Social media censorship: Further reflections on suppressed coronavirus disinformation

On Wednesday August 5th, Donald Trump posted a snippet of a Fox and Friends segment to his social media accounts. Discussing the important matter of school reopenings, the president said the following:

Schools should be reopened. When you look at children, children are almost—and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease…they’ve got stronger—it’s hard to believe depending how you feel about it—much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this and they…don’t have a problem…and I’ve seen some doctors say that they’re totally immune.

Trump goes on to cite as evidence the fact that only one person under 18 died from the virus in the state of New Jersey, which he (no less than his viewers) should know falsifies any claim of total immunity. Charitably, he likely means that children are shielded from the worst effects of the virus. Evidence: Just weeks ago, Trump made more reasonable claims that (1) children face less risk from the virus (they recover quicker) than adults and (2) that they may transmit it less readily than adults. As in the case of transmission to and from animals, the evidence concerning children’s role in transmitting the virus is still coming in. Whereas about a week ago, experts were optimistic about children’s role in transmission (believing on the basis of limited evidence that it might be lower), a recent German study has raised doubts (though has yet to pass through peer review). But regarding this risk, Trump admitted that further research was necessary and that his administration was taking this factor seriously.

Speculation about what he really means aside, the false and misleading nature of the letter of his claim (that children are immune) led Facebook and Twitter to remove the video for violating their policies around misinformation and covid-19. Were they right to do so?

In my previous post, I indicated that there was good reason to worry that this was actually the best way of promoting what might be dangerous content. Once again, I awoke to numerous headlines which repeated Trump’s claim. Thanks to the Streisand effect, people will see this claim, that children are ‘almost immune’ to coronavirus, repeated over and over again; thanks to the illusory truth effect, people may be more susceptible to believing it, even if they know it’s false.

Here, I want to emphasize a different strategic aspect of all of this. Suppose that Trump knows that the more strident claims are strictly false and that they will cause controversy. (If you watch the video closely, he indicates that he knows as much when he hedges: “I hate to use the word totally because the news will say, ‘oh, he made the word totally and he shouldn’t have used that word”.)  Might censoring it frustrate the aims of the censoring parties and ultimately serve Trump’s interests?

Perhaps. It is unprecedented for social media platforms to remove the president’s speech. Their policy, to date, has (reasonably in my view) been that, though what the president says might be false, misleading, or harmful, the people have a right to know that he’s said it (even if they should also be informed that it is misleading). But such platforms have been facing increased pressure by representatives of more traditional media, by politicians, by advertisers, and by some users to exercise a heavier hand in this regard, and to stop exempting Trump’s speech from their community standards. Trump, already so annoyed by the ways in which social media platforms have handled his content as to issue an executive order barring them from engaging in censorship, presumably knows this. The more he can get social media companies to censor him, the more he may be able to convince his base that these platforms are untrustworthy.

Supposing that it is true that a majority of users of social media platforms (including 38% of democrats) already believe that social media platforms are biased against conservatives, censoring the president’s speech in this manner might further negatively impact the reputations of these platforms (reputations which have already taken a large hit in the past year). Not only can this sort of censorship further increase polarization by leading conservatives to disengage (costing the platforms active users, and, ultimately, advertisement revenue), it may also cause people more generally to doubt social media platforms’ disclaimers about the dangerous or misleading content they choose to leave up, reducing their credibility and leaving vulnerable persons more susceptible to misinformation (though see Goldman’s Knowledge in a Social World, ch. 7). In the particular case at hand, these effects may be amplified because the censored party here is the president and it is reasonable to believe that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing what their leaders are saying, true or false, good or evil (though some evidence suggests that, with respect to offensive content in particular, many think this kind of censorship, even of the U.S. president, is desirable).

One thing that these considerations put into sharp relief is that despite the bare facts that social media companies have a right to censor and legitimate interests in censoring, there is no guarantee that they will censor well, even relative to their own goals (somewhat narrowly construed). If they are sufficiently bad at choosing which content to censor to advance their ends (was this really the most dangerous segment we’ve heard?), this establishes a weak presumption against their censorship—not as a matter of law or even of ethics, but a matter of organizational rationality.

Still, the claim that children are basically immune from coronavirus is false and may mislead parents into taking risks with their children that they ought not to take. While I think Trump did not mean exactly what he said (and that most people can understand this), surely an interest in protecting children favors censoring the content, outweighing this presumption.

Yet, whether this consideration is decisive in favor of censorship does not simply depend upon the magnitude of the risks unreflective uptake of the content poses (which might be slight). It also depends crucially upon censorship’s being sufficiently effective in stopping parents from taking such risks as to outweigh people’s legitimate interest in hearing what our elected officials say about important topics and the costs to credibility that platforms might incur as a result. Here, it is important that the censorship will not achieve this much unless enough people who would have otherwise seen and taken Trump’s words at face value are now shielded from their harmful effects. My other worries about the unintended consequences of censorship aside, I wonder how many now find themselves in such a position.

In the end, though Trump is wrong that children are immune to covid-19, he might well be right that the evidence favors reopening schools. Given plausible hypotheses about the importance of early education in socializing children, for adding meaning and purpose to their lives, for helping parents get back to work, for taking children out of deprived and abusive environments, and for ensuring that vulnerable children are not left behind, reasons to favor reopening hang heavy in the balance. These reasons must be weighed carefully against risks to children and to teachers and family members from reopening, risks that Trump himself has previously acknowledged. If the United States chooses to reopen its schools, it will not be alone. Sweden never closed them, and a number of other countries (many of them apparently faring better in the fight against coronavirus) have similar plans.  All other matters aside, it would be unfortunate if discussion of these serious issues were to take a back seat to the political theater of a battle between Silicon Valley executives and the commander in chief. Sadly, all parties involved are acting in ways that may predictably realize this unfortunate outcome.

2 thoughts on “Social media censorship: Further reflections on suppressed coronavirus disinformation”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s