Photo Credit: pexels
It’s a question worth asking over and over again: Are big social media companies like Facebook actually profiting from all the COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation out there? More misinformation leads to more debate, more debate leads to more engagement, and more engagement leads to more advertising dollars. By some accounts, Facebook users in five countries (including the U.S.) have been exposed to COVID-19 disinformation nearly 3.8 billion times. That’s huge. Clearly, there’s a lot that the world’s biggest social media platform could be doing to shut down COVID-19 misinformation.
12 super-spreader accounts
Consider, for example, that just 12 social media accounts now account for 65% of the misinformation about COVID-19 across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Shut down those 12 accounts, and you’d immediately shut down nearly two-thirds of the false information circulating on the social web. You can think of these COVID-19 accounts as “super-spreaders” of false information. True, even if you shut these down, a few new harmful variants might arise, but you’d make it harder and harder for the people, companies, or organizations behind these accounts to negatively impact the nation’s healthcare policy that relies on the public’s acceptance of new vaccines as they are rolled out.
As of now, the big social media platforms have not said decisively that they would shut down these super-spreader accounts. They can do this, but choose not to. Even with mounting pressure from 12 state Attorneys General to take action, Facebook still has not closed down these accounts. For its part, YouTube has said that it has removed nearly 850,000 videos spreading vaccine hesitancy, and will remove more if they violate the platform’s terms of service. And Facebook has taken steps to shut down fraudulent or misleading COVID-19 ads. But why no action on these 12 accounts?
Today’s misinformation is tomorrow’s truth
One potential reason is that the big social media companies realize that, deep down, the federal government has “outsourced” the unenviable task of censorship to them. The U.S. government can’t censor credible or rational voices (such as doctors reporting on the results from their patients) – that would be a clear violation of the constitutional right to free speech. But private companies can. All they have to do is mention their “Terms of Service” (which are constantly being updated as needed), and they would have a valid, legal reason to kick off their platform anyone they don’t like. Add in the fact that Big Tech is shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and they have almost free rein to do whatever they want, all without legal repercussions of any kind.
This might be a difficult red pill to swallow, but today’s “misinformation” or “conspiracy theory” can sometimes turn out to be tomorrow’s truth. OK, OK, you might think anti-vaxxers are crazy conspiracy theorists, but now we’ve seen both the Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines pulled from the public market after serious (but rare) side effects. If you were a family member who recently lost someone due to vaccine-related complications (such as dangerous blood clots), what would you think now of all the “misinformation” out there?
If not the private sector, maybe the government?
If Facebook and other social media companies are not willing to take action on COVID-19 misinformation, it might open the door to the government taking action. In short, the government might mandate that Facebook remove those 12 super-spreader accounts and then set up new guidelines such that the spreading of any misinformation would be a federal crime. But doesn’t that sound a bit like something China would do? Sort of like a totalitarian government spreading its own propaganda, and then censoring or punishing any voices that dare to speak truth to power. Surely, there has to be some sort of middle ground here that respects the power of free speech in a vibrant democracy.