with Paige Winfield Cunningham

For four months, Facebook censored claims that the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China.

But the company has reversed its stance, in a prime example of how the pandemic has intensified the free speech questions already plaguing social media titans. The decision has thrown into sharp relief the challenges of evaluating misinformation amid evolving scientific debates.

Facebook no longer is removing statements that “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.”

The company announced its decision last month amid renewed debate over the origins of the virus.

A Facebook representative didn’t specify how many such posts were removed, but it’s a clear example of the huge power social media companies hold over the information users can see. The company has removed more than 18 million posts that violate its covid-19 or vaccine misinformation policies.

Twitter says it has removed more than 8,400 tweets and challenged millions of accounts since introducing its coronavirus guidelines. Those guidelines include a prohibition on attributing the pandemic to “a deliberate conspiracy by malicious and/or powerful forces.” But the company would not specify whether it has been deleting claims that the virus originated in a lab.

The companies have been under intense pressure from Democrats to rein in false or misleading claims about the virus on their platform. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled tech CEOs in March about these efforts, and lawmakers have threatened regulation aimed at scaling back the platforms’ liability protections if they don’t do more to combat false claims online.

Eugene Robinson spoke to Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, about the company’s plan to suspend former president Trump for two years. (The Washington Post)
But in the case of the lab leak hypothesis, Facebook chose to censor without scientific consensus to back up its decision. 

Many scientists say that a natural origin of the virus, in which it jumped from animals to humans, is the most likely scenario, but there has been a growing willingness among scientists and reporters to publicly entertain the theory that the virus may have escaped from a lab in China. A letter signed by 18 scientists last month said that both the theory that the virus spilled over from animals and the theory that it escaped from a lab “remain viable.”

One of the scientists who signed the letter, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, welcomed Facebook’s policy shift, calling the company’s initial decision to censor claims that the virus was man-made “a mistake.”

“I understand that this question [of lab origins] got wrapped up and conflated with a whole lot of other language and messaging that was clearly harmful and ill-intended,” Relman said. “It is an example of where in their efforts to clean things up, they may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.”

Facebook maintains that it has followed scientific and community health consensus on the origins of the pandemic. "We are working diligently to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge," a company representative told The Post.

But there’s still a fringe theory hanging around.

Some conspiracy theorists have claimed the Chinese intentionally engineered the coronavirus to be used as a bioweapon. There is no public evidence that the virus was purposefully created or genetically altered in a lab, and many experts say its features make that very unlikely

Even vocal proponents of the lab leak as a viable hypothesis are quick to dismiss theories that the virus is some sort of engineered bioweapon as far-fetched, but those types of claim could proliferate under Facebook’s new policy. 

Under Facebook's now-reversed policy, the company removed any claims that directly stated or implied that the virus was man-made. A company representative did not specify whether this included claims that the virus escaped from a lab if the claims didn't also say the virus was manipulated in the lab.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, on May 25 called for further investigation of the origin of the coronavirus. (Reuters)
Facebook’s policy shift underscores how hard it can be to determine what's true and what's false.

“With emerging viruses, we live in a world where our knowledge and understanding can shift on a dime, especially because these viruses tend to spill over unpredictably or we get brand-new ones,” said Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba who studies the origin of emerging diseases. 

Kindrachuk sees the possibility of a lab origin as worthy of investigation, but very unlikely. He worries media coverage is putting theories about a lab origin on the same playing field as what he views as the much more credible scenario of a natural origin.

Scientists are trained to talk about caveats and emphasize areas of uncertainty, he says, but that can be used to fuel narratives that are misleading or wrong. 

“It becomes very, very hard to sort out between conspiracy theories and reasonable and particularly low probability, non-conspiracy explanations for things,” said Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington biology professor who studies infectious diseases and writes about misinformation.

One of the challenges, Bergstrom said, is that the platforms fulfill multiple roles. Twitter in particular, he said, has been an important forum for scientific discussions during the pandemic, and that has been facilitated by a robust, open debate. But he also says misinformation can cause immediate real-world harm, especially when it includes prescriptive advice about how to cure or detect the virus or anti-vaccine propaganda.  

“As a public health person, I’d like to see a platform that is broadly used by many people at least promote strongly evidence-based, consensus-based health advice. As a scientist looking for discussion platform online, I want to see minority views expressed, discussed and shot down,” Bergstrom said.

Facebook’s decision comes as social media companies face intense pressure to moderate coronavirus posts.

Social media companies were already under pressure from lawmakers to remove false or misleading information following allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Democrats have ramped up that pressure amid the pandemic, even as Republicans have protested that tech companies are biased in the information they choose to fact-check and the conclusions they reach.

Studies from advocacy groups, as well as internal research from Facebook itself, suggest that a small number of users account for a disproportionate amount of anti-vaccine content.

Tech companies that long refused to wade into the fact-checking business have promised a more aggressive approach in recent years, and some of the changes could be long-lasting. Facebook, for instance, is no longer just censoring misinformation about coronavirus vaccines but has also announced that it will remove false claims about the effectiveness or side effects of other vaccines, including claims that childhood vaccinations cause autism.

“Clearly the trajectory over time has been to move away from a hands-off approach,” said David Kaye, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of free expression. “The experience of the past year and half dealing with covid and disinformation around covid has probably alerted senior people at these companies to very real ways the platforms can be used or abused to cause offline harm.”

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: The FDA must decide today about a controversial Alzheimer’s treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration faces a deadline to determine whether or not to approve aducanumab, which would be the first new Alzheimer's treatment since 2003.

The drug, made by biotech company Biogen, could carry a price tag of $50,000-a-year per patient, but many scientists are not convinced that it even works, as The Post’s Laura McGinley has reported.

Late-stage trials have reached conflicting results about the drug’s efficacy, and an FDA advisory committee has recommended against approval. But advocates, including groups like the Alzheimer’s Association and UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, say that the drug could help some patients and argue that its approval would spur new research.

OOF: Plummeting vaccination rates are imperiling Biden’s July 4 goal.

“The United States is averaging fewer than 1 million shots per day, a decline of more than two-thirds from the peak of 3.4 million in April, according to The Washington Post’s seven-day analysis, even though all adults and children over age 12 are now eligible,” The Post’s Dan Diamond, Dan Keating and Chris Moody report.

The slowdown is national, with every state down at least two-thirds from its peak. But the overall vaccination picture varies considerably. Thirteen states, mostly on the East and West coasts, have already vaccinated more than 70 percent of their adult population. Meanwhile, at least five states have vaccinated 50 percent or less of their adult residents, making it unlikely they will meet the president’s target.

The people who were eager for vaccines have already gotten them, so health officials are now left trying to convince those who are more wary about the shots. Polls show that about one-third of Americans have no immediate plans to get a shot.

OUCH: Donald Trump said China should pay the world $10 trillion in reparations over the coronavirus.

“Our movement is far from over. In fact, it is just getting started,” Trump said in a campaign-style speech to North Carolina Republicans on Saturday night.

Yet the former president and his Republican allies have spent the past few weeks trying to rewrite or distort the history of the pandemic,  The Post's Matt Viser and Yasmeen Abutaleb report. They have attempted with renewed vigor to villainize Anthony S. Fauci while lionizing Trump for what they portray as heroic foresight and underappreciated efforts to combat the deadly virus.

“They have focused on the early moments of the coronavirus response and the origins of the virus, playing down any role they may have played and casting others in the wrong, at times taking comments out of context and at others drawing conclusions that are unproved,” our colleagues write.

“And at a time when the number of vaccinated people continues to rise and deaths are at one of their lowest levels, it has placed the coronavirus back at the center of the political debate. Trump is planning to make it a chief argument in a reputation rehabilitation effort. And Republicans are also making it a centerpiece of their midterm election campaigns, pledging to hold congressional investigations if they win back the House majority.”

“Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus,” Trump said in a recent statement. “To me it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying ‘He was right.’ Thank you!”

Obamacare update

The White House says Obamacare is providing a record number of Americans with health coverage.

About 31 million Americans now have health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, President Biden announced over the weekend. Yet marketplace enrollment remains below its peak in 2016, when 12.6 million people were signed up.

  • “According to a report from the Health and Human Services Department, about 11.3 million Americans were enrolled in health-care plans through the Affordable Care Act’s federal marketplaces as of February, with 14.8 million people newly enrolled in Medicaid through the law’s expansion of eligibility as of December,” Amy B Wang writes.
  • “The report also counted an additional 3.9 million Medicaid-enrolled adults who would have been eligible even before the Affordable Care Act but credited “enhanced outreach, streamlined applications, and increased federal funding” from the law for the numbers.”
  • More than 1.2 million additional Americans enrolled in marketplace plans during the first three months of this year's special enrollment period, the report said.

Biden spoke with former president Barack Obama in a taped Zoom conversation that was released by the White House on Saturday.

“Really good news, folks. Great news: 31 million people are now covered by the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said. “And I know someone who’s going to really want to know that number is up as high as it is. I got to call this fella.”

Elsewhere in health care

  • A rural Indiana county ended a needle exchange program that had served as a national model, The Post’s Hannah Knowles reports. Scott County officials voted to end the program, saying they did not want to enable dangerous behavior, despite objections from public health officials, including former U.S. surgeon general Jerome M. Adams.
     
  • An algorithm that considers race as a factor in evaluating kidney disease may make it harder for some Black patients to get kidney transplants, The Post’s Rae Ellen Bichell and Cara Anthony report.
     
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has urged parents to vaccinate teenagers amid increased hospitalization rates of teenagers with covid-19, The Post’s Lena H. Sun reports.

Sugar rush