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EDITORIAL: When misinformation comes from the government

Here’s an important reason that the First Amendment prevents government from policing the spread of what it deems misinformation: Sometimes, the misinformation comes from the government.

On Tuesday, the public learned about the explosive allegations of a senior-level, multidecade employee of the CIA. The unnamed whistleblower shared information on how the CIA’s COVID Discovery Team looked into the origins of the coronavirus.

“According to the whistleblower, at the end of its review, six of the seven members of the Team believed the intelligence and science were sufficient to make a low confidence assessment that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China,” a Tuesday letter from the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence read. The letter went to CIA Director William Burns.

That alone would be a bombshell. In February 2020, Sen. Tom Cotton was pilloried for discussing it. The Washington Post accused him of “repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”

As the coronavirus crisis evolved, social media companies even began censoring people from posting supposed misinformation. For instance, Facebook once deemed it a false claim that the virus was man-made.

But what came next is even more jaw-dropping. The letter said the whistleblower testified that “the other six members were given a significant monetary incentive to change their position.”

If true — and a full investigation is warranted — the government paid its own employees to produce misinformation. Now, imagine if the government were able to censor speech it labeled misinformation while paying people to produce actual misinformation.

That nightmare scenario may have already happened. A recent ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found the government outsourced its censorship efforts to social media companies. In Missouri v. Biden, the court found that government officials frequently met with and pressured those businesses to remove information they objected to.

Social media companies “gave the officials access to an expedited reporting system, downgraded or removed flagged posts, and deplatformed users,” the opinion reads. The government isn’t allowed to launder its censorious desires through private companies.

This is a major scandal, amplified by the fact that the government may have been simultaneously paying officials to produce misinformation. As these episodes show, the First Amendment’s free speech protections remain as vital as ever.

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