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Tech Tyranny: Fact-Checking Your Coronavirus News

Facebook and Twitter put their trust in the authorities – and they say you should, too.

by | May 18, 2020 | Columns, Free Speech, Opinion

Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.

A Coronavirus narrative is being carefully constructed, shaped in large part by the major social media platforms. Certain news and opinion relating to the virus are being suppressed to stop an “infodemic” of misinformation and to promote “reliable” data handed down by the experts. But what happens when the experts can’t agree? Dr. Deborah Birx made the bold statement recently that “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust” – so which expert opinion is deemed more credible: that of the White House Coronavirus response coordinator, or staff from the CDC?

The website Zero Hedge was permanently banned from Twitter after alleging that the virus was released from a Chinese biohazard lab. That idea has received greater attention since being pondered by President Trump and U.S. officials, plus the discovery that coronaviruses from bats in Yunnan, a province in the remote south-west of China, were collected and researched by scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab has denied that the COVID-19 genome matches any of their samples. In any case, the matter remains up in the air.

When even the authorities disagree on what the truth may be, what right does Big Tech have to define and enforce it?

Twittering Away the Truth

Twitter recently amped up its censorship program by adding labels and “warning messages” to some Tweets that contain “disputed or misleading information” about the pandemic. Similar to YouTube’s new initiative, these labels provide “additional context” by linking to information that can course-correct the wrongthink – a page curated by Twitter or a “trusted” third-party source.

If the original tweet is particularly egregious, it will be amended by an additional label stating that “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet conflicts with guidance from public health experts regarding COVID-19.” It appears this warning will cover the content of the tweet, with users having to click “view” before being allowed to see the original post. One wonders whether the platform will be collecting information on who is naughty enough to click through to the offending posts. According to Twitter, the labels will be applied to tweets deemed misleading, disputed, or containing unverified claims about the virus.

All of this is an extension of the platform’s other COVID-19 changes. In April, Twitter announced a swath of measures intended to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic. In an apparent response to unrest about 5G and a wave of vandalism to transmitter towers, the platform decided to remove “unverified claims that have the potential to incite people to action, could lead to the destruction or damage of critical infrastructure, or cause widespread panic/social unrest.” Examples of offending messages read:

“The National Guard just announced that no more shipments of food will be arriving for two months — run to the grocery store ASAP and buy everything” or “5G causes coronavirus — go destroy the cell towers in your neighborhood!”

While these example tweets seem a little too crude to be realistic, one wonders just how broad the company’s interpretation of “unverified” information could be. The definition of “harmful” information has already been widened to refer to “content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.”

While the platform admitted it couldn’t remove every instance of incomplete or disputed information about COVID-19, it deleted over 1,100 tweets and challenged over 1.5 million accounts between March 18 and April 3. This is all in addition to its more subtly manipulating tactics of search prompts and limiting which ads are allowed.

The May updates follow criticism that the microblogging site wasn’t doing enough to limit chatter around the pandemic. A most displeased Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Schiff complained that banning unapproved claims wasn’t enough; the companies weren’t doing enough to send users to sanctioned news sources like the WHO.

The congressman urged them to follow the example of favorite stepchild Facebook to “proactively inform” users of the error of their ways and “direct them to authoritative, medically accurate resources.” It looks like he got his wish.

Facebook Fever

While Schiff may have been satisfied with Facebook’s COVID-19 strategy, its efforts have been lambasted in some quarters as insufficiently zealous. Despite this whining by censorship enthusiasts, the company has not been idle during the outbreak.

The social media platform boasted that during March, it “displayed warnings on about 40 million posts related to COVID-19 on Facebook, based on around 4,000 articles by our independent fact-checking partners.” If one doubted that these strategies actually work, Facebook revealed that 95% of the time, users who saw these warnings decided against viewing the original content. It also claimed to have deleted hundreds of thousands of virus-related posts that could cause “imminent harm.”

Facebook also created a COVID-19 Information Center which not only directs users to recognized health organizations but includes a “Get the Facts” section that comprises approved, fact-checked articles to “debunk misinformation.” But such a passive approach was not adequate. The site also released a plan to track down and alert poor souls unfortunate enough to have “liked” the unsanctioned content, and ask them to share a link to the WHO to help friends and families get re-educated.

Facebook isn’t just a means of communication, though; it’s also a platform for organization, where people can arrange events in the real world. This includes protests … unless they could defy the government. Yes, the platform announced it would be banning pages for “events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing.”

Materials promoting anti-quarantine protests in California, New Jersey, and Nebraska were reportedly taken down. Facebook stated it was seeking guidance from state governments regarding what would constitute a violation of their various social distancing requirements. A spokesperson clarified, “Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook …” Indeed, it makes sense that the people should only be allowed to protest government policy if the government says it’s okay. Of course, human rights advocates have been troublingly disagreeable on the matter.

“Mass public gatherings that ignore social distancing recommendations may well be creating a public health danger to those protesting and their communities,” said Vera Eidelman of the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project. “But speech about government responses to the pandemic – from relief packages like the Cares Act to stay-home orders – is core political speech.”

Local government officials denied asking Facebook to delete the posts, but “Informal requests from governments are extremely problematic,” said Jennifer Brody of digital rights group Access Now. “There should be transparency around takedown requests … State governments covertly nudging Facebook does not align with human rights norms.”

That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

For home study students and young people, Liberty Nation recommends…

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