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Facebook's fight against coronavirus misinformation could boost pressure on the company to get more aggressive in removing other falsehoods spreading across the social network (FB)

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  • Facebook is taking a harder line on misinformation related to coronavirus than it has on other health topics in the past.
  • This decision may increase the pressure on the company to act more decisively against other forms of harmful falsehoods that spread on its social networks.
  • Facebook is banning events that promote flouting lockdown protests, and is removing the conspiracy theory video "Plandemic."
  • But false claims that vaccines are dangerous still proliferate on Facebook — even though they contribute to the deaths of children.
Amid the pandemic, Facebook is taking a harder line on misinformation than it has in the past. That decision may come back to haunt it.
As coronavirus has wreaked havoc across the globe, forcing lockdowns and disrupting economies, false information and hoaxes have spread like wildfire on social media. Miracle cures, intentional disinformation about government policies, and wild claims that Bill Gates orchestrated the entire health crisis abound.
In the past, Facebook has been heavily criticised for failing to take action to stop its platform being used to facilitate the spread of misinformation. To be sure, coronavirus falsehoods are still easily found on Facebook — but the company has taken more decisive action than in previous years:
  • For starters, Facebook is now displaying warning messages to people who have shared false information about COVID-19. They're imperfect — Stat reported that they may be too vague in their wording to have a major impact — but it's a step further than Facebook has taken on misinformation in the past.
  • The company is also taking down event pages for events that reject mainstream science on coronavirus by calling on people to flout lockdown rules.
  • And it is banning "Plandemic," a conspiratorial video about coronavirus that has been going viral on social media and contains numerous falsehoods.
But Facebook's actions to combat COVID-19 misinformation may backfire — in the sense that it has the potential to dramatically increase pressure on the company to take stronger action against other forms of misinformation.
The company has long struggled with how to handle fake news and hoaxes; historically, its approach is not to delete them, but to try to artificially stifle their reach via algorithmic tweaks. Despite this, pseudoscience, anti-government conspiracy theories, and other falsehoods still abound on the social network.
Facebook has now demonstrated that it is willing to take more decisive action on misinformation, when the stakes are high enough. Its critics may subsequently ask why it is so reticent to combat the issue when it causes harm in other areas — particularly around other medical misinformation.
One expected defence for Facebook? That it is focused on taking down content that causes "imminent harm," and while COVID-19 misinformation falls into that category, lots of other sorts of falsehoods don't.
However, using "imminence" as the barometer of acceptability is dubious: Vaccine denialism directly results in the deaths of babies and children. That this harm isn't "imminent" doesn't make it any less dangerous — but, for now, such material is freely posted on Facebook.
Far-right conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, and more recent, Qanon, have also spread on Facebook — stoking baseless fears of shadowy cabals secretly controlling the government. These theories don't intrinsically incite harm, but have been linked to multiple acts of violence, from a Pizzagate believer firing his weapon in a pizza parlour to the Qanon-linked killing of a Gambino crime boss. (Earlier this week, Facebook did take down some popular QAnon pages — but for breaking its rules on fake profiles, rather than disinformation.)
And Facebook is still full of groups rallying against 5G technology, making evidence-free claims about its health effects (and now, sometimes linking it to coronavirus in a messy web). These posts exist on a continuum, with believers at the extreme end attempting to burn down radio towers and assault technicians; Facebook does take down such incitements to violence, but the more general fearmongering that can act as a gateway to more extreme action remains.
This week, Facebook announced the first 20 members of its Oversight Board — a "Supreme Court"-style entity that will review reports from users make rulings as to what objectionable content is and isn't allowed on Facebook and Instagram, with — in theory — the power to overrule the company. It remains to be seen whether its decisions may affect the company's approach for misinformation, and it still needs to appoint the rest of its members and get up and running.
For now, limits remain in place as to what Facebook will countenance in its fight against coronavirus-specific misinformation.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would immediately take down posts advertising dangerous false cures to COVID-19, like drinking bleach. It is "obviously going to create imminent harm," he said in March. "That is just in a completely different class of content than the back-and-forth accusations a candidate might make in an election."
But in April, President Donald Trump suggested that people might try injecting a "disinfectant" as a cure, which both has the potential to be extremely harmful, and will not cure coronavirus.
Facebook is not taking down video of his comments.
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SEE ALSO: Facebook announced the first 20 members of its oversight board that will decide what controversial content is allowed on Facebook and Instagram
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