Biden appears to have got his information about this “disinformation dozen” from a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which came out recently with research it said showed that the bulk of the disinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines appears to come from a handful of accounts. The implication of the president’s comment is that all Facebook has to do is get rid of a few bad apples, and the COVID disinformation problem will be solved. As Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times put it, however, Biden “reduced the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, America would be healed again.” While Biden’s comments may make for a great TV news hit, solving a problem like disinformation at the scale of something like Facebook is much harder than he makes it sound, in part because it involves far more than just a dozen bad accounts. And even the definition of what qualifies as disinformation when it comes to COVID has changed over time.
Twitter blocked Taylor Greene’s account for 12 hours because she was spreading anti-vax hysteria, and Facebook could easily do likewise. But then what? The social platforms could just play Whack-a-Mole with such statements forever, or they could take definitive action and ban Taylor Greene and/or Kennedy for their spreading of disinformation. But as Manjoo pointed out in his Times column, doing so is going to give right-wing critics even more ammunition to cry about censorship by the platforms than they already had thanks to Donald Trump’s ongoing social-media ban. It’s not just people like Taylor Greene and Kennedy, or obvious trolls like Alex Jones of Infowars. It’s not even just professional “bot” accounts that trade in disinformation for profit and influence. Another part of the problem is that things that once seemed like obvious COVID disinformation no longer do.
Joe Biden and his advisors, and other critics of Facebook, might think that getting rid of disinformation is an easy task, and that the company is simply dragging its feet because it doesn’t want to disrupt its business, and there is probably more than a little truth to that. But it’s also true that finding the right line between disinformation control, public-health awareness, and outright censorship is not an easy task. Blocking accounts en masse for normal speech about an ongoing problem is not going to solve anything.
Here’s more on Facebook and COVID:
Unknown: At the start of the pandemic, data scientists at Facebook met with senior executives to ask for resources to measure the prevalence of misinformation about COVID-19 on the social network, the New York Times reports. “The executives in question never approved the resources, but the team was never told why,” according to the people the Times spoke with, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters. The report says that the company “doesn’t actually know many specifics about how misinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccines to combat it have spread.”
Bots: Groups of automated accounts known as “bots” drive much of the COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook, not actual human users, according to a new study led by John Ayers, who specializes in public health surveillance at the University of California, San Diego. “If we want to correct the ‘infodemic,’ eliminating bots on social media is the necessary first step,” Ayers said. “Unlike controversial strategies to censor actual people, silencing automated propaganda is something everyone can and should support.”
Double: New research released Tuesday suggests that Facebook is still a place where a lot of COVID misinformation is circulating, despite the company’s claims that it has cracked down on such content, according to a Forbes report. Media Matters for America, a liberal tech watchdog organization, says it has found 284 active private and public Facebook Groups currently distributing vaccine misinformation, more than double the amount researchers found in April. Over a half million users belong to these groups, the report says.
California journalist Matthew Keys was sentenced Monday to another six months in prison after a Sacramento judge found that he deleted the online videos and YouTube account belonging to Comstock magazine, his former employer. Chief US District Judge Kimberly Mueller also ordered Keys to submit to eighteen months of supervised release after he gets out, and to submit to outpatient mental health treatment to provide “further tools for self-reflection and self-control.” Keys served two years in prison following his 2015 conviction in a case involving a hack of the Los Angeles Times website.
Maria Bustillos, co-founder of Popula and the writers collective Brick House, and CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, reviews a controversial documentary about Anthony Bourdain, in which the director used artificial intelligence to create an audio facsimile of the TV host and author’s voice. What seems to have upset people the most about these audio deepfakes, Bustillos says, “is that fans, myself included, want so much to keep believing in the illusion, shared by millions, of Bourdain as a personal friend.”
Bryan Goldberg’s BDG Media, owner of the female-focused website Bustle and a revamped version of Gawker, is buying Some Spider Studios, a digital-media company behind parenting websites Scary Mommy, Fatherly and the Dad, Goldberg told the Wall Street Journal. BDG Media aims to go public by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, later this year, Goldberg said. The all-stock deal for Some Spider values the publisher at about $150 million, a person familiar with the matter told the Journal.
The Dallas Morning Newshas named Katrice Hardy to be its next top editor, the paper reported on Wednesday. Hardy, who is forty-seven, is currently executive editor at the Indianapolis Star, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and she is also the Midwest regional editor for the USA Today Network. Hardy is the first woman and the first Black journalist to have the top job at the Dallas newspaper.
The Committee to Protect Journalists joined a coalition of US news and press freedom organizations asking the US government to provide humanitarian assistance and emergency visas to Afghans who have worked with US media outlets. In 2020, at least five journalists were killed in Afghanistan in relation to their work, the most killed in any global conflict, according to the CPJ’s research. The organization said it has been working closely with partners to provide emergency support to at-risk local and international journalists in Afghanistan and also advocating for political action with government leaders.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg. FOLLOW AUTHOR