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Anti-vaxxer group sues Facebook claiming fact-checking is 'censorship'

Although the lawsuit is legally shaky, it represents a rise in attacks against the social media platform for policing pseudoscience.

Anti-vaxxer group sues Facebook claiming fact-checking is 'censorship'
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

Children's Health Defense, a group founded by prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is now suing Facebook and its fact-checking partners for applying fact-check labels to debunked posts about vaccines and 5G networks. In a lawsuit filed in a California federal court on Monday, the non-profit group accused the social media company of censorship and claimed that it violated the CHD's First and Fifth Amendment rights by actively "suppressing vaccine safety speech" online. Although the complaint against Facebook, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the fact-checking organizations PolitiFact, Science Feedback, and Poynter Institute is legally shaky, it represents a rise in attacks against the social media platform for policing pseudoscience.



According to Daily Mail, in the lawsuit CHD claimed it was wrongfully targeted after Facebook implemented a new algorithm to track and censor misinformation. The aforementioned algorithm came into place in February 2019 as a result of the pressure CEO Mark Zuckerberg experienced from U.S. lawmakers. who threatened to remove the tech company's immunity unless it implemented measures to curb the spread of false content on the platform. The lawsuit, however, claimed Facebook teamed up with the CDC and the WHO to consistently target CHD's posts by tagging them with a "warning label" or other notices indicating misinformation.



The group further accused the fact-checkers of censoring "valid and truthful speech, including speech critical of those agencies and their policies." This fact-checking practice has damaged its reputation as a public health advocate, the CHD argued, "to both the risks of environmental toxins, vaccines, 5G and wireless networks, and the conflicts of interest in government oversight of those products and services. This case arises in a pandemic when the need for public debate on health issues has never been greater." The organization cited several posts that were blocked or flagged by Facebook's Politifact program for spreading "partly false information" or false headlines.



One such post shared on the CHD Facebook page in April 2020, was flagged for citing a study that claimed that individuals who received the flu shot have a "significantly" greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Another post published in June falsely claimed that infant death rates had significantly declined during the pandemic due to the reduced use of vaccines. This post was tagged with a warning label stating it contained misleading information. "Facebook and PolitiFact fraudulently misrepresented to all third-party users that the post was 'False Information Checked by independent fact-checkers,'" the lawsuit states.



"Indeed, the very name 'PolitiFact' suggests that the putative 'fact-checking' here is more political than scientific," it continues. Arguing that it has been unfairly targeted by Facebook, CHD pointed to the company's exemption for climate change deniers whose beliefs are considered as opinions. "By using Facebook's pre-populated options to mislabel [CHD's] articles and videos, Science Feedback and Facebook intentionally tell the public that [CHD] is presenting false information, when they know that the information presented is, at most, opinion and not false fact," the lawsuit states.



In a statement accompanying the company's press release on the lawsuit, 66-year-old Kennedy Jr.—the son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy—accused the government of trying to silence its critics. "This is an important First Amendment case testing the boundaries of government authority to openly censor unwanted critiques of government policies and pharmaceutical and telecom products on privately owned internet platforms," he said. Meanwhile, as The Verge points out, this case doesn’t have a clear precedent for success since judges have reportedly dismissed previous arguments that social media platforms are public spaces bound by the First Amendment. The lawsuit, at most, is merely an attempt to join ongoing efforts to stop Facebook, Twitter, and Google from moderating content.


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