We don't need ministries of truth. Plus: VP Harris irks Manchin; guilty pleasure of Hammer films

By Gary Abernathy

We don’t need social media to serve as ministries of truth

The obvious effort to ban people with divergent views about covid-19 from social media – particularly if they are Donald Trump supporters – continues this week with a report that an anti-vaccine protest at Dodger Stadium “was organized on Facebook through a page that promotes debunked claims about the coronavirus pandemic, masks and immunization,” as the Washington Post reported.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported, “About 50 anti-vaccine protesters who marched to the entrance to the Dodger Stadium coronavirus vaccination site on Saturday, Jan. 30 prompted officials to close the gate for almost an hour before the protesters dispersed.”

The Post story noted, “The online activity illustrates the extent to which Facebook remains a critical organizing tool of the anti-vaccine movement, despite the company’s repeated vows to curb coronavirus misinformation and its assurance that it has removed more than 12 million pieces of such content. It also shows how social networking services could foster more confrontational tactics by those committed to false ideas about the dangers of immunization as the mass vaccination effort ramps up.”

This is not about whether it’s right or wrong to get a coronavirus vaccine, or stage a protest that disrupts the administering of a vaccine. It’s about the startling development of suggesting that we permit only one, state-sanctioned storyline about any subject, an astounding philosophy in a nation whose press once valued the concept of challenging official narratives. Now, delivering the company line from official sources, and brooking no opposition, seems to be the overriding directive, one that even our most powerful media companies defend.

“I’m concerned this is the next phase of their anti-vaccine activism, going to places where the vaccine is being distributed and being disruptive there,” Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, told the Post. Well, yes, protests are almost always disruptive – what’s interesting is how different protests are portrayed in the media depending on their particular cause.

Here’s the rub, as the Daily News finally mentioned: “The majority of the protesters were supporters of Donald Trump, but they purposely did not wear pro-Trump attire or carry American flags to better communicate their anti-vaxxing message, said the protester, 26-year-old Jairo Rodriguez of Hollywood. And they did not wear masks, he said.” Now we see the real reason some folks are riled up about the protest.

I know the tired argument that Facebook, Twitter, etc. are private companies that can make their own policies, and since they aren’t part of the government they can’t violate free speech rights. But when they virtually monopolize the information highway, that argument has to be reexamined.  

The notion that voices that spread questionable information – even false information – should be banned leads to the slipperiest of slopes. Who gets to decide? Instead of trusting society to figure out truth from lies, as we have always done, there are those who want social media companies to do the job for us. If anything deserves a good old-fashioned resistance, it’s the notion that we need ministries of truth to protect us from misinformation. We should always err on the side of the free flow of information.

The answer to the problem is not asking social media to be the arbiter. It’s to require everyone who comments or contributes online to log in with their real identities, which would eliminate most of the disturbing behavior that goes on. For whatever reason there is fierce resistance to that idea. But before the internet, the ability to engage in mass communication through newspapers, radio or television required people to have their identities verified by editors or producers.

As for the Dodger Stadium protest, the Post reported, “Ultimately, it did not affect the number of people who were able to receive shots, officials said. No arrests were made.” Okay then. What’s the problem?  

Harris in rift with Manchin over WV television comments

Vice President Kamala Harris stepped into some quicksand this week when she did a TV interview in West Virginia that drew the ire of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Harris was pushing the Biden administration’s pricey covid-19 relief package, and Manchin took offense because, as he said later, “No one called me. . . . We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward . . . but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together, what was done.”

Manchin has made it known he’s not on board with the package’s $1.9 trillion price tag. On Monday, President Biden met with 10 GOP senators who are pushing for a package about one-third the size of Biden’s proposal. No resolutions have been reached, and it’s not clear whether Biden will negotiate with Republicans – or with people in his own party like Manchin – or try to push through his gargantuan covid package on a purely partisan vote. But in a 50-50 senate with Harris as the tie breaker, losing even one Democrat likely kills the deal.

Indulging a guilty pleasure with a Hammer film binge

While I’m particularly a fan of the old Universal Studio horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s featuring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and the great stock company of Universal players, I also enjoy the Hammer Studio remakes of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Lately I’ve been indulging a guilty pleasure of re-watching the Dracula films starring Christopher Lee. The series of Frankenstein films produced by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing – who also played Van Helsing in some of the Dracula movies – are also fun.

While Universal is noted for its beautiful black and white films of the earlier age, Hammer reveled in its splashy use of color, particularly in depicting what became known as “Hammer blood,” an artificially bright red concoction that dripped rather freely. Hammer pushed the bounds of censorship in several ways, but then again, Universal had been accused of the same thing two decades earlier. Our changing standards are always interesting to observe through the films of different eras.