The Technology 202: Trump’s ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid’ post tests Facebook and Twitter

From Lena Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University and emergency room doctor:

And former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden:

The companies’ hands-off approach to Trump’s posts undermines their longstanding promises to crack down on specific kinds of coronavirus misinformation.

Twitter and Facebook have promised to be vigilant about coronavirus-related posts that could pose a risk to people’s health or well-being. Trump’s posts were viewed by millions on both services, even as users warned they could lead to a false sense of security that might endanger people’s lives. 

Trump’s initial “Don’t be afraid” tweet garnered more than 275,000 retweets and more than 556,000 likes. On Facebook, the post was liked at least 1.2 million times and shared more than 100,000 times. 

Facebook and Instagram’s policies state the companies will remove covid-19 misinformation “that could lead to imminent physical harm.” Twitter meanwhile says it will remove tweets that have “a clear call to action that could directly pose a risk to people’s  health or well-being.” The companies have typically taken action against specific things that could cause people immediate harm, such as actively encouraging a lack of social distancing or suggesting drinking bleach cures the virus.  

But their policies are inconsistently applied, especially when it comes to the president. Both Twitter and Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for an on-the-record comment, despite repeated promises to be transparent about content moderation decisions. 

Communications experts called on the platforms to take down the posts. Mike Ananny, an associate professor at University of Southern California Annenberg, said this should be an “easy test.”

The lack of action could signal a softness to acting on other misinformation in the pre-election runup.

The coronavirus pandemic is the defining issue of the 2020 election, especially following Trump’s diagnosis. Trump is increasingly turning to social media to downplay the virus’s gravity and exaggerate the effectiveness of the U.S. response. 

And it’s unclear right now where the companies are going to draw the line and enforce the policies they have on the books. In the absence of action, Trump will likely continue to push boundaries on social media – especially as he’s sidelined from rallies and  in-person campaign events while recovering and is prolifically posts to their platforms.

Trump is known to be a primary source of misinformation. 

New Cornell University research published last week identified Trump as the “single largest driver” of covid-19 misinformation during the early months of the pandemic. The study was based on an analysis of 38 million English-language articles, and found that mentions of Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall “misinformation conversation.” The study also underscored how traditional media, in addition to social media, plays a role in amplifying the president’s claims. 

The president’s claims about coronavirus aren’t the only concern. As my colleague Joseph Marks wrote this morning, Trump attacked the integrity of the election in a tweet before he even left the hospital yesterday. 

The companies have long been criticized for not doing enough to rein in Trump. 

Democrats and civil-rights groups have slammed tech companies for failing to take enough action when Trump posted content they believe is misleading or hateful. Both companies have traditionally taken a more hands-off approach to moderating posts from politicians that could be considered newsworthy, and Facebook particularly has resisted refereeing political speech. 

However, experts generally agree platforms have been more proactive in stamping out covid-19 misinformation. And they’ve shown, in some instances, they will take action against misinformation from world leaders about the disease.

Twitter and Facebook also recently tightened their policies on election-related misinformation. Twitter has labeled, and in some instances even limited, the distribution of tweets shared by the president that violate its policies. Just yesterday, one of the president’s tweets including a reporter’s email address was removed from Twitter with a label saying it violated company policies. 

Our top tabs

House Judiciary Republicans are preparing their own recommendations based on a 16-month-long antitrust investigation

Republicans on the committee will reject potential Democratic proposals including new legislation to make it easier to break up online giants including Amazon, Google and Facebook, Cristiano Lima at Politico reports.

“We agree that antitrust enforcement agencies need additional resources and tools to provide proper oversight,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo) wrote in a minority report shared with the press. “However, these potential changes need not be dramatic to be effective.”

The Republican report also rebukes Democrats for failing to address how big tech companies have allegedly used their market influence to silence conservative voices. Top Republicans including the president have accused tech companies of being biased against conservatives without providing meaningful evidence.

Potential areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans include legislation to strengthen the burden of proof for mergers and acquisitions and greater data portability and interoperability, according to Bucks’ report.

Democrats are blasting the Republican FCC for doubling down on its controversial 2017 repeal of net neutrality.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says in a blog post that he’s standing by the changes made by the agency in its repeal of net neutrality and will not be offering new proposals to address concerns raised by a federal appeals court last year.

The court raised concerns about the order’s effect on public safety and support for broadband for low-income Americans, in a decision that largely upheld the agency’s decision to repeal the Obama-era rule, 

“Having reviewed the input received, the law, and the facts, I am confident that the regulatory framework we set forth in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order appropriately and adequately addresses each issue,” Pai wrote in a blog post. 

The decision reignited outrage from proponents of net neutrality, who say that gutting it has harmed public safety and made it more difficult for users to access affordable Internet services.

“At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has made us more dependent than ever on broadband and wildfires are devastating the West, we need the FCC to step up, not double down on its past failures to promote the public interest,”  wrote Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) dissented on Pai’s decision.

“It’s insane that this is happening now, during a pandemic when we rely on Internet access for so much of day-to-day life,” she wrote. “It’s also cruel that this is our priority when this crisis has exposed just how vast our digital divide is and how much more work we have to do.”

Alleged bribery claims against the Texas attorney general could threaten a multistate Google probe.

The Democratic Attorney General Association is calling on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to resign after senior aides accused him of crimes including bribery, Ben Brody, David McLaughlin and Erik Larson at Bloomberg report. Leaders of the group didn’t respond to questions about the Google probe, but the scandal comes as partisan divisions were already starting to fraction the multistate look into antitrust issues at the tech giant. 

Paxton is leading an antitrust investigation into Google’s search and advertising that has been backed by 51 state attorneys general. The Justice Department is expected to bring an antitrust case against Google as soon as this week. Texas is expected to sign on to the Justice Department case. But concerns that the Justice Department has rushed its case has caused some states led by Colorado and Iowa to launch their own investigation into Google. 

Rant and rave

Are Slack outages the new Snow Day? 

Trending

Daybook

  • The Brookings Institution will hold an event on what to expect on tech policy in the next presidential administration today at 2 p.m.
  • The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is hosting an online symposium on Data and Democracy on October 15 and 16.
  • New America will host an event “Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones” on Oct. 21 at noon.

Before you log off

Don’t miss the Washington Post Live event with Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi 

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