The epistemic tragedy of coronavirus misinformation

Yesterday, four of the most powerful men on earth—Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook; Jeff Bezos, of Amazon; Tim Cook, of Apple; and Sundar Pichai, of Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube—were dragged to Capitol Hill (well, a videoconference) to answer to a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. As well as allegations of monopolistic practices, abuses of privacy, and political bias, lawmakers asked about the spread of misinformation on social media, including content related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, grilled Zuckerberg on a nonsense-stuffed COVID video that went massively viral earlier this week before Facebook pulled it down. Cicilline accused Facebook of exploiting such harmful content to juice engagement. Zuckerberg denied this. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, also asked about the incident. He described a claim from the video as “a legitimate matter of discussion,” and wanted to know why Facebook had punished Donald Trump, Jr., for sharing it. Zuckerberg gently replied that Twitter, not Facebook, had acted against Trump, Jr. So such hearings go.

The content that perturbed Cicilline and Sensenbrenner, for different reasons, was published on Monday by Breitbart, and featured a group of doctors, in immaculate medical garb, making far-from-immaculate claims, including that masks don’t work against COVID-19, and that hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug beloved of the president and his boosters, is a COVID “cure,” which, by all credible accounts, it is not. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer has reported, one of the doctors in the video—Stella Immanuel, a physician and religious minister in Houston—has claimed, in the past, that having sex with demons and witches can cause gynecological problems, that alien DNA is used in human medicine, and that aliens and reptiles help run the government, which, by the way, is working to vaccinate us against religion. Immanuel thanked the Daily Beast for Sommer’s story, which she said did “a great job summarizing our deliverance ministry and exposing incubus and succubus.” (Don’t ask.) She also invited the Beast (italics definitely necessary) to contact her should it ever find itself in need of “deliverance from these spirits.”

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I digress. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all removed the video, citing various violations of their COVID-19 misinformation policies and general terms of service, but not before it had found some high-profile fans. Madonna shared it, and called Immanuel her “hero.” President Trump shared variants of the video; Twitter eventually scrubbed it from his account, though it didn’t temporarily block the president from tweeting, as it had done with his son, because the president only retweeted the video, whereas Trump, Jr., uploaded it himself. At a briefing on Tuesday, the president declared himself “very impressed” with Immanuel. When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pressed him on Immanuel’s past claims, Trump walked out. And so such briefings go.

Junk about the coronavirus keeps cycling through our information ecosystem. The news media bears responsibility for that; as David Leonhardt, of the New York Times, put it yesterday, there are many reasons why the US has a worse COVID outbreak than any other rich country, “but one of them is the size and strength of right-wing media organizations that frequently broadcast falsehoods.” Flotsam washes from dark corners of the web right into conservative institutions—to cite one recent example, a COVID conspiracy video called Plandemic went viral online, leading Sinclair, the local-news chain, to interview one of its stars for a segment it planned to broadcast to millions of Americans. Under immense pressure, it reversed course.

Such dynamics invite coverage from the reality-based media; we make clear that the claims we’re covering are bogus, but we are still, in the eyes of many information experts, contributing to a form of seepage. By the time one cycle is done, a new one has begun. As Casey Newton, of The Verge, pointed out this week, the Immanuel video “racked up nearly three times the views that the most-shared Plandemic video did in half the time.” We covered that. Then Congress got involved, and we covered Congress getting involved. Rinse. Repeat.

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Despite their COVID misinformation policies, social media companies could act much more quickly to remove harmful content, or at least limit its virality. The many calls for such action come amid a broader period of reckoning for the tech giants. Facebook, in particular, has faced loud complaints, including a staff walkout and a boycott by advertisers, about its laissez-faire approach to hate, including posts by Trump; others, including Zuckerberg, have argued that it isn’t Facebook’s role to interfere with political speech. In many ways, the problem of COVID misinformation is part of the same conversation. The threatened shooting of protesters and the threat of the virus both involve potential harm, albeit in different ways. And medicine is inseparable from politics, especially right now.

Still, there is much that is fraught about the concept of scientific misinformation, specifically, and what we expect tech platforms to do about it. In recent months, Facebook has been steering users who share junk science to authoritative sources, including the World Health Organization. The WHO, obviously, is more credible than a demon-sex doctor—and some COVID claims (Hello, Bleachgate!) are obviously wrong, obviously harmful, and should not be circulated. Somewhere adjacent to the Breitbart-video controversy, however, is an extremely messy debate about what constitutes “misinformation” about the coronavirus, and who gets to decide that. The WHO has by no means had a perfect pandemic. Credible health officials and experts have repeatedly changed their minds in perfectly good faith. Is it “misinformation” to say masks don’t work? Many scientists would argue the evidence is now clear—and yet, a matter of weeks ago, many of the same scientists were saying that masks don’t work, or at least that it was an open question. What’s the evidentiary threshold after which a claim stops being, to borrow very loosely from Sensenbrenner, “a legitimate matter of discussion,” and starts being dangerous? How does the identity and motivation of the person making the claim factor into this calculus? Again, the case of the demon-sex doctor feels clear. But a credible institutional affiliation is not a failsafe guide to trustworthiness.

These questions lack definitive answers. Without wishing to sound defeatist, it strikes me that our present information climate is yet another tragedy in this year of tragedies. The emergence of a new virus requires us to embrace the scientific process, in all its messiness and flux. Science is not intended to be reducible to an official proclamation or Facebook fact-check label.

Social-media companies are certainly culpable for not acting quickly enough when a Plandemic or Breitbart video comes along. More so, however, they’re culpable for creating an information climate that disincentivizes the epistemic practices we need at a time like this, and incentivizes instead the weaponizing tactics of malicious actors. Cicilline’s question to Zuckerberg nailed that tragic context. Sensenbrenner’s glided right past it, despite his invocation of the demands of science. That’s more concerning than the fact he asked the wrong guy why he banned Don, Jr.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.