On Monday and Tuesday, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter tried to put out a misinformation wildfire. A viral video, which touted the discredited coronavirus remedy hydroxychloroquine and claimed that people don’t need to wear masks, caught the attention of millions of users, leading the platforms to remove posts of the video and ban accounts. One of those users was Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted out the video with the caption, “This is a much [sic] watch!!! So different from the narrative that everyone is running with.” As a consequence, Twitter blocked the president’s son tweeting, retweeting, following, or liking anything on the platform for 12 hours. Twitter took similar actions against Arizona GOP chairwoman Kelli Ward after she shared the same video.
It’s likely that, as a result, Twitter will make itself even more of a punching bag to right-wing users who believe the social media platforms are biased against conservatives and that they should be able to post whatever they want. But it’s hard to see how Twitter had any other choice. Social media platforms have long considered medical misinformation to be outside of any gray area when it comes to content moderation. Increasingly, now that so much of the coronavirus response has become politicized, figures like Trump Jr. who have learned to tweet right up to the edge of allowable content are blowing past it.
The video that was circulating features a press conference at the Supreme Court held by “America’s Frontline Doctors,” a group that was formed within the past two weeks. The viral clips from the video focus on a speech at the event from Stella Immanuel, a Houston pediatrician and fringe Pentecostal pastor who has also made medical claims about alien DNA and demon sperm. During her speech, Immanuel says, “You don’t need a mask. There is a cure.” She also claims to have treated people with COVID-19 using hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that President Donald Trump has repeatedly praised as a coronavirus treatment. The FDA has notably warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the illness, asserting that the drug is “unlikely to kill or inhibit the virus” and can cause heart, kidney, and liver problems. Nevertheless, the video was the second-most engaged post on Facebook on Monday, racking up 14 million views in six hours before the platform took the video down.
The president himself had shared various different versions of the video on Twitter on Monday before they were taken down, though his account does not appear to have faced any penalties as a result. YouTube also removed videos that Trump shared. When asked why Trump’s account had not been restricted like Trump Jr.’s had, a Twitter spokesperson told Slate, “The President did not Tweet the video in question, he Retweeted it. Therefore, the account owner of the Tweet he Retweeted will face enforcement action.”
That wild conspiracy theories and questionable medical advice have found favor with conservative politicians and other public figures has confounded social media companies’ tendency to give them wide berth in what they can post online. The extent to which public health experts’ coronavirus recommendations have become politically controversial makes it difficult for social media platforms to ensure that dangerous misinformation does not spread without drawing accusations of suppressing conservative speech.
Already, Trump Jr.’s confederates have been using this latest incident to sharpen their allegations that tech companies are engaging in political censorship. Andrew Surabian, a spokesperson for Trump Jr., said in a statement, “Twitter suspending Don Jr. for sharing a viral video of medical professionals discussing their views on Hydroxychloroquine is further proof that Big Tech is intent on killing free expression online and is another instance of them committing election interference to stifle Republican voices.”
While social media platforms have traditionally been permissive when it comes to hate speech and conspiracy theories, they’ve generally treated medical misinformation as a third-rail issue. For example, when Facebook tried to take a free speech stand in October by allowing politicians to disseminate misinformation in ads, it did carve out an exception by asserting that the platform would remove anti-vaccine ads, no matter who purchased them. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that platforms should not be the “arbiters of truth,” he apparently thought Facebook should serve that role for health information.
In recent months, the major platforms have become stricter and stricter with moderating what politicians post, even going beyond health information. In May, Twitter attached a fact-check label to one of the presidents’ tweets for the first time ever to give users more context about Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting would result in voter fraud. Later that month, the platform hid a Trump tweet stating “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” because it was “glorifying violence.” Then in June, Facebook took down Trump campaign ads that featured a symbol once used by Nazis and softened its stance on giving politicians free rein to post whatever they want, pledging to take down anything that could incite violence or deprive people of the right to vote.
As Bridget Barrett outlines in Slate, social media platforms tend to be willing to be arbiters of truth for “health, manipulated media, tragic events, and civic processes,” because diverting from the institutional consensus on these issues can cause demonstrable harms. That’s likely why Facebook and Twitter pounced so quickly on these coronavirus tweets. Yet, Trump may have a workaround. Barrett points out that, for a while, Twitter did not consider the promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus cure to be misinformation, partly because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a highly unusual guidance noting that there was anecdotal proof that the drug might work. Reuters revealed, though, that the CDC had crafted the guidance at the request of the White House’s coronavirus task force. (The CDC subsequently removed the guidance.) Platforms may have become more comfortable stopping Trump, his family, and his allies from sharing harmful content, but as long as the White House can exert pressure on institutions like the CDC, social media may be partly in thrall to what the president considers to be the truth.