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Social media policies on taking down ‘harmful content’ blurs line between misinformation and unconfirmed information

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“That medicine, hydroxychloroquine, it’s working,” said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in a video posted on his Facebook page on Sunday, March 29, in which he referred to a potential remedy for the symptoms of COVID-19.

The anti-malarial drug, which has recently been given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), works to relieve the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, although health experts recommend a health screening before prescribing it.

Scientists are still carrying out clinical trials of the drug.

“Although limited scientific information is available, it is reasonable to believe that hydroxychloroquine sulfate may be effective for treatment” — FDA

A day after Bolsonaro touted the drug, Facebook and Instagram announced their plans to delete the Brazilian president’s video, claiming it promoted misinformation.

“We will remove content … that violates our Community Standards, which do not permit any type of misinformation which could cause real harm to people,” Facebook wrote in a statement to the BBC.

Twitter also deleted the same video the day it was posted.

And Bolsonaro is not the only user Twitter has chosen to take action against. According to The Verge, the social network has also removed posts from former US law enforcement official David Clarke, actress Alyssa Milano, and programmer John McAfee.

Likewise, Politico reported that both Fox News host Laura Ingraham and former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani were forced to remove tweets that touted the drug that has since been approved by the FDA for emergency use.

“Although limited scientific information is available, it is reasonable to believe that hydroxychloroquine sulfate may be effective for treatment of adults and adolescents who weigh 50 kg or more and are hospitalized with COVID-19 for whom a clinical trial is not available, or participation is not feasible,” the FDA said.

Therefore, what Bolsonaro had tweeted was not entirely false information, it was just unconfirmed.

‘Restricting content that contradicts public health advice’

On Sunday March 29, Twitter deleted another of Bolsonaro’s tweets in which he called for the flexibilization of social distancing, according to BuzzFeed News.

Speaking to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Twitter said that the social network had “recently announced the expansion of its rules to cover content that could be against public health information provided by official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19.”

Bolsonaro’s government believes that only the sick and most vulnerable members of the population should be self-isolating to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the rest of the population should carry on their lives as normal, a technique he refers to as “vertical isolation.”

The government decided to diffuse its stance around this recent policy update in a recently-launched campaign, which will be spread using social media, entitled ‘Brazil Cannot Stop.’

In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, current public health advice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people avoid discretionary travel, eating out in public restaurants and cafes, to work from home wherever possible, and restrict social gatherings to maximum 10 people.

Misinformation vs unconfirmed information

While Facebook does have a policy in place to control the spread of misinformation — which includes using third-party fact-checking organizations to limit the spread of false data — Twitter is well-known for having much looser content regulations.

According to a Twitter blog, the social network is broadening its definition of harmful content during the global coronavirus pandemic, redefining it as content “that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.”

On top of Facebook’s existing mission to “address fake news,” it has also implemented similar temporary measures “to make sure everyone has access to accurate information, stop misinformation and harmful content, and support global health experts, local governments, businesses and communities.”

However, in this time of constantly-changing information and advice, just as social media users — which include government leaders — can get it wrong, so too can official sources.

The question, then, is about how each social network defines “harmful content.” Is the content false, or just unconfirmed?

Media and censorship

Amid the uncertainty of this pandemic, during which information updates and health advice seem to be changing daily, Twitter has publicly recognized the importance of its platform for journalists looking to the site for story ideas.

“Journalism is core to our service and we have a deep and enduring responsibility to protect that work,” wrote a representative from Twitter, via a blog post on its platform, which also communicated the social network’s decision to distribute a donation of one million dollars between the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

However, according to a recent Gallup poll on coronavirus, the public approval rating of media handling and coverage of the pandemic is currently 44 percent, as opposed to an 88 percent approval rating of medical professionals.

And so, as media distrust grows, the never-ending struggle between free speech and censorship on social networks continues.

Despite social media’s united front to control the spread of “misinformation” and what it defines to be “harmful content,” regardless of whether the content is “misinformed” or “harmful,” the spread of how users interpret it still lies outside of regulatory control.

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Sophie Foggin
Sophie is a British journalist based in Medellín, Colombia, looking to explore the relationship between technology and society in the region of Latin America. Beforehand, she worked in newsrooms in both Bogotá and Rio de Janeiro. Her work has also been published by Latin America Reports, Al Jazeera English, World Politics Review, El Tiempo and O Globo.