a certain drug in treating a well-known disease, I sought refuge in alternative platforms, thinking — perhaps naively, that the reign of medical and political censorship had not extended its tentacles into every part of the blogisphere. Alas, I was mistaken.
The morning after posting content to Medium, I woke up to the following message from Medium about my post, “Which Views Should Be Kept Out of the Public Square”:
“Due to elevated risk of potential harm to persons or public health, Medium’s Trust & Safety team has removed the following content under its rules (https://medium.com/policy/medium-rules-30e5502c4eb4).”
In that blog post, I had laid out the content of a tweet about a certain medication and its potential prophylactic and therapeutic value, citing a number of publicly known studies, including peer-reviewed studies in reputable journals, and referencing the testimony of prominent medical experts, including one who had extensive experience evaluating the efficacy of medical treatments, including evidence reviews for the WHO.
The drug in question, Ivermectin, has been used for decades by millions of people across the world, and is on the WHO’s list of “essential medicines.” It also has an excellent safety profile, and a very low rate of reports of serious adverse events and deaths.
There is an ongoing scientific debate, in countries like UK and USA, about the efficacy of Ivermectin in treating and/or preventing Covid-19. Reputable physicians and medical researchers have published in peer reviewed journals on both sides of this debate.
Naturally, proponents and opponents of Ivermectin’s use to treat Covid-19 hold their positions quite passionately and both adduce scientific evidence in support of their positions. The debate over the efficacy of this particular drug against Covid-19 involves a range of complex and sometimes contradictory evidence. So it will rage on for quite a while, and we are unlikely to see a resounding consensus on either side, anytime soon.
If complex and emerging scientific questions attracted immediate consensus in the scientific community, we should be worried. Disagreement and debate is the bread-and-butter of science, as it is of politics. Arguments are, and must be, presented and put to the test in a vibrant (and hopefully civil) debate.
This may seem confusing to a lay audience. It is always more comforting when an issue is settled by a resounding scientific consensus. Living with uncertainty and doubt is not easy. So some people, including major social media platforms, get anxious and try to silence one side of the debate. But this just hands a fake victory to one side, which got a free pass and did not have to properly confront the objections and counter-arguments of the other side.
There are, of course, circumstances in which censorship may be appropriate or even required. For example, if someone depicts highly abusive or egregiously pornographic scenes on a platform, their content may be removed and they may be sanctioned. If someone starts a suicide cult on their platform, I assume most of us would want them deplatformed.
But this is a far cry from deplatforming or censoring someone just because you find their views disagreeable or unpopular. Aggressive censorship of political and scientific opinion in the name of some supposed scientific or political orthodoxy is typical of dictatorial regimes like Communist China and Nazi Germany. Aggressive censorship of scientific, moral, and/or political discourse and opinion does not end well for anyone, and certainly not for science or the pursuit of truth.
Twitter removed me from their platform for expressing an informed opinion about the potential for a safe, inexpensive, and decades-old drug to be re-purposed for the treatment of a certain well-known disease, citing their rule against “misleading information” relevant to public health. I tried to lay out the evidence behind my Tweet, and the utter lack of transparency of Twitter’s interventions, in a blog post on Medium, “Which Views Should Be Kept Out of the Public Square?”
You can probably guess where this story is heading. That blog post was taken down by Medium within 24 hours.
I have three questions for my censors:
(1) What gives Twitter and Medium the right to take down content they disapprove of that is being actively debated in the scientific and political community?
(2) And why is there such a dreadful lack of transparency in their censorship procedures that they do not even feel the need to explain how censored content has violated their rules?
(3) What harm do Medium and Twitter imagine might arise from my presentation of expert testimony and peer-reviewed research on the potential prophylactic and therapeutic benefits of a drug already safely and legally used for decades to treat other diseases?
To return to the lead question of this post: why did I move to Substack? Well, after being kicked off Twitter for good, and having my attempt to explain that experience censored on my new platform, Medium, in both cases with no more than an empty gesture toward “public health and safety,” all I really wanted was a place where I could speak my mind freely without having a censor breathing down my neck and shutting down my posts every time I said something they took a disliking to.
A friend recommended Substack, so I took a look at their content moderation policies. Substack’s philosophy of content moderation came as close as I could realistically hope, in the current climate, to having a genuinely liberal and progressive spirit. It seemed to me that their content moderation policy and its general spirit, even if not perfect, came much closer than anything I have seen on the Big Tech platforms to embracing a commitment to a genuinely liberal and open approach to moderation.
Here are a few excerpts from their view of content moderation that seem promising:
We commit to keeping Substack wide open as a platform, accepting of views from across the political spectrum. We will resist public pressure to suppress voices that loud objectors deem unacceptable. If you look at Substack’s leaderboards today, you’ll see writers from the left and the right, the populist and the elite, the low-brow and the high-brow, the secular and the faithful, the activist and the academic. We’re proud of this range and strongly believe that this breadth strengthens the discourse.
Of course, there are limits. We do not allow porn on Substack, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment. We have content guidelines (which will evolve as Substack grows) with narrowly construed prohibitions with which writers must comply. But these guidelines are designed to protect the viability of the platform at the extremes, not act as a filter through which we see the world. There will always be many writers on Substack with whom we strongly disagree, and we will err on the side of respecting their right to express themselves, and readers’ right to decide for themselves what to read.
Only time will tell if the liberal spirit that seems to inform Substack’s approach to content moderation is borne out by their behaviour and policies. I really hope they follow through on their promises and manage to avoid the reactionary, knee-jerk, and highly controlling interpretation of moderation that I have found on Twitter, and most recently, on Medium. I suppose only time will tell!