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Pressing Issues

Disinformation On Social Media Is Deadlier Than Ever

Public figures who traffic in lies claim they're practicing free speech, but what they're really doing is putting us all at risk. It’s time for social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to ban them.

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In the past few weeks, the coverage of COVID-19 has reached a fever pitch — as it should in the interest of having an informed public in the face of a novel and terrible virus. But such coverage has been met every step of the way by destructive disinformation that is taking a virus with already deadly potential and turned it into a weapon against the global public.

Because the world still knows so little about the novel coronavirus that has ripped through country after country in a matter of weeks, the reeling public naturally is looking for answers. The fact that there are no good answers — and that many world leaders believe that suppressing information is better than admitting failures — leaves that same public wide-open and vulnerable to any explanation.

There are many ongoing examples of the sort of chaos destructive, well-timed misdirection and state-sponsored disinformation can spark during an unprecedented crisis. People are setting 5G towers on fire out of a conviction that the wireless technology is behind the pandemic, for example. Some grifters, who never miss an opportunity, are advocating for inhaling “nebulized” hydrogen peroxide or worse yet, drinking bleach.

But by far the most alarming and dangerous rumor has dominated discourse around treatment of the virus by design and shouldered its way into U.S. policy. A discussion of a possible treatment with a hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin drug cocktail has metastasized into policy via tweet, thanks to the President of the United States. “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine,” Donald Trump tweeted on March 21, 2020. “The FDA has moved mountains — Thank You!”

Days after that, the United States government ordered a study into the efficacy of chloroquine, an old malaria treatment used for the treatment of, among other things, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and which now has a possibility of helping people suffering from COVID-19.

However, an initial French study was small, not definitive, and supported by little more than anecdotal evidence, meaning officials seized on and promoted a treatment that is at best unproven and at worst deadly at Trump’s behest. “The president was talking about hope,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become a fixture of coronavirus coverage, while epidemiologists publicly gnashed their teeth and pleaded with the public to listen to actual medical experts.

But that didn’t stop the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Veterans Affairs, each of which have ordered the unproven treatment in bulk since the last week in March. Not long after that, nightmarish stories started to appear out of Texas, where at least one nursing home has admitted to testing the drug cocktail out on patients — some of whom have dementia — without notifying their families. (The Resort at Texas City’s medical director, Robin Armstrong, is a physician and a prominent GOP activist, whose connections to pharmaceutical companies netted him more than enough of the drug to test it out on patients under his care.)

Despite the fact that so far neither clinical trials nor extra-legal experimentation on humans who are unable to consent have yielded any evidence that the drug cocktail is helpful against COVID-19, Trump’s claims have also represented a prime opportunity for the army of enablers who stand to gain a lot of money and prestige — as they define it, at least — from amplifying false and destructive information, and the venal opportunists who push lies for profit never miss a chance. The usual know-nothing hucksters, from TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk to the Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and beyond, immediately began to amplify and politicize the dangerous fantasies about wonder drugs, and their followers eagerly and unthinkingly took up the fight until scientists and doctors were reduced to little more than easily dismissed political operatives, amplified every step of the way by the usual array of influencer bot networks, paid and unpaid trolls, and the aforementioned useful idiots and their ilk.

And people — frightened, desperate people facing a pandemic that the world has not seen in more than a century — started to die as a direct result, thinking and hoping that they could at least be protected by a drug pushed by the President of the United States. And here’s the thing about disinformation: it doesn’t need to be entirely false to disinform; in fact, the most powerful disinformation has at least some facts mixed in with it, because it’s that much easier to believe and harder to debunk.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was perhaps still some plausible deniability to offer accounts such as these. For example, it is easy to deny that racist rhetoric directly contributes to stochastic white supremacist terror attacks, because while they are predictable in a general sense it is hard to know who will act specifically. But the plausible deniability here is nil. People are listening to what disinformation purveyors are saying, acting on them, and suffering and dying immediately as a result.

So now we’re at a major inflection point in social media’s history, the point that my colleagues and I tried to stop the world from getting to — now disinformation is quite literally a matter of life or death.

Twitter has stepped up here and there, suspending some accounts and deleting some tweets. Facebook, despite claiming it has the ability to limit the spread of false information by “80 percent,” has done almost nothing but warp discourse still more by even allowing their fact-checking initiatives, such as they are, to be twisted and politicized into oblivion.

But this won’t be enough.

The truth is that the same people who profess to so proudly uphold the First Amendment to defend racial epithets to the death almost always are mysteriously silent when Trump attacks established, respected journalists on live television — except to cheer him on. The truth is that these people want to be free to say whatever they like — but also free from the consequences of saying whatever they like. That has bent a necessary public discussion into a sick farce, and badly affected the world’s responses to a deadly pandemic.

And this is what social media needs to do, now, today: Deplatform the proudly ignorant disinformers pushing snake oil and false hopes. Do so swiftly and mercilessly. They will whine about freedom of speech. They will cry about censorship. Let them.

How can I be so cavalier about freedom of speech? I hear the naysayers asking. Surely there is a right to say what you like? Certainly. But these are people with more than a platform. They have a megaphone. Verified accounts on social media platforms are offered extra layers of influence and spread. Claims made by those accounts are taken as having more authority and sincerity, despite the observable truth that they often do not and are simply abusing their influence. Give the liars three chances, if you like. They’ll blow it. They always do. Once that happens, delete their accounts. Deplatform them.

What, do you really think people like Laura Ingraham — who has a nightly television show broadcast all over the world — or heads of state like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, who have entire diplomatic networks dedicated to getting their messages to the public — will suffer for it? They will still be able to say whatever they like. They just won’t be able to disinform the public so readily. Deplatform them all.

So, social media, you should have done this a long time ago but now we are in a situation that is many orders of magnitude worse than the often-invoked “fire in a crowded theater” clause. Show the world what we all know to be true: That freedom of speech is an elegant concept that demands a sense of personal responsibility, and that freedom of speech is not an absolute right but an earned privilege that works in all directions. If your particular exercise of freedom of speech obfuscates or contravenes that same right in others, then it is no longer free by definition. So let the liars cry about their imaginary censorship. They’ll still be able to. It just won’t be used against the people of the world quite so readily in the middle of a pandemic. The time is now.

It’s fashionable for the filthy rich to donate to good causes to offset negative criticism, and perhaps recent donations by tech superstars such as Jack Dorsey might come from concern and compassion rather than a desire to spit-polish their image. But no amount of money can make up for the corrosion that damaging rhetoric and propaganda causes to the national conversation, the public discourse, and the stains on our history that loud know-nothing public figures are doing their best to justify — even as the COVID-19 death rate in the United States continues to preventably soar, thanks in large part to the Trump administration’s patchwork and corrupt responses.

If tech companies do not immediately become more proactive about fighting high-profile corrosive disinformation, we will all finally see, now and forever, what their priorities truly are.

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