One of the more hopeful developments at tech platforms this year has been their investment in removing misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were all relatively quick to acknowledge the threat that COVID hoaxes represent, and have worked to purge it from their networks. Enforcement of those misinformation policies has sometimes lagged behind the companies’ public statements, though. A piece of anti-vaccination agitprop catchily titled “Plandemic” racked up millions of views
before it was spotted and taken down by the platforms in May. More worryingly, a new piece of propaganda pushing a phony COVID cure
was seen by 20 million people on Facebook alone before the company got it under control.
On Monday, the misinformation researcher Ben Decker warned that a true “Plandemic” sequel was coming
. Makers of the original video promised that a second installment would premiere Tuesday, and promoted it at least 887 times on Facebook, from pages with hundreds of thousands of followers. The fact that the new video was likely to be taken down became part of the marketing campaign around it. All that remained was to see what happened when it actually went live.
Social media sites are trying to stop the spread of Plandemic: Indoctornation
, a follow-up to the Plandemic
conspiracy video about the novel coronavirus. As NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny noted
, Facebook blocks users from reposting a link to the new video, which was uploaded to an external site earlier today. Twitter doesn’t block the video link, but it sends users who click it to a warning screen, saying that the link is “potentially spammy or unsafe.”
Twitter confirmed to The Verge that it’s warning people rather than blocking the link; the company will evaluate any short clips that are directly uploaded on a case-by-case basis and may remove any that it deems dangerous misinformation. Streaming channel London Real, which posted the video, reported that it was suspended by LinkedIn before its premiere. According to CrowdTangle, London Real’s original post linking to the video has about 53,000 interactions on Facebook. A reposted version of the video can be found on YouTube, but it currently has under 200 views.
There’s still some possibility that Indoctornation will find new life on the social platforms. But it appears that for the most part, this time platforms passed the test: they identified the video as being in violation of their standards in real time, stopped hosting it and prevented users from sharing it. In 2020, this is what successful content policy looks like: you can’t prevent every bad thing from ever being uploaded, but you can identify it quickly and take effective action. Last month, a video like this got 20 million views. Today, on YouTube, it got fewer than 200. Work like this is hard, but it’s also possible, and I think it’s important to call it out when it’s done correctly.
Of course, you could say I’m damning the platforms with faint praise. As Kevin Roose notes
was the rare piece of misinformation to be announced 887 times ahead of its arrival. It was misinformation with a premiere date
. Contrast that with last month’s content moderation disaster, which was essentially a bunch of nonsense that was uttered during a live stream of a press conference. Looking at the circumstances of both videos, it’s not hard to understand why Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had an easier time on Tuesday than they did in July.
And Indoctornation is arguably less dangerous than previous COVID hoaxes, since it doesn’t attempt to give medical advice and is mostly an extended riff on the idea that Bill Gates is conspiring against you. That’s one reason why the video is still technically allowed on Facebook — it’s just placed under a fact-checking warning, and will not get wide distribution in the feed.
“Given the previous Plandemic video violated our COVID misinformation policies, we blocked access to that domain from our services,” a spokesman told me. “This latest video contains COVID-19 claims that our fact-checking partners have repeatedly rated false so we have reduced its distribution and added a warning label showing their findings to anyone who sees it.”
YouTube told me that for its part, it had seen few attempts to upload Indoctornation, and is removing full uploads as it sees them for violating its policies around COVID misinformation. If other uploads contain segments of the original video, they’ll be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the company told me.
Last week, researchers said that at least 800 people worldwide died in the first three months of the year, and thousands more were hospitalized, from unfounded claims online that ingesting highly concentrated alcohol would kill the virus. Their findings, based on studying rumors circulating on the web, were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene
Doctors’ frustrations fill Facebook groups and online forums. The American Medical Association and other groups representing doctors say the false information spreading online is harming the public health response to the disease. The World Health Organization is developing methods to measure the harm of virus-related misinformation online, and over two weeks in July the group hosted an online conference
with doctors, public health experts and internet researchers about how to address the problem.
But the platforms’ actions on Tuesday showed us that progress is possible. They know how to do the right thing, and they can. Especially when the bad guys tell them where to look.