Who gets to determine what’s “misinformation” and what’s not?
As social media companies, under pressure, move in a direction of imposing stricter rules about permissible content on their platforms, this is the question users should be asking.
Earlier this month, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said the video giant would be removing videos that go against World Health Organization recommendations on COVID-19. Referring to “removing information that is problematic” and “anything that is medically unsubstantiated,” Wojcicki specifically called out certain suggestions of vitamins or other nutritional supplements as a treatment.
“So people saying, like, take vitamin C; you know, take turmeric, like, those are—will cure you. Those are the examples of things that would be a violation of our policy,” Wojcicki told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” April 19.
“Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy,” she said.
Nor is YouTube the only social media organization deferring to the WHO. Facebook vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, announced the social media site would direct people “who have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed” to a page with “myth-busters” by the U.N. agency.
But the World Health Organization has hardly been a stalwart fount of truth during the coronavirus crisis. Notably, it seemed all too willing to echo China’s talking points during the critical early days of the virus outbreak.
The WHO also has come under fire for its treatment of Taiwan. Taipei is not a member of the organization, due to pressure from China, which does not acknowledge Taiwan as an independent country.
Taiwan says a Dec. 31 email it sent to the WHO should have made clear there was a real threat of human-to-human transmission.
“To be prudent, in the email, we took pains to refer to atypical pneumonia, and specifically noted that patients [in China] had been isolated for treatment. Public health professionals could discern from this wording that there was a real possibility of human-to-human transmission of the disease,” said an April 11 release from the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, which notes that Taiwan had not at that time had any cases of COVID-19.
Yet on Jan. 14, the WHO tweeted, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.”
The WHO wasn’t claiming it had independently verified China’s claims. But given China’s incentive to portray COVID-19 as being under control and manageable, the world health body certainly should have taken Beijing’s claims with a grain of salt—not just passed them on.
Nor was that the WHO’s only misstep in the critical early days of COVID-19.
As my Heritage Foundation colleague Brett Schaefer recently wrote for The Daily Signal, “The WHO took Chinese statements about COVID-19 at face value and strongly praised Beijing for its ‘cooperation and transparency’ and for setting ‘a new standard for outbreak control.’”
Schaefer summed it up: “We now know that China suppressed details of the disease, punished doctors who tried to alert the public and the world, allowed Chinese citizens in Wuhan to travel abroad and spread the disease to other countries, and blocked access to WHO experts for weeks.”
Is the WHO really the organization social media companies want to reward by declaring it to be the authoritative source of information on COVID-19?
None of this is to say that WHO is never right. There are doubtless plenty of smart health care professionals working there, and likely the vast majority of the information the WHO is putting out these days is well-informed and correct.
Furthermore, misinformation can be a real problem. First of all, there’s likely foreign actors who are spreading misinformation with nefarious goals of their own. Second, misinformation in relation to COVID-19 could lead to serious problems—including a delay in getting treatment, not adhering to best practices and thus increasing the risk of infection, and even, in severe situations, death because of relying on false information.
YouTube, Facebook, and other social media entities are private companies. They are allowed to set their own rules for their own platforms. In general, my preference would be for social media companies to err on the side of allowing more, rather than less, speech. Let social media users learn to assess for themselves what’s true and what’s false. I don’t think there’s many social media users out there who assume every meme or link to a site they’ve never heard of before is a source of reliable information.
But if social media companies continue to move in a direction of controlling—rather than just hosting—information, who the “experts” are matters, as does the amount of control they are given.
For instance, the WHO has long opposed travel bans in pandemics. Does that mean YouTube would take down a video advocating travel bans? Or is YouTube going to distinguish between the WHO’s views on, say, turmeric and its views on travel bans?
All of this has implications for issues far beyond the coronavirus. Climate change, for instance, has become a topic where the left is arguing more and more that the only accurate view is conveniently in accordance with what the left is thinking. Abortion is another such issue: Will pro-lifers be “fact-checked” on their assertion that an unborn baby is a human being, not just a clump of cells?
Gender transition is also fast becoming such a topic. Will it remain OK for doctors to go against the current conventional wisdom and opine that it’s not a wise idea to treat children with puberty blockers?
In many ways one of the great gifts of social media has been the chance for a thousand debates to flourish. People are able to have free and honest discourse on a host of controversial issues.
COVID-19 is far from being widely understood, given the dearth of medical studies due to how quickly the disease has spread. Just read the daily news, and you’ll see scores of articles about the latest theories about the disease and best ways to treat it. That’s information that is frequently shifting and changing, as knowledge grows and as tests and preliminary studies look at certain hypotheses. There’s little “settled science” when it comes to COVID-19.
Ultimately, if social media companies are uncomfortable with the “Wild West” approach to information, there are better and worse ways to combat misinformation. In general, companies should look to having ideologically diverse organizations and fact-checkers in order to ensure that different opinions aren’t quashed under the guise of “fake news” or “misinformation.”
In the case of COVID-19, instead of simply adhering to the World Health Organization’s views, YouTube should seek to develop relationships with and reliance on a wide variety of health organizations—including some that retain a critical skepticism toward Beijing and other bad actors’ numbers and claims on health matters.
For a long time in the United States, the left largely controlled information. Just look at the uproar talk-radio titan Rush Limbaugh caused when he became a major player in American media in the early 1990s.
The internet has largely been a positive for conservatives, enabling them to bypass the traditional gatekeepers to make their arguments. The left knows that, and that’s why they are pressuring the social media companies to put more gatekeepers in place.
But this argument goes beyond the left-right divide. Ultimately, truth is often not going to be popular—particularly when it puts certain powerful interests at risk. The more vetting power social media companies give—particularly if given to one organization or a small group of organizations—the greater the potential there is for “inconvenient facts” to be quashed.
Yes, misinformation can be dangerous. But misinformation is far from the only threat. As social media companies balance priorities, they’d be wise to remember that what many love best about the internet is having a free, open exchange of information and views—not being in a carefully sealed bubble.
Sometimes, the wisdom of the masses truly does trump the wisdom of the so-called “experts.”