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Why the War on Conspiracy Theories Is Bad Public Policy

Why the War on Conspiracy Theories Is Bad Public Policy

A Review of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas by Cass Sunstein (based on an earlier paper co-authored with Adrian Vermeule); In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Businessby Charlan Nemeth; and Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, edited by Joseph E. Uscinski

On January 25 2018 YouTube unleashed the latest salvo in the war on conspiracy theories, saying “we’ll begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”

At first glance that sounds reasonable. Nobody wants YouTube or anyone else to recommend bad information. And almost everyone agrees that phony miracle cures, flat earthism, and blatantly false claims about 9/11 and other historical events are undesirable.

But if we stop and seriously consider those words, we notice a couple of problems. First, the word “recommend” is not just misleading but mendacious. YouTube obviously doesn’t really recommend anything. When it says it does, it is lying.

When you watch YouTube videos, the YouTube search engine algorithm displays links to other videos that you are likely to be interested in. These obviously do not constitute “recommendations” by YouTube itself, which exercises no editorial oversight over content posted by users. (Or at least it didn’t until it joined the war on conspiracy theories.)

The second and larger problem is that while there may be near-universal agreement among reasonable people that flat-earthism is wrong, there is only modest agreement regarding which health approaches constitute “phony miracle cures” and which do not. Far less is there any agreement on “claims about 9/11 and other historical events.”

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