In May, we saw the arrival of the first viral hoax of the COVID-19 era: “Plandemic,” a meandering 26-minute video which falsely asserted that vaccines “weaken” people’s immune systems and that wearing a mask would “activate” the coronavirus. Despite the best efforts of Facebook and YouTube, a single upload of “Plandemic” got 7.1 million views before it was removed.
As I wrote at the time, the problem was not that the platforms were ignoring the video — it was that, at their scale, even the few hours it took them to research the issue were enough for “Plandemic” to get all the way around the world. “It likely won’t be the last piece of harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that becomes a blockbuster,” I wrote back then. “And when the next one comes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the pathway to virality leads straight through Facebook groups.”
Indeed, on Monday we got the sequel. And Facebook groups played a significant role.
The video that captured the public imagination this week lacks a name as catchy as “Plandemic” — it was a live stream of a press conference organized by a group known as the Tea Party Patriots, who are funded by wealthy Republicans — but it was seen much more widely, in much less time. Here’s Sam Shead at CNBC:
The video was created by right-wing media outlet Breitbart. It depicts a group of people dressed in white lab coats — who call themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” — staging a press conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Those in the video claim that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is “a cure for Covid” and “you don’t need a mask” to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“This virus has a cure, it’s called hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax,” one of the women in the video claims. “You don’t need masks, there is a cure.”
All of that is false, but falls squarely into the category of “something people desperately want to believe,” and so it found a wide audience. NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny reported that in less than 24 hours, it racked up 20 million views on Facebook alone.
“That Breitbart video from the doctors claiming that hydroxychloroquine cures the coronavirus has been going crazy in anti-vax, anti-mask, reopen Facebook Groups today,” she tweeted. “It’s at >20 mil views on FB. And that doesn’t include all the private groups it’s been spreading through.”
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all began efforts to remove the video — although, as we have come to understand, this will be an ongoing effort, as people continue to make minor alterations to the video and re-upload it. (The platforms are still finding new uploads of “Plandemic,” more than two months later.)
And it took Facebook longer than even the company thought it should have. Here’s what the company told me about it when I asked:
“We’ve removed this video for making false claims about cures and prevention methods for COVID-19. People who reacted to, commented on, or shared this video, will see messages directing them to authoritative information about the virus. It took us several hours to enforce against the video and we’re doing a review to understand why this took longer than it should have. Since April to June we removed more than 7 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for violating our policy against sharing harmful COVID-19 misinformation.”
Compounding the challenge for the platforms is that the video was shared by two of their most high-profile users: the president and his son. Twitter put temporary limits on the account of Donald Trump Jr., and removed several retweets of the video that President Trump himself had shared on Twitter. Here are Katie Shepherd and Taylor Telford in the Washington Post:
Twitter said it ordered the president’s son to delete the misleading tweet and said it would “limit some account functionality for 12 hours.” [...]
Twitter removed the videos, deleting several of the tweets that President Trump shared, and even adding a note to its trending topics warning about the potential risks of hydroxychloroquine use.
By now you may be wondering on whose expertise the president and the president’s son have staked their reputations on promoting a COVID-19 treatment that the Food and Drug Administration has said is “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19.” The group of doctors who appeared in the live stream is known as America’s Frontline Doctors, which made a website less than two weeks ago. Its breakout star is named Stella Immanuel, and I’ll let Will Sommer at the Daily Beast tell you about her:
Immanuel, a pediatrician and a religious minister, has a history of making bizarre claims about medical topics and other issues. She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.
She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by “reptilians” and other aliens.
So on one hand, yes, this is a platform problem. Because the platforms are so large, and because viral distribution mechanisms are built into every post, dangerous misinformation can spread globally within hours. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, the Immanuel video racked up nearly three times the views that the most-shared “Plandemic” video did in half the time. And that’s despite the heightened attention every platform has been paying to misinformation related to COVID-19.
It’s also a democracy problem. When the president of the United States is sharing videos that encourage people to believe that a “cure” exists for a disease that has already — needlessly — killed 151,000 Americans, the issue extends well beyond tech companies’ content moderation policies and enforcement efforts. And he reiterated some of these claims in a press conference Tuesday, which was carried on cable news — and not subject to whatever rules Facebook or Twitter want to make about COVID-19 posts. Everything about this presidency is a crisis, and platforms have their role to play in mitigating its very worst excesses, and yet to think about this only as a problem of content moderation would be far too blinkered.
Still, the speed at which Immanuel’s rant spread offers cause for concern. When I asked Facebook today why this video seemed to spread so quickly, no one could give me an answer. The company often points to the huge investment it has made in trust and safety, arguing that breaking it up would only worsen the spread of harmful content on the internet. But when Dr. Demon Sex can get 20 million views hawking dangerous advice in an afternoon, what exactly do we have to lose?
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔽 Trending down: Content moderators at Pinterest report inadequate resources and minimal mental health support as they fight to keep child abuse imagery off the platform. The company has said that the majority of content moderators work in-house. (Sarah Emerson / OneZero)
⭐ The United States is seeking to dismiss the charges it brought against two former Twitter employees and a Saudi national for allegedly helping the Saudi Arabian government spy on dissidents using Twitter. Given how politicized the Department of Justice has become under Bill Barr, it’s hard not to read this story and assume corruption is involved. An outrageous story, reported by Clare Roth and Peter Bloomberg:
Prosecutors in San Francisco on Tuesday asked for a judge’s permission to drop the charges. The two-page filing doesn’t offer a reason but specifies that the dismissal would be “without prejudice,” meaning the government could file new charges.
The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, were accused of feeding the Saudi government information about Twitter users critical of it. They were recruited by a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi, who lives in the kingdom and has worked for the royal family’s social media company, according to prosecutors. All three were charged with acting as illegal foreign agents. Of the three, only Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, is in custody. He has pleaded not guilty.
⭐ Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are preparing for their “Big Tobacco moment” on Wednesday, says Gigi Sohn, a former senior adviser at the FCC. She’s referring to the 1994 congressional hearing where seven executives from America’s largest tobacco companies said they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive. On the other hand, that hearing was not about antitrust! Anyway, here’s Cecilia Kang, Jack Nicas and David McCabe at The New York Times:
The hearing, which caps a 13-month investigation by the House subcommittee, will be closely watched for clues that could advance other antitrust cases against the companies. The Federal Trade Commission, for one, is preparing to depose Mr. Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives in its 13-month probe of the social network. The Justice Department may soon unveil a case against Google. And an investigation into Apple by state attorneys general also appears to be advancing.
As a result, preparations for the hearing have been frenetic — even with the event postponed by a few days this week to accommodate the commemoration of Representative John Lewis — as tech lobbyists jockeyed behind the scenes to influence the types of questions that lawmakers might ask.
A Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, which would reform Section 230 by making social networks by creating new mandatory disclosures for technology companies. There is some bipartisan agreement here, but members of Congress are weirdly fixated on platforms declaring “neutrality,” whatever that means. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have been on a buying spree this year, acquiring smaller companies despite mounting antitrust scrutiny. Through June 30th, the five companies announced 27 deals, up 29 percent from the same period last year. (David McLaughlin / Bloomberg)
The Anti-Monopoly Fund, which was started last year by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is funneling more than $1 million into initiatives that promote stronger antitrust enforcement. Hughes wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last year calling for the breakup of the social media giant. (Naomi Nix / Bloomberg)
Organizers of the #StopHateforProfit advertising boycott asked lawmakers to press Facebook on its ability to withstand their campaign. In a letter, organizers said the boycott has “highlighted how much control Facebook has over online advertising.” Blaming your failed campaign on the lack of choice in the marketplace is ... amazing! (Sarah Fischer / Axios)
Four numbers give a small glimpse into the immense power of the big tech companies. Here’s one: Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon have a combined market capitalization of $5 trillion. (Kyle Daly / Axios)
Facebook won a temporary halt to a demand by European Union investigators to turn over vast amounts of data, including “highly sensitive personal information.” Facebook sued the commission on July 15th, citing “the exceptionally broad nature” of the EU’s orders, which are part of an effort to bring an antitrust case against the tech giant. (Stephanie Bodoni and Aoife White / Bloomberg)
A coalition of progressive groups is calling on Brett Kavanaugh to recuse himself from a Supreme Court case involving Facebook, due to his close friendship with the company’s policy chief Joel Kaplan. The case could set an important precedent for Kavanaugh’s involvement in platform regulation moving forward. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is investigating Facebook for possibly violating its Texas Deceptive Trade Practices — Consumer Protection Act by improperly collecting biometric identifiers. In February, Facebook users in Illinois secured a major settlement over the issue. (Ashley Gold / Axios)
After Airbnb and ClassPass started selling virtual classes during the pandemic, Apple decided it was entitled to 30 percent of the sales. Previously, Apple hadn’t collected a fee. Now, lawmakers are considering the decision as part of the antitrust probe of the tech company. (Jack Nicas and David McCabe / The New York Times)
Sarah Palin is making money off a Facebook scheme involving an obscure right-wing aggregation site called Analyzing America. Palin’s Facebook page has linked to the site 280 times since May — and likely made money off each link. (Popular Information)
Two TikTok stars in Egypt were jailed for two years starting on Monday, as part of a crackdown on “indecent” social media influencers. The stars were convicted of violating Egyptian family values, inciting immorality and debauchery. (Tim Hume / Vice)
India has drawn up a list of 275 Chinese apps that it plans to examine for potential national security risks. The list, which includes ByteDance-owned Resso, follows the high-profile ban of 59 Chinese apps last month. (Megha Mandavia , Surabhi Agarwal and Rahul Tripathi / The Economic Times)
⭐ Instagram is trying to lure TikTok stars over to its new competing app Reels with deals potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Facebook is planning to unveil Reels next month. Here’s Euirim Choi at The Wall Street Journal:
The Instagram overtures to creators are the latest in a continuing back-and-forth between the two social-media giants. In recent years, TikTok has flooded Facebook and Instagram with ads, targeting their users on the home turf of the social media company.
To counter the Instagram push, TikTok announced a $200 million fund on Thursday that will help creators on the platform “realize additional earnings that help reward the care and dedication they put into creatively connecting with an audience that’s inspired by their ideas.”
A new Instagram challenge that’s purportedly about women supporting women consists of seductive black and white selfies. Influencers love these types of “challenges” because they don’t require actual advocacy, this piece argues. Sounds right! (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Google is devoting more and more space in search results to its own properties, as well as “direct answers” populated with information copied from other sources, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. Previously, the company would often direct people to links that led to other websites. Those were the days! (Adrianne Jeffries and Leon Yin / The Markup)
The MTA has porn in its Google search results. “This is offensive and inappropriate language that is being generated by a Google search algorithm,” an MTA spokesperson said in a statement. Okay then! (Andrew J. Hawkins / The Verge)
Google announced plans to build an undersea data cable connecting the US, UK and Spain. The project is expected to be completed by 2022. (BBC)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Preview Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress tomorrow. Congressman, they sell ads!
Preview Jeff Bezos’ testimony to Congress tomorrow. Did you know that America is an amazing country in which anyone can succeed if they work really hard?