After months of revelations about government working behind the scenes (both cooperatively and coercively) with online platforms to suppress disfavored speech, it’s fair to assume that a federal official knows what he’s saying when he calls for increased efforts to root out what he describes as “misinformation.” That the official in question is the head of the FDA, which recently admitted to major missteps, calls for humility and more respect for the right to disagree with the powers that be.
“Life expectancy in the U.S. is between three and five years lower than the average in other high-income countries—and the gap comes in part from misinformation,” Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf told CNBC last week. The FDA head lamented America’s standing relative to other developed countries and attributed it to bad information about vaccines, food, and lifestyle.
“Why aren’t we using knowledge of diet? It’s not that people don’t know about it,” Califf wondered. “Why aren’t we using medical products as effectively and efficiently as our peer countries? A lot of it has to do with the choices that people make because of the things that influence their thinking.”
So, what is Califf’s solution? If you guessed he thinks something must be done about that bad information, you get a gold star.
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Better Regulation of… Speech?
“I think there is a real need for better regulation of how we deal with this complex information,” Califf said. “I’m highly aware that in our society, people don’t want government to have too much power, but I think specific authorities at FDA, FTC, other areas are gonna be needed.”
Califf has been banging this drum for a while now. Last October, at the National Food Policy Conference, he railed against “rampant misinformation and disinformation that is destabilizing communication, undermining confidence in science and the work we do, and weakening faith in governmental and other institutions, including the FDA.” Somebody must have whispered in his ear since then about constitutional limitations on his power.
“I’m not arguing here that we should suppress free speech,” Califf belatedly added in last week’s CNBC interview. “The First Amendment is the First Amendment. But we have to counter that information with truthful information and reach many, many more people.”
The thing is, there is a lot of bad information out there. But some of it comes from the government itself. That’s at least part of the explanation for the “weakening faith” that upsets Califf.
When “Misinformation” Is Just Disagreement
Back in 2021, even normally pro-establishment CNN complained that government officials “lack consistency on masks” and that “keeping track of mask mandates and recommendations can feel like a full-time job.” The best research now suggests the controversial impositions did no good.
Is “better regulation” of information going to be focused on misinformation for the ages? Or will it be turned on whatever ideas are unpopular with a temporarily ascendant faction?
And while Califf makes a government official’s rote genuflection to the First Amendment, he does so after extensive revelations that his colleagues did their worst to bypass free-speech protections.
About That Respect for Free Speech…
“The United States government pressured Twitter to elevate certain content and suppress other content about Covid-19 and the pandemic,” David Zweig reported for The Free Press in December after new owner Elon Musk revealed its behind-the-scenes dealings. “Internal emails that I viewed at Twitter showed that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s content according to their wishes.”
Some media cooperation with government was seemingly willing, though it’s hard to know when officialdom can twist arms with threats of legislation and regulation.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) played a direct role in policing permissible speech on social media throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reason‘s Robby Soave reported. “Confidential emails obtained by Reason show that Facebook moderators were in constant contact with the CDC, and routinely asked government health officials to vet claims relating to the virus, mitigation efforts such as masks, and vaccines.”
Government pressure “disfavored perspectives that dissented from official advice, and it encompassed not just demonstrably false statements but also speech that was deemed ‘misleading’ even when it was arguably or verifiably true,” Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote in January.
So much for targeting a clearly identifiable class of “misinformation.” And so much for “The First Amendment is the First Amendment.” The government has already leaned on private companies to suppress speech that turned out to be at least debatable when not entirely accurate.
Bureaucrats with Feet of Clay
Califf should know all about official fallibility, including of the FDA over which he presides. Just last summer he conceded that the FDA’s restrictive rules were partially to blame for the baby formula shortage. “The FDA intends to consider enforcement discretion requests until the temporary shortage is addressed,” he said in a statement.
What would a government that kneecapped the baby formula supply chain with ill-considered red tape and has demonstrably been wrong about what constitutes “misinformation” do with the FDA head’s fulfilled wish of expanded power to enforce “better regulation of how we deal with this complex information?” If you’re thinking that the result would be a hot mess of suppressed conversations and at least some bad data elevated over good, you’re paying attention.
It’s no revelation that government officials want us all to sit down, shut up, and abide by whatever trendy advice occupies their fancy—until it changes. But evidence evolves, ideas are tested by debate, and facts are more elusive than what can be captured by government memos about misinformation. Officials’ obsession with policing what we say to the point of sneakily evading constitutional protections for speech demonstrates a blind spot as to their own fallibility.
Free speech protections aren’t based on the assumption that truth will always prevail, but on the knowledge that it’s slippery and can’t be determined by decree. FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf wants to suppress misinformation, but he’s in no position to reliably distinguish truth from falsehood.