One result of a world in which everyone has more or less equal access to publishing tools has been what’s sometimes called an epistemic crisis
: a scenario in which large groups of people muddle along with very different understandings of reality, undermining the ability of elected officials to govern. This might be particularly scary during a catastrophe, when citizens are relying upon their government for accurate and potentially life-saving information. If you can’t trust official government announcements — or you are misled into thinking that an official-sounding hoax is real — catastrophes might begin compounding upon one another.
Seven organizations that partner with Facebook issued nine fact checks in recent days, finding a wide array of coronavirus claims as false, including those peddling fake treatments, the company said Monday. Facebook said it has labeled the inaccuracies and lowered their rank in users’ daily feeds.
Twitter, meanwhile, on Monday started steering U.S. users searching for coronavirus-related hashtags to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
. And Google-owned YouTube said its algorithm also prioritizes more credible sources. Still, a number of videos there — including one with more than 430,000 views — pushed dubious information about the origin of coronavirus and its means of transmission.
To date, none of these claims seem to have gone truly viral. As Romm notes, much of the conversation about the virus is now taking place in closed groups, where it is harder for platforms to moderate the discussion. But for the most part, false claims seem to have stalled out in the low thousands of shares.
More interesting than the false claims’ spread on a free internet, perhaps, is the spread of anger on the Chinese one. Citizens critical of the government’s response have been vocal on Chinese social media, challenging the authoritarian regime with unusual directness — and providing a counterpoint to propaganda about heroic first responders addressing the crisis. Here’s Raymond Zhong in the New York Times
But someone following the crisis
through social media would see something else entirely: vitriolic comments and mocking memes about government officials, harrowing descriptions of untreated family members and images of hospital corridors loaded with patients, some of whom appear to be dead.
The contrast is almost never so stark in China. The government usually keeps a tight grip on what is said, seen and heard about it. But the sheer amount of criticism — and the often clever ways in which critics dodge censors, such as by referring to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, as “Trump” or by comparing the outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe — have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message.
It’s unclear whether Chinese citizens have actually been able to evade censorship, or whether the government is simply allowing more people to vent their anger about their leaders than usual. But to the extent that it’s the former, it could illustrate how even an authoritarian version of the internet can struggle to maintain control of the message in a fast-moving crisis.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the American internet will evolve to become more like the Chinese version. Members of Congress
, as well as several Democratic presidential candidates
, have called for dramatic reforms (or even the end) of Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which shields platforms from liability for what their users publish.
And this week Congress took the unusual step of calling on one tech platform directly — Google — to remove a whole category of misinformation. Here’s Jennifer Elias at CNBC
The U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis wrote a letter
addressed to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, requesting the company take action against climate disinformation — specifically on its video platform, YouTube.
“YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation videos every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important missions of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action,” wrote Kathy Castor, chair of the committee.′ “Last September, you proudly declared that ‘sustainability has become one of Google’s core values from our earliest days,’ and announced ‘the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history.’”
On one hand, this letter is simply a request, and Google is free to ignore it. But whether the issue is an epidemic or man-made catastrophe, governments around the world are taking an increasingly skeptical view of internet freedom. The question, as ever, is what they can do about it in practice.