Coronavirus Misinformation Highlights Debate Over How Social Media Companies Monitor Content

May 8, 2020

In April, a TV news station in Bakersfield, Calif., interviewed two immediate care doctors about their views on the coronavirus outbreak. Within days, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine condemned the interview as “reckless” and their opinions “untested.”

YouTube then deleted the video, which had millions of views, citing it as a danger to public health. It’s not the only video YouTube has deleted — the viral film Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 claiming the virus is a hoax was taken down this week as well.

This has led many to question social media companies’ role as arbiters of free speech. Are they public forums or are they media companies responsible for the real-life effects of the speech they empower?

"These are private companies, so they are not beholden to the First Amendment, but they certainly try to promote the free exchange of ideas on their platforms," says Politico technology reporter Steven Overly. "But they really grapple with how to do that in a responsible way."

There is the potential that taking content off larger platforms or de-platforming will just send extremists into darker corners of the internet. But Overly says the size difference between mainstream and fringe sites shouldn't be forgotten. 

"[Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube] are very large platforms and therefore, the policies they uphold and the content they allow really does have a large impact," he explains.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, an associate professor at UW-Madison and the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, says that these conversations continue to happen because the laws that govern how speech is handled on social media platforms is broad and offers a lot of protection for companies. 

These laws have drawn criticism from politicians on both sides, as many see these platforms as having political agendas that they carry out through their removing of content. 

In a tweet, Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas claims that YouTube was abusing its power by taking a viral video down and saying that the condemned immediate care doctors in the video were not frauds. This is extremely concerning to Culver. 

"We really run a risk labeling coronavirus conspiracy theories or coronavirus denial as being conservative," she says. 

Culver goes on to say that idea "doesn't comport with reality," and what she thinks YouTube did was "make a decision to take down content that, it thought, worked against public health and possibly be dangerous."