It’s great that Facebook, Twitter, and other large social media companies are doing what they’re doing to prevent the spread of misinformation around Covid-19. Sure, Facebook is still ignoring what’s shared in private groups and has co-hosted a town hall with Fox News; sure, Google’s efforts to ban Covid-19 advertising will play right into Donald Trump’s hands. The response isn’t perfect. Still, these companies deserve credit for intervening so decisively.
The flipside of that applause is, well, why wouldn’t they intervene decisively? There are no good arguments for platforming information that will get people killed. Beyond that, false claims about the virus are often cut-and-dry, and therefore more amenable to fact-checks. Even Mark Zuckerberg agrees, telling The New York Times that falsehoods about the virus cross a clear threshold, making it “easier to set policies that are a little more black and white and take a much harder line.” These policies—including Facebook’s efforts to surface accurate information, remove harmful information, and ban exploitative Covid-19 ads—don’t represent some sudden about-face on moderating content. Instead, they reflect the uniqueness of the moment. Zuckerberg’s responses suggest that medical and political misinformation are simply different: they have different standards and features and consequences. So don’t worry, he implies, once our current information lockdown order lifts, such policies can slip back into their much less clear-cut, hands-off normal.
God help us if they do. The pre-pandemic normal is part of the reason we’re in this mess. By not taking seriously the ways in which political misinformation is itself a threat to public health, we’ll fail to learn what must be learned from this pandemic.
From the outset of the Wuhan outbreak in January, coronavirus conspiracy theories roared across social media. On the reactionary fringes, these centered on QAnon and the usual Deep State suspects, narratives that have been percolating in far-right corners for years. Within the more mainstream right—to the extent that such a thing exists in 2020—commentators may have sidestepped QAnon but they’ve still pinned the tail on the Deep State. For example, Sean Hannity said earlier this month that it “may be true” that a nefarious army of resistance bureaucrats were using the outbreak to “manipulate economies, suppress dissent, and push mandated medicines.” Many others, including Donald Trump, insisted that the response to Covid-19 was a feverish overreaction of the fake news media and their Democratic allies, who were desperate to tank the economy in order to hurt Trump’s reelection. It was just another impeachment hoax.
And so millions of people in the US downplayed the threat, blamed the Democrats, and derided scientific expertise. The specific circumstances of the Covid-19 outbreak may have been new, but the underlying arguments were not. Donald Trump won the 2016 election on a wave of screw-the-Left, drain-the-swamp, ignore-the-lamestream-media energies. Given that buildup of pollution, and all the time it had to filter through the far-right water table, it’s no surprise that the Covid-19 threat was met—at least in the critical first few months, when we could have started preparing en masse—with partisan jeers, attacks on the media, and efforts to own the libs through social un-distancing. It certainly wasn’t a surprise that someone like Anthony Fauci would be roped into his very own Deep State plot.
The population didn’t know what it needed to know, wasn’t doing what it needed to do, and seemed on the verge of indescribable loss if something didn’t change. That’s precisely why Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and the like were forced to take such drastic measures to curb the spread of false information. But the platforms only acted after having wasted months dithering in principled restraint—treating Covid-19 conspiracy theories and racist invective and false cures as if they were all no different from normal political speech, and thus deserving of the same broad protections. At least by 2020 standards, this was normal political speech. But from the very outset, it was also a threat to public health. The platforms only made that connection—and their public relations case—after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
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Of course some falsehood has slipped through the cracks since then; even after the WHO designation, QAnon supporters on Facebook have kept themselves plenty busy, and so have antivaxxers. What’s different now is the posture of social responsibility affected by those in charge. In the past, Zuckerberg has stated that he doesn’t think Facebook should remove deeply offensive, deeply false things like Holocaust denial. People should be allowed to be wrong, he said; it’s not Facebook’s job to intervene when they are. Now, the argument is that Facebook should take false Covid-19 information down. That it is the platform’s job to intervene.
But these are extraordinary times. Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, political communication scholars Sarah Krep and Brendan Nyhan argued that the spread of false political information doesn’t and shouldn’t warrant the same kinds of sweeping, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency measures as the spread of false medical information, because political information “does not threaten people’s health.”
That simply isn’t true. Covid-19 is an extreme case, but it’s not an anomalous one. False political information absolutely threatens people’s health. Not in the way that Covid-19 does, but with profound consequences for safety and well-being nevertheless.
The cultural pathogen known as white supremacy, aided and abetted by technology companies, is one example. Lies about “the caravan,” “white replacement,” and the conditional nature of nonwhite citizenship—which very often breeze under Facebook’s moderation standards—pose an increasing physical threat. All the perpetrators of the most recent white supremacist mass shootings in the U.S. cited some combination of these three ideas in their posted manifestos. The result, as one immigrant explained following the El Paso mass shooting, is that “it feels like being hunted.”
Everyday experiences of bigoted abuse also leave their mark on a person’s body. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics identifies racism as a “core determinant” of child and adolescent health; and there are associations between the experience of racism and chronic inflammation among adults. For more anecdotal evidence, talk to the people online who have been attacked and dehumanized and threatened by people steeped in MAGA animus. Bigotry makes people sick.
False political information affects public health in other, more indirect ways, too. A primary example is digital voter suppression. As Stop Online Violence Against Women founder Shireen Mitchell has illustrated, Russian agents employed a range of strategies—botnet attacks, sockpuppet impersonation, slow and steady gaslighting—to suppress the Black vote during the 2016 cycle and again heading into 2020. The same goal is at the heart of efforts to “flood the zone with shit” in the hopes of confusing, angering, and depressing the hell out of voters so they’ll just give up, stay away from the polls, and retreat into nihilism. These kinds of attacks might be more subtle than traditional voter intimidation tactics, Sherrilyn Ifill argues, but they can be just as destructive to the democratic process; and, as always, communities of color bear a disproportionate burden.
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Racist attacks might not result in bilateral pneumonia; and digital voter suppression campaigns don’t lead to intubations. But attempts to sever entire limbs from the body politic have profound consequences for the health and safety of millions in the US. The politicians who win elections under such antidemocratic conditions set policy, and that policy determines things like who has clean water to drink, who has access to reproductive care, and who has health insurance. For the most vulnerable people in this country, it’s insult on top of injury on top of disenfranchisement.
In other words, false and misleading political information has always put people’s health at risk, their very lives at risk. These consequences are obscured when politics is treated as a cordoned-off, sacrosanct domain, and an individual’s right to express any false, hateful idea is elevated as deserving protection above all else.
In the context of the pandemic, though, the harms of false medical information have become so clear and so present that technology companies are adopting a downright communitarian approach to combating them. We have to stop the spread of false information, this argument goes, because it’s more important to safeguard public health than to protect the free expression of snake-oil salesmen and conspiracy theorists. This is the sort of trade-off that even staunch civil libertarians have embraced when weighing the costs and benefits of government surveillance. Individual privacy concerns can’t overshadow the need to protect the common good.
We would be wise to apply the same line of thinking to political speech. That effort begins with the realization that health and speech are not wholly separate. It continues when we keep our focus on the most vital question, not “What about individual rights?” but “What about community well-being?” This wouldn’t solve all our problems, of course. The logistics and ethics of moderation would remain vexing. But it would do much to illuminate the embodied consequences of political misinformation, and the failures of rights-obsessed thinking about online speech. To emphasize a polluter’s right to spread poison undermines the collective’s right not to be poisoned. It also ensures that fewer people are able to speak, live, and move about freely—because the rights of the liars, the abusers, and the bigots trample the rights of everyone else.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe. It has also revealed the weaknesses of many of our assumptions: about speech, about health, about individual rights versus collective responsibilities. To meet the moment, we must have the courage to challenge those assumptions and reimagine how we fit in relation to others. We must recognize that political discourse is public health.
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