Facebook in Two-Front War, Fights Coronavirus Misinformation and Charges It Caved to Government Pressure

Facebook has defended its decision to rely on government guidance in relation to the policing of content that promotes the anti-quarantine protest movement.

Demonstrations have broken out across the U.S. in recent days as groups of citizens demand state leaders lift the lockdowns that are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus that is now linked to at least 45,000 deaths in the U.S.

Despite its attempts to protect users from misinformation, the social network came under fire after it emerged some protests had been organized by a single family of fringe activists, who were coordinating campaigns via Facebook Groups, as reported by The Washington Post.

But in statements sent to Newsweek, the company reiterated the work it is doing to remove harmful content, and indicated that moderators are listening closely to the rules made by individual state politicians when it comes to deciding if content should be purged for breaking local rules.

"Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook," a statement attributed to a Facebook company spokesperson read. "For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren't allowed on Facebook."

Earlier this week, Facebook removed posts about anti-lockdown protests in California, New Jersey and Nebraska after discussions with state officials, CNN reported. It had been feared the protests would have violated social distancing guidelines—and had the potential to cause real harm.

The move attracted a fierce response from Donald Trump Jr. on Monday, who asked why the social network was "colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech."

He tweeted: "Regardless of what you think about the lockdowns or the protests against them, this is a chilling & disturbing government directed shutdown of people's 1st Amendment rights."

Why is @Facebook colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech?

Regardless of what you think about the lockdowns or the protests against them, this is a chilling & disturbing government directed shutdown of peoples 1st Amendment rights. Very dangerous! https://t.co/rnG09TSVhI

— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) April 20, 2020

"We've removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful misinformation and applied warning labels from independent fact-checkers to 40 million posts in the month of March alone," a Facebook spokesperson told Newsweek Wednesday. "We're also distributing authoritative health information across our apps: so far we've directed over two billion people to resources from health authorities through our COVID-19 Information Center, with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more."

But a report published yesterday by internet watchdog NewsGuard suggested Facebook pages were still showing misinformation about the virus, including false cures and conspiracy theories.

The company highlighted "super-spreader" accounts circulating virus lies, defined as those with large numbers of followers that appeared upload rule-breaking content without consequence.

Some posts asserted COVID-19 was a bioweapon, while others were spreading the claim that COVID-19 can be treated effectively with Vitamin C. Others tied the outbreak to 5G conspiracies. Some of the posts appear to have since been removed by moderators, based on a check by Newsweek.

"Even for the posts that did have fact-checker warnings, those warnings would only have appeared after the hoax had been published," the NewsGuard report stated. "That lapse is exacerbated by Facebook's policy of not providing information to users that Facebook Pages like these have been known to publish misinformation or hoaxes in the past.

"This prior bad conduct is especially true of purveyors of COVID-19 hoaxes; NewsGuard has found that 80 percent of the 174 COVID-19 misinformation sites we have now identified had already been rated Red by NewsGuard for publishing misinformation in the past."

What happens after Facebook decides content is false? According to the company, its distribution is reduced and a warning label is placed on the post to show additional context. But penalties are more severe for content that could be construed as potentially causing physical harm.

Facebook announced it would also start to show messages to users who had liked, reacted or commented on "harmful misinformation about COVID-19" that was later removed.

"Examples of misinformation we've removed include harmful claims like drinking bleach cures the virus and theories like physical distancing is ineffective in preventing [spread]," the site said.

The billionaire CEO of the social media platform, Mark Zuckerberg, echoed a similar line when asked about the challenges posed by enforcement in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America this week. He said that posts advertising events that violate social distancing would break his website's rules. "We do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down," he said.

As reported, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine previously noted protesters have "every right" to gather, but he said they should continue to adhere to the social distancing health guidelines that are in place.

President Trump described the protesters as "great people" during a recent White House briefing and, counter to some of his administration's own advice, called on citizens to "liberate" their cities.

For now, Facebook has doubled down on its stance of letting governments have a say on moderation, even as critics have repeatedly suggested the policy stands in opposition of free speech.

"We reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders not about removing specific protests on Facebook. We remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful," as a Facebook official told The Hill.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html)
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
 Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on "An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 23, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

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