Social media censorship in the time of coronavirus

Every day new initiatives are being announced to ensure people have the correct information on the COVID-19 pandemic, but who watches the watchers?

Scott Bicheno

March 30, 2020

4 Min Read
Social media censorship in the time of coronavirus

Every day new initiatives are being announced to ensure people have the correct information on the COVID-19 pandemic, but who watches the watchers?

The BBC reported today that the UK government is cracking down on misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. This is taking the form of ‘a rapid response unit within the Cabinet Office [that] is working with social media firms to remove fake news and harmful content.’ As ever ‘harmful’ is undefined, but the government seems worried that people could die as a result of being misinformed.

Meanwhile an initiative started by the BBC, among others, called the Trusted News Initiative, has announced plans to ‘tackle potentially harmful coronavirus disinformation’. Most things are potentially harmful, surely, and there’s something distinctly sinister about an organisation designating itself ‘trusted’. Surely that’s for other people to decide.

“During emergencies of this magnitude, the need for trusted, factual, evidence-based reporting is more crucial than ever,” said Noel Curran, Director-General of the European Broadcasting Union, which calls itself ‘the world’s leading alliance of public service media’ and is a member of the TNI.

“Yet there is a tide of misinformation and bad information, driven mainly through online social platforms, which is threatening to undermine public trust and cause further anxiety for people. This initiative underlines the role of public service media in tackling misinformation head-on and delivering accurate content that audiences can safely rely on.”

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all members of the TNI too and on top of this, they seem to be constantly rolling out initiatives of their own. Last week Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications wrote about what the company is doing to ensure purity of information across all its platforms.

The most untainted source of COVID-19 information, according to Clegg, is the World Health Organization. So Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are now all spamming their users with top tips from the WHO, in many cases whether they like it or not. Until recently not many people would have contested claim that the WHO is the ultimate global authority on such matters – the clue is in the name, right? – but the tendency of its senior leadership to overtly kowtow to China, as in the clip below, is undermining trust in it.

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Speaking of Twitter, it seems to be taking a strong position on the matter of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that also seems to have at least some positive medical effect on COVID-19. Twitter apparently doesn’t like people bigging the drug up too much on its platform, even going so far as to take down posts from President Trump’s Lawyer, Rudy Giuliani and the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, for extolling its virtues.

However, as Axios points out, Twitter is inconsistent in its implementation of this new rule, having recently permitted a tweet of clear misinformation from tech entrepreneur Elon Musk to stay up. This highlights the problem with this latest attempt at censorship, one shared with all others. The censorship decisions ultimately have to be made by humans and will therefore always be flawed.

Until recently very few people expected Twitter to be expert on the therapeutic qualities of hydroxychloroquine, yet now we do. Meanwhile Facebook has unilaterally anointed the WHO the Oracle of Healthy, despite its refusal to acknowledge Taiwan and many questions about its effectiveness in mitigating the catastrophe the world is now having to endure.

As for ‘trusted’ sources, how much of the mainstream media can really be trusted? Very few publications don’t have some kind of bias, with the US especially egregious in that respect. If President Trump suggested a new course of action, how sure can we be that CNN or the New York Times wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand or that Fox News would subject it to proper scrutiny?

The thing is, Journalists are human too and no less prone to biases and prejudices than anyone else. At we never expect our audience to unquestioningly accept everything we say and encourage stress-testing of our stories by investigating what else has been written on the matter. In fact, the more ‘trusted’ a source of information claims to be, the more we would urge you to seek a second opinion.

As we have said previously, censorship is at best a game of whack-a-mole because you can’t perfect speech. You can’t have good speech without bad speech and attempts to eradicate the latter lead to no speech at all, at least none that you can hear in public. In practice censorship just drives banned speech underground, where it gains prominence and is subject to far less scrutiny.

There is currently an abundance of official information on the coronavirus pandemic, meaning supposed misinformation can easily be fact-checked by anyone with an internet connection. Nothing can be done about those who choose not to and attempting to protect such people from themselves through blanket censorship and culling of information sources is both futile and repressive.

About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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