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In the COVID-19 era, misinformation seems to be everywhere. This includes bogus information about COVID-19 cures and vaccines, as well as healthcare messaging designed to appeal to certain at-risk communities. In fact, there now appear to be two huge viruses that are spreading uncontrollably these days: COVID-19 and misinformation. Rather than stamping out misinformation online and trying to limit the reach of advertisers that are pushing bogus COVID-19 products, social media platforms have thus far been too lax in their responses.
The case for and against social media companies
At least, that’s what the critics are saying. Take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example. At a recent forum hosted by George Washington University, she accused social media companies like Facebook and Twitter of “misinformation negligence.” In a best case scenario, these companies have simply been negligent in scrubbing their platforms of misinformation. In a worst case scenario, these companies might actually be profiting from healthcare falsehoods.
As long as social media companies don’t clamp down on shady advertisers and content producers, suggests Pelosi, they are sending a clear signal to all the scammers and COVID-19 profiteers out there that they are open for business. As Pelosi pointed out, “fact checking is not censorship.” As a result, it’s the duty of social companies to do a little due diligence before letting certain ads run or giving too big of a bullhorn to certain online communities.
Yet, companies like Facebook and Twitter would beg to differ. For example, Facebook – careful to avoid the perception that it is helping companies profit from COVID-19 misery – has banned ads for medical face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and COVID-19 test kits. Moreover, Twitter has shown willingness to use its new fact-checking labels on tweets, going so far as to fact-check President Donald Trump in a highly controversial move. And it’s not like the big social media companies can fact-check every single piece of content that appears online these days, not when they have hundreds of millions of monthly active users.
Publisher or platform?
Really, the bigger issue is whether social media companies are publishers or platforms. If they are platforms, then they have a duty of care and responsibility to weed out the most egregious content out there – such as ads encouraging people to ingest liquid Clorox in order to kill the coronavirus – but nothing more. As online town halls, they are not in the censorship game. However, if they are publishers, then they have much greater responsibility to limit, censor or block content. Just as a newspaper like the Washington Post or New York Times would not report on a potential COVID-19 cure or vaccine without giving both sides of the story, social media companies also should make sure to give both sides of the story. That’s especially true when companies might be trying to profit off the fears and anxiety of certain communities, such as older individuals in nursing homes who are particularly at-risk of getting COVID-19.
So is Nancy Pelosi really suggesting that we should be thinking of social media companies as publishers these days? From her perspective, mainstream media should be pushing one central narrative – “COVID-19 bad. Trump bad. Masks good. Vaccines good.” – and anything that doesn’t line up with that narrative needs some closer circumspection. Why aren’t Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms falling into line behind all of the other mainstream TV and newspaper publishers?
A no-win situation for social media
At the end of the day, Facebook is in a no-win situation. If it clamps down on free speech online, critics on the right will accuse it of censorship. And if it fails to clamp down on free speech online, critics on the left will accuse it of “misinformation negligence.” The correct response, most likely, is somewhere in the middle. Facebook must do enough to clamp down on people trying to profiteer from COVID-19 (such as people selling hand sanitizer at ridiculously marked-up prices), but must also let through content related to potential COVID-19 cures (such as Trump’s favorite – hydroxychloroquine) to appease those on the right that are accusing it of censorship.