Facebook and YouTube took too long to spot the harm being done
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the big social platforms have generally been quicker than usual to intervene in the spread of misinformation.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter have added various warnings, and links to high-quality news sources and public health organisations. And for the most part, the dumbest theories about the coronavirus have not reached huge scale.
But cracks are beginning to show. In February, a set of bizarre and almost incomprehensible theories began to spread on YouTube and Facebook alleging that 5G cellular networks played a role in spreading the virus.
And last week, we saw the emergence of the first true hit Covid-19 conspiracy video. It’s called Plandemic, and like many conspiracy videos it asserts that a shadowy cabal of elites is using a global crisis as a cover to profiteer and entrench their power.
The ground was seeded by a book that Mikovits, the star of Plandemic, published last month.
Plague of Corruption frames Dr. Mikovits as a truth-teller fighting deception in science,and won approving coverage from far-right outlets. But it was the video clip that turned Mikovits into a star.
Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher, analysed public posts, when Plandemic began to surge on the network and found it appeared most often in Facebook groups devoted to QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation, and conspiracy theories in general.
“The video spread from YouTube to Facebook thanks to highly active QAnon and conspiracy-related Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members which caused a massive cascade,” Gallagher writes. “Both platforms were instrumental in spreading viral medical misinformation.”
YouTube and Facebook both ultimately removed the video, but their responses differed in notable ways. I spoke to representatives at both companies today, and here’s what I learned.
At Facebook, Plandemic was demoted before it was removed. Demotion is a step Facebook often takes with posts that seem bad for one reason or another but are not considered actively harmful.
A spokesman noted that the video’s 26 minutes along with its many claims, created a lot of work for fact-checking teams. Facebook eventually decided the clip had to go because of its false assertion that people can “reinfect themselves” by wearing masks.
At YouTube, the company saw several videos related to the video and flagged and removed them before the clip became famous. It was uploaded on May 4th and removed May 6th. In the meantime, it generated 7.1 million views of which the vast majority came from people linking to it directly, rather than seeing it somewhere on YouTube.
For its part, YouTube said, it did not recommend the film or place it “prominently” in search results.
If you search for it now you’ll see a pop-up from an independent fact checker and many videos of doctors debunking its claims.
Facebook continues to see people upload other clips from Plandemic, and told me that it is sharing fact-checking information from its partners with people who share them. It’s temporarily reducing the distribution of these other clips — the ones that don’t include the mask bit — as fact checkers continue to evaluate other parts of the video.
There’s a view of all this that is heartening. Both companies saw a bad thing, put teams of fact checkers on it, and removed it from their networks with relative haste.
Facebook and YouTube could have acted faster, or more completely, but it isn’t as if the clip caught them unawares. YouTube has more than 2 billion monthly users, and Facebook has 1.73 billion users per day across its suite of apps; at that scale, 8 million people seeing something in 48 hours just doesn’t look like all that much.
But there’s a darker view to consider, too. When Facebook announced it would shift its attention to building services for smaller, more private groups, critics pointed out that this was likely going to make it harder to police misinformation.
This is particularly true of WhatsApp chats, which are encrypted end-to-end. But it’s also true of private Facebook groups, where it seems likely that Plandemic was shared actively.
For a fact check video take a look at Doctor Fact-Checks PLANDEMIC Conspiracy.
Adapted from an article by Casey Newton in The Verge
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