The Facebook logo is displayed on a mobile phone in this picture illustration taken December 2, 2019. (File Photo) Photograph:( Reuters )
The move followed President Joe Biden's directive to US intelligence agencies to investigate competing theories on how the virus first emerged through animal contact at a market in Wuhan, China, or through accidental release from a research laboratory in the same city
Facebook has reversed its policy banning posts suggesting COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory amid renewed debate over the origins of the virus, raising fresh questions about social media's role in policing misinformation.
The latest move by Facebook highlights the challenge for the world's largest social network of rooting out false and potentially harmful content while remaining open for discourse.
"In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps," the statement said.
"We're continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge."
The new statement updates guidance from Facebook in February when it said it would remove false or debunked claims about the novel coronavirus which created a global pandemic killing more than three million.
The move followed President Joe Biden's directive to US intelligence agencies to investigate competing theories on how the virus first emerged -- through animal contact at a market in Wuhan, China, or through accidental release from a research laboratory in the same city.
Biden's order signals an escalation in mounting controversy over the origins of the virus which emerged in Wuhan.
A recent Wall Street Journal report, citing a US intelligence report, said three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in November 2019, ahead of the wider outbreak of the disease.
Facebook uses independent third-party fact checkers, to debunk misinformation. Although the origins of the virus remain unproven, the lab leak theory has been subject to fact-checking.
One fact checking organization, PolitiFact, reported last September that public health authorities had "repeatedly said the coronavirus was not derived from a lab" but earlier this month revised its guidance, noting: "that assertion is now more widely disputed," and saying it would continue to review the matter.
But the abrupt Facebook reversal prompted angry responses from conservatives and supporters of former president Donald Trump who argued their assertions had been dismissed as hoaxes.
"Wow! But they did suppress the story for a year, defaming Trump and Republicans for a 'conspiracy theory' blacklisting conservative press and banning us," tweeted Kelly Sadler, a blogger and former Trump aide.
Facebook in a separate statement said it was stepping up its efforts to curb misinformation by limiting the reach of users who "repeatedly" share false content.
Until now, Facebook had only taken this action on individual posts, but now will clamp down on the users who are the largest spreaders of false content.
(With inputs from agencies)