(A version of this post was published earlier today at FacilitatedCommunication.org).
It isn’t exactly headline news when trusted, mainstream media publishes a feel-good story about facilitated communication—as outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Washington Post, and from CBS to PBS, have been doing for years. But it’s always a bit of a shock when it’s your local public broadcaster.
Last Wednesday Philadelphia’s WHYY TV ran a pro-FC segment on a local boy in a local public school. It had all the usual ingredients: speech delay, autism diagnosis, placement in special ed classrooms, continuing failure to meet the parents’ linguistic and academic expectations. Enter a “new methodology”: one that’s been unlocking kids like this child. Sure enough, it unlocks him/her, revealing sophisticated language and literacy skills and vast stores of knowledge. The child ends up in honors classes at a school that allows him/her to use this methodology in the classroom. Everyone is in awe. As inspirational music plays in the background, we hear interviews with the parents, the teachers, the facilitator (or “communication and regulations partner”)—and not one autism expert. As far as the reporter was concerned, the miraculous nature of the story was reason to broadcast it; not reason to do the small amount of Googling that would have revealed how many reasons there are for skepticism—and how many times this basic story has been told, over and over again, ever since FC came to the U.S. in the late 1980s.
The specific variations on the theme that played out last Wednesday included these: the boy was diagnosed as “mild to moderate”, as opposed to severe (which, oddly, puts him closer to the mild end of the spectrum than my son is); it’s a public school (albeit a charter school that believes in “multiple intelligences”) that has let the family use the “methodology”; the methodology is the held-up letterboard variant of FC known as Spelling to Communicate (S2C); and, finally, the unexpected break-out word that the boy typed out that reassured his parents that he wasn’t intellectually disabled after all was “amber”. More typical, perhaps, of S2C users was the boy’s first word: “Elizabeth.” That’s the first name of the so-called “inventor” of S2C, Elizabeth Vosseller, who was the boy’s first “communication and regulations partner”. (Perhaps it’s only appropriate that “Elizabeth” is to novice S2C learners what “mama” and “dada” are to novice spoken language learners.)
Another variation on the theme was the existence of a venue for viewer feedback. That’s because WHYY posted the segment on its Youtube channel. You can watch it here.
I must have been one of the first people to see it, because at the time I posted my first comment there was only one other: a comment from “Professor” that stated: “Facilitated communication is a dangerous farce. Spelling to communicate is a form of facilitated communication.” I added mine, and it stayed up for about 45 minutes:
It’s disheartening to see our local public television station, to which I donate annually, giving airtime to this uncritical presentation of an unproven approach to autism (S2C, aka RPM) which, all the available evidence suggests, is suppressing the voices of vulnerable individuals, and which professional organizations like the American Speech Language Hearing Association have advised practitioners not to use. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_prompting_method https://www.asha.org/policy/ps2018-00351/
Then my comment disappeared. I reposted it; it stayed up for another 45 minutes and then disappeared. I reposted it, and it disappeared immediately. Surely WHYY isn’t censoring comments, I thought. But who else could possibly be doing this, especially since none of the local pro-FC crowd appeared to be active yet with any pro-FC comments?
Yet Professor’s critical comment was still there. So perhaps YouTube’s AI bots spam out comments with links. Reluctantly, I removed the links and reposted the comment. This time it stuck around. And then it got a reply, and then a few more:
These comments are mostly from parents and, purportedly, from facilitated kids. But my policy is this: even when people misrepresent my words and spread misinformation, I generally avoid, except in extreme cases, engaging with true believers. My comments, like my blog posts, are for those who haven’t yet drunk the Kool-Aid. But I did want to revisit the issue of responsible journalism at WHYY, so I posted a second comment, not as a reply to anyone but as an independent comment. Luckily I saved it; I had neglected to do a screenshot:
WHYY listeners expect WHYY journalists do to their homework, particularly on sensationalized issues like this one. We expect responsible journalists to talk to experts and to present the evidence, or lack thereof, on both sides. What’s next? A show about how vaccines cause autism: a show where the only people who are interviewed are convinced parents and fringe doctors like Andrew Wakefield? (It’s worth noting that many people who believe that Spelling to Communicate unlocks uninstructed literacy skills and uninstructed facts about fossilized resins also believe that vaccines cause autism).
That comment, too, kept disappearing. So much for the theory that AI bots only spam out comments with links. Perhaps “vaccine” was a trigger. At this point, who knows? But it occurred to me that if I split the comment between a comment and a reply, perhaps automatic deletion would be less likely to occur. So I gave that a shot.
Meanwhile, I tried calling up WHYY TV. Within seconds I was on the phone with someone who said she was the “right person” to talk to. She assured me that WHYY likes to encourage dialogue, and that she did not know of any censorship policy. She noted that three comments of mine, the one from the night before that had stuck and the comment and reply I had just posted, were still there. She promised they wouldn’t disappear. But she had no explanation for why my other comments had repeatedly vanished.
Meanwhile, FCisNot Science also posted a comment, and that, too, stuck around. In addition, a second reply appeared in the thread with my comment plus reply. But, because I was becoming increasingly suspicious, I decided to see how things would look if I accessed YouTube from a different browser and didn’t log in.
And what I found was that first and second comments were still there, but my reply, despite the WHYY person’s assurances, had vanished. So I went back to the first browser, where I was still logged in and where the comment was still visible, and reposted the comment. The reply count increased from 2 to 3, but I only saw one copy of my reply:
When I viewed this thread through the other browser, the reply count was also 3, but only one reply was visible. This is called “shadow banning” or “comment ghosting”, which, as Wikipedia explains, “is the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from some areas of an online community in such a way that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.”
At this point, I decided to add another reply to the thread in question, calling WHYY out on possible censorship. On the other browser, the reply count increased to 4, and now two replies were visible:
Meanwhile, FCIsNot Science had received a response to their post:
I alerted FCisNot Science, and they promptly posted a reply. Unfortunately, they did not screenshot it, but it went something like this:
Thank you for your reply. I have done my homework. Physical touch is not a requirement for cuing. There are oodles of studies discussing the ideomotor response, a phenomenon known to the medical community dating back to the mid-1800s. It’s also known as the Clever Hans effect. Magicians, mentalists, and illusionists make use of it in some of their tricks. The ideomotor effect is also associated with automatic writing (which is, essentially, FC), dowsing, and using a planchette on a Ouija board. Facilitators are often unaware to extent to which they are controlling the messages.
Nearly instantaneously, this reply disappeared. So did the original comment. Indeed, nothing was left of the original thread. Not only that, but FCisNot Science discovered that they were locked out of their YouTube account. Fortunately, that was quickly remedied, and FCisNot Science’s original comment, and the critical reply, returned. But FCisNot Science’s reply to that reply appears to have vanished forever, without leaving a trace even in a reply count.
Here is my takeaway from all this:
- The most likely culprit for the disappeared posts is probably not WHYY, but a group of determined pro-FCers. YouTube is cagey about comment censorship, but my guess is that a coordinated flagging of selected comments triggers automatic censorship by YouTube’s AI bots.
- It’s interesting that only the comments that contained detailed evidence, or links to evidence, or links to the anti-FC position statements of reputable organizations, or links between belief in FC and belief that vaccines cause autism, were targeted for censorship. This says something about what FC proponents (WHYY included?) see as their greatest vulnerabilities.
- The selective censorship, which also made it look like FC-proponents had the last word, reminded me of selective blocking on Twitter, which has a similar effect.
- In other words, selective censorship has become the new way to “win” arguments when logical reasoning and evidence fall short.
- It’s too bad that YouTube (and Twitter) enable such behavior.
- But none of this exonerates the biggest culprit of all—namely, WHYY TV, for presenting what basically amounts to an extended infomercial for Elizabeth Vosseller and S2C.
Today I tried to post the following comment on the YouTube site:
For links to information about the methodology discussed here, Spelling to Communicate/Rapid Prompting Method (RPM/S2C), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_prompting_method and https://www.facilitatedcommunication.org/systematic-reviews. To view the American Speech Language Hearing Association’s position statement against RPM/S2C, see https://www.asha.org/policy/ps2018-00351/
It’s worth noting that some of the most prominent supporters of Spelling to Communicate also believe that vaccines cause autism—another theory that has been completely debunked.
That comment stayed up for about 15 seconds. But then I posted another, complaining about disappearing comments. Oddly enough, that comment has remained.