‘Careless talk costs lives’ is the slogan of a 1942 British World War Two poster created by the British government to warn people about discussing ‘sensitive material’ in public, lest it should be overheard by enemy spies. The campaign was short-lived after it was decided that gossip would not be a prime method for the Axis to obtain intelligence. That message however, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ has gained a new relevance during this pandemic, where Covid-19 rumours could cause chaos.
Over the weekend, The Independent reported that nearly 500 people had died from drinking methanol in Iran after a rumour circulated that it cured Covid-19. In Thailand, a riot broke out in a prison because of a rumour that someone at the facility had caught the virus. In America, an elderly man died after taking hydroxychloroquine, a chemical used to clean fish tanks in its non-medicinal form, after Donald Trump referenced it in a briefing about coronavirus.
Now more than ever people are relying on social media for the latest information and the dos and don’ts about Covid-19. So, what are the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram doing?
Twitter is leading the way so far to combat Covid-19. They recently updated their rules on tweeting to forbid:
- Denial of global or local health authority recommendations to decrease someone’s likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 with the intent to influence people into acting against recommended guidance.
- Description of treatments or protective measures which are not immediately harmful but are known to be ineffective.
- Description of harmful treatments or protection measures which are known to be ineffective, do not apply to COVID-19.
The list goes on, you can see the full extent of the new rules here. Twitter has also gone on a deleting spree to counter false information from the likes of politicians Nicholas Maduro, Jair Bolsonaro and Rudy Giuliani along with others such as Charlie Kirk, The Federalist website and Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham.
Facebook, owners of Instagram, have taken a different approach with the launch of The Facebook Journalism Project that plans to invest 100,000,000 million dollars (just over 80,000,000 million sterling) into the news industry. This money will be split amongst local and global news outlets through a series of grants. This comes two months after Facebook and Instagram pledged to remove misinformation about Covid-19 from their networks.
This is quite the turnaround for the social media giant. In October last year The Verge reported that:
‘[Facebook] … changed its advertising policies to exempt politicians and political parties from rules banning misinformation. As a result, candidates are now free to lie in their ads’.
This led to Democrat politician Elizabeth Warren calling Facebook, ‘disinformation-for-profit machine’. Facebook remains an organisation yet to fully confront its demons.
The more important question is, why did it take a once-in-a-generation pandemic for these two giants to get their acts together to fight misinformation, when for years they have allowed it to flood their networks like water flowing into the Titanic? Anyone remember a red bus? Why has no-one been held accountable?
‘Free speech!’, decries the man in the corner of Wetherspoons pub with his Nigel Farage tribute tattoo and Donald Trump mug. Free speech is all well and good but if what you’re saying is a lie you should be held to account. You should not be left to spout more incorrect bile onto the masses already soaked in it.
The British government, at least to a degree, agrees. They have recently published an Initial Consultation Response White Paper on Online Harms that outlines the beginnings of potential regulations aimed at dealing with the current misinformation issue through Ofcom, the proposed regulator.
It states that:
‘Regulation will not force companies to remove specific pieces of legal content. The new regulatory will instead require companies … to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently. Services … will need to ensure that illegal content is removed expeditiously and that the risk of it appearing is minimised by effective systems’.
It also wants social media networks to have improved processes for people to report misinformation:
‘Companies [should have] effective and proportionate user redress mechanisms which will enable users to report harmful content and to challenge content takedown where necessary … existing processes have in some cases been criticised for being opaque and hard to challenge’.
However the government is well aware that companies may not be supportive of these new proposed regulations:
‘It is equally essential that company executives are sufficiently incentivised to take online safety seriously and that the regulator can take action when they fail to do so’.
What those incentives will be has not been specified.
Crucially, Twitter, Facebook and co., must continue to hold and be held to account for misinformation after this pandemic has passed. We cannot allow this to be a one-off.