The first time the Facebook Police sounded their alarms for Mary Beth Pfeiffer came on Jan. 19. Pfeiffer, a well-known investigative reporter, was writing about an early treatment for COVID-19 that showed promise. Like a scientist, she had read dozens of medical studies and interviewed doctors on the frontlines of treatment.

Pfeiffer concluded that a drug called ivermectin that has been used safely for many years might just prevent the infection and treat it early; it even showed success in hospitalized patents. Many doctors agree. The government does not.

Pfeiffer was so convinced that by the time she wrote her sixth article for, the headline read: “Not Using Ivermectin, One Year In, Is Unethical and Immoral.” Pfeiffer posted it to a private group on Facebook. The sirens blared: “Your post goes against our standards of misinformation.” Facebook knows the truth, and this wasn’t it, the Zuckerbergs declared.

On Feb. 27, Pfeiffer posted the story again and was told, “6 of your posts go against our standards…” Time out! Go to your room!

In 40 years of journalism, with a slew of awards on tough stories that could fill a living room, Pfeiffer says, “I have never been censored.”

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I need to be transparent here. Pfeiffer is my wife. And I know it is risky to write about relatives because it compromises objectivity and independence. On the other hand, I can vouch for Pfeiffer’s research and have watched the highs and lows that censorship can bring to a reporter arguing for a point of view that is being ignored by mainstream media and many in medicine.

“I don’t ask everyone to accept that ivermectin is the answer,” she concedes. “But government, media and medicine have combined to create an unacceptable narrative for COVID. Certain things can be discussed and can’t be discussed.”  

In fact, Facebook brags that it has taken down 12 million problematic posts about COVID.

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Despite what the media giants claim, however, Pfeiffer argues: “This is not a war on disinformation and misinformation but on information, period. At least let us share information.” 

And that speaks to the point: The First Amendment is meant to protect a robust marketplace of ideas, where truth rises in a wide-open encounter with contrary facts.  People decide truth — not the government. No one needs to silence a speaker; the marketplace will kill bad ideas.

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Simple concept: no central authority decides truth; democracy will flourish when “the people” choose. But a new authoritarianism has arisen. The social media giants — Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter — have seized the marketplace of ideas.

Facebook has 2.7 billion users, surpassing the populations of Africa, Europe, and North America. YouTube’s 2.3 billion users watch one billion hours of video daily. Twitter has a paltry 330 million users who Tweet short messages, but whose influence — as in the case of former PresidentDonald Trump — rocks the political world. And the monster, of course, is Google, which owns YouTube, Gmail and Chrome and processes 40,000 search queries every second. Who Google blocks or favors, we don’t really know.

Pfeiffer finds the control over information about potential solutions — she calls it a war on ivermectin — “appalling and scary.” What is particularly troubling is that all the social media giants are behaving in the same way on this repurposed drug, a homogeneity that belies free speech and bespeaks authoritarianism, an impenetrable world of private censorship.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing illegal is taking place. 

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The First Amendment prevents the government from censoring its citizens, but private media can. After all, the New York Times has long decided who gets access to its pages and who publishes influential op-ed essays. And its decision-making process is as much a mystery as how Google does searches.

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Nonetheless, we are at a perilous moment. Private media, with more power than we have ever seen concentrated in so few hands, can silence a speaker for violating its standards, which, quite frankly, no one really understands. 

On March 22 Facebook banned Pfeiffer for three days after she wrote a story focusing on a top oncologist at Yale University who supported use of ivermectin.

“Thousands of people would be alive today if we had started using ivermectin months ago,” she wrote. 

So Pfeiffer turned to Twitter where she has 9,000 followers and often gets hundreds of re-tweets. On March 26 she re-posted her article that cited the “immorality” of not using ivermectin. But Twitter warned her it was “misleading.”

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Fair enough, they can have an opinion. But on March 29, when Pfeiffer tweeted again on ivermectin, they locked her account while hearing her appeal.

Says Pfeiffer, “I couldn’t get my message out.” 

The courts would say that’s not really true.  She could still post to her own webpage or anywhere else someone will use it. 

But it begs the question. Why, suddenly, are the media giants censoring like the czars of Russia? Why are all the major media platforms adopting the same stance? Multiple explanations.

First, after years of being dismissed as neutral platforms carrying reckless information, the giants grew up, declaring, “We won’t be used and abused.” So, Twitter banned Trump because they felt his Tweets were leading to violence. Taken at their word, they were being responsible, finally.

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But secondly, they were scared. When various intelligence reports indicated that Russian bots and fake accounts had in 2016 manipulated American public opinion with propaganda — especially on Facebook — the giants had to respond. Especially when Congress investigated.

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Third, the social media giants, flush with money and power, fear two looming dangers — regulation and antitrust lawsuits. Congress and the Justice Department are at the door.  Monopoly suits have been filed. After all, Google owns YouTube; Facebook owns Instagram. And breaking them up is a real possibility. They’re vulnerable.

But the First Amendment won’t allow regulation, unless Congress turns them into “common carriers,” which means they would have to carry all messages. But that’s unlikely — and unconstitutional. An attack on the independence of Twitter and Facebook is an attack on The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. 

What is clear: In a short number of years the digital media giants have morphed into the new authoritarians. We adopted a free press clause in 1791 because we feared the great centralized power of the central government. 

And now the new central authorities reside in social media. What they are doing is legal; it’s just wrong — and dangerous. We always try to limit unchecked power, and that should be more than ever a concern with those who control information. But it ain’t happening.

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“There is a huge chilling effect in terms of how I express myself and how far I go,” Pfeiffer asserts. More importantly, “Hundreds of thousands of lives have likely been lost because we do not have effective early treatment.” 

Just why won’t the media giants allow this discussion to flourish? If they really want to be responsible, then moderate the debate — don’t kill it.

Rob Miraldi’s writings on the First Amendment have won numerous state and national awards.  He teaches journalism at SUNY Paltz.

Twitter: @miral98 E-mail:

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