By conventional standards, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube showed themselves to be paragons of public service recently when they took down a video promoting a long-debunked “cure for COVID” and agitating against mask-wearing.
By real-world standards, however, the social media giants failed miserably.
The video remained up on Facebook for hours, long enough to garner more than 14 million views, and reportedly can still be found by determined searchers. Twitter not only deleted the video, but also restricted the account of Donald Trump Jr., who had posted the video on his account. The suspension was to last only 12 hours, however.
Concerns about the firms’ inability — or unwillingness — to police their platforms for manifestly deceptive misinformation and disinformation may surface Wednesday during a joint appearance before the House Judiciary Committee by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Chairman Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube.
It’s fair to say that inoculating these platforms against informational toxins isn’t always a simple matter, in part because distinguishing the purveying of disinformation from legitimate differences of opinion, especially on scientific matters, isn’t always easy
The session’s nominal topic is the market power accumulated by these giant corporations, but the power of social media platforms to distribute dangerous myths is certainly pertinent.
Indeed, Darrell West of the Brookings Institution suggested that one of the questions that should be high on the lawmakers’ agenda is: “What have you done to stop the use of your products for racist appeals, hateful actions, or false information?”
It’s fair to say that inoculating these platforms against informational toxins isn’t always a simple matter, in part because distinguishing the purveying of disinformation from legitimate differences of opinion, especially on scientific matters, isn’t always easy.
Some of the conspiracy theories that leach into social media come cloaked with the aura of government statements, thus providing a convenient defence against calls to remove the material.
Consider the case of President Donald Trump, whose Twitter output is not only voluminous _ more than 50 tweets on Monday alone _ but also chockablock with tweeted and retweeted conspiracy claims and false assertions. The Washington press event at the centre of the controversial video Monday was fronted by Rep. Ralph Norman, a far-right member of the South Carolina Republican delegation.
Infecting public discourse
The ability of misinformation and conspiracy-mongering to infect public discourse is greater than ever before because its sources are no longer limited to inhabitants of the lunatic fringe or commercial entities that have profited from misleading the public, such as tobacco companies.
The speed with which this material can reach the public makes a mockery of the old saw about how a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on — today, a lie can metastasise throughout the global body politic before the truth can even get out of bed.
The defence for posting and publishing such noxious material long has been that exposing it to the public has a disinfectant effect _ the public will be able to weigh it against truth and serious discourse, and it will wither away as a result. The power of social media to give such material credibility merely by making it public points to the question of whether some viewpoints are just too noxious.
There should be no question that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their cousins could be much better at blocking some of this material before it can reach millions of viewers.
For one thing, some of it has long since been established as mendacious or deceptive.
Let’s consider the video involved in Monday’s controversy. Originally posted by the right-wing Breitbart News, the video featured a group of white-coated doctors associated with organisations calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
Neither of these organisations nor many of the participants are unknown to followers of conspiracy theories or debunkers of pseudoscience.
The head of America’s Frontline Doctors, Simone Gold, an emergency room physician, has described advice to wear masks as “a con of massive proportion.” She says the media has “an agenda ... to make you think that there’s no actual facts out there that you can discern for yourself. ... That’s a really good way to let people live in fear.”
The thrust of the video was to promote the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.
The persistence of the claim for this nostrum, which has been incessantly talked up by President Trump, is simply astonishing given that every randomised clinical trial of the treatment, the gold standard in clinical studies, has found it to be ineffective against the virus (and hazardous for some patients besides).
Yet the videotaped event featured Stella Immanuel, a Houston physician who claims to have treated more than 350 patients with hydroxychloroquine and “they’re all well.” She called the studies debunking the drug’s effectiveness “fake science” and said, “You don’t need masks; there is a cure.”
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would have us believe that they were caught flat-footed for hours by this material.
Then there’s Sinclair, which played a more active role in distributing patent disinformation than the social media platforms, until public disclosure caused it to backtrack.
Sinclair is a rapidly expanding broadcast conglomerate that now operates more than 190 television stations coast to coast. The right-wing tenor of its news content suggests that it’s hoping to share the conservative market with Fox, if not surpass its rival.
Over the weekend, Sinclair was prepared to give a platform to a participant in a certain video known as “Plandemic.” In the Sinclair segment, according to a clip and a transcript published by Media Matters for America, Mikovits states, “I believe Dr. Fauci has manufactured the coronaviruses in monkey cell lines and shipped them from and paid for and shipped the cell lines to Wuhan, China, now for at least since 2014.”
It’s gratifying, one supposes, that the limits of Sinclair’s shame and sensitivity to public “feedback” have been determined. But it was a close call. Sinclair should never have given a platform to such claim, for any effort to check it out would have revealed the dangers of putting it on the air.
The question is whether Sinclair has learnt anything from the episode _ just as the question is whether Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have learnt that it’s imperative to address videos such as the hydroxychloroquine news conference proactively.
Lives are at stake.
Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist
Los Angeles Times