2020 has been a year of limiting fake news and misinformation regarding COVID-19 and internet companies were forced to come outside their comfort zones and become arbiters of authenticity and truth.
Social media and internet companies have had one standing principle – any content posted online, albeit ‘Fake’, did not warrant any action on their part. They prided themselves in staying neutral and impartial. But the year 2020 changed everything.
A lot of things around us have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social media, as we knew it, is one of them. Faced with the first global pandemic and health-crisis in the social media age, the internet companies have been proactive and bold from the start, in taking down fake news and misinformation concerning COVID-19. Contrary to their usual reluctance of removing content solely based on its authenticity, Facebook and Twitter took initiative and aggressively took action in combating misinformation. And people noticed. Vocal critics of these platforms appreciated these efforts and encouraged this newfound responsible action on their part.
Though this admiration did not last more than a couple of months, the message was clear for the internet giants – people expected more from Facebook and Twitter and that their role needs to evolve and actively combat and remove misinformation, especially in cases where the posts have the potential of generating hatred and causing harm.
When the Western United States experienced a series of major wildfires in 2020, both Facebook and Twitter took initiative and removed false claims by people as to why the wildfires occurred. This was contrary to their behavior during the Australian bushfire in early 2020. On the internet, content sensitization and moderation have to be inculcated on every platform and portal eventually, and the social media platforms have realized this in 2020 more than ever.
Gone are the days of naivety and impartiality of social media platforms and their overly simplified and thin argument about Free Speech. It is becoming increasingly important for internet companies to find a balance between free speech and expression, and collective responsibility and human decency. No longer is it justified to expect more speech is the best response to counter fake news.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social media platforms have evolved like never before. Now Facebook, following suit with YouTube and TikTok, announced that it would now actively remove false claims about COVID-19 vaccines, instead of just flagging them. And rightly so, the pandemic has already caused 1.83M deaths globally, and misinformation about the vaccines has the potential to cause more harm. Neutrality has become impossible and while outright removal of content may not be the best way to combat misinformation, in this current situation, it is better to err on the side of caution and save lives.
Despite the increasing efforts of internet companies, more needs to be done in terms of devoting more attention and resources, especially in local and regional languages globally. And merely labeling a piece of information as inauthentic may make the platforms feel good about themselves, but their impact on limiting the spread of misinformation is unclear. Another issue is transparency – as social media platforms self-regulate and self-assess their actions; from the outside, it is difficult to analyze and measure. Also, most platforms use AI and automation to detect content abnormalities and false information, which are not very reliable and tend to err often. This makes human content moderation all the more important.
The year 2020 has made content moderation a top priority for most social media platforms. And while implementing this, a couple of interesting things have come up. One is the limited impact of AI and automation with respect to content moderation, and second, the realization that reducing the supply of misinformation does not eradicate the demand.
Despite having said that, the past year has proved that nothing is inevitable or impossible. And the same goes for these internet companies, going forward, the possibilities of what the companies will stand for and their role in the societal transformation, are only limited by imagination and inaction. But on the bright side, the companies seem to be open to suggestions and experimentations.
This article by Prassenjit Lahiri originally appeared in The Telegraph.