Viral Media: The COVID-19 Infodemic, Black Lives Matter, and the Future of the Digital Public Sphere

By Lee A. Flamand, PhD

As the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc and altered patterns of daily life for people across the globe, muddled political responsiveness in the USA has taken a particularly heinous toll aggravated by pre-existing social, economic, and racial tensions. While the most recent explosion of BLM protests was no doubt sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is hard to deny that its flames were stoked in the kindling of an unfolding economic and national health crisis which has fallen disproportionally upon already vulnerable communities of color. Under the surface of this conflagration, a potentially game-changing culture war over the future of the digital public sphere is quietly playing out behind our screens, as it seems that digital platforms are beginning to show an increased willingness to wade into public debates, change their policies, and more actively curate content in order to help achieve goals they see as crucial to both the common good and their own public image.

In the wake of what the WHO has described as an “infodemic” – a deluge of pandemic-related mis- and disinformation flooding the online channels through which an increasing number of people consume news, crowding out accurate information and threatening to further erode trust in public institutions – major social media and search companies have taken subtle yet consequential action. Many of the biggest names in IT– most notably Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter – have taken steps to suppress potentially dangerous mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 while actively promoting accurate information by legitimate health organizations such as the WHO and the CDC. This has resulted in a game of viral media whack-a-mole, as evinced by attempts to contain the infamous Plandemic video, a hodgepodge of discredited conspiracy theories decked out in the generic trappings of conventional documentary film-making which, in spite of aggressive efforts, has still garnered millions of views across the internet. More recently, conspiracy theories merging COVID-19 disinformation and opposition to the Black Lives Matter protests have begun sprouting up. Analogous to the pandemic itself, efforts to trace, quarantine, and eliminate pockets of dis- and misinformation seem persistently confounded by new outbreaks elsewhere, including in the rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump and certain cable news pundits.

While digital media companies have long characterized themselves as hands-off “platforms” which merely “host” content produced by others, they are in fact profit-driven, self-interested adjudicators of online (in)visibility. Painting themselves as champions of informational democracy, they perpetuate techno-libertarian myths of a transparent, equal-access Internet as major elements of their brand identities. US regulation has long been based upon this legalistic “platform” logic, granting protections which largely shield social media and search companies from liability for the content that their users publish. Yet these companies are not neutral, benevolent “hosts,” but rather highly invested personal data harvesters, audience brokers, and behavioral influencers with clear financial incentives to police certain kinds of content and allow others. Moreover, these platforms play an increasingly important role in how journalism is produced, marketed, and consumed, so their decisions cannot help but impact public knowledge.

The public sphere is always mediated – it is, in fact, a product of mediation – and the Internet is no exception. No media industry has ever been a purveyor of full transparency and equal accessibility for all, and digital platforms are in fact complex architectures which generate power vectors driven by commercial prerogative, algorithmic (self-)governance, and, all too often, political appeasement. Their proprietary codes and internal procedures serve a gatekeeping function, determining what gets promoted, buried, or deleted altogether. From page-ranking algorithms to personalized microtargeting, digital technology platforms make hosts of business-driven decisions which determine what, how, when, and by whom particular kinds of content and information get seen.

Of course, platforms in fact have very good reasons to police certain kinds of content. They also have established rights to engage in “Good Samaritan” activities to clamp down on certain kinds of illegal or immoral content, as well as obligations to try to stamp out illegal activities such as child sex trafficking. Indeed, these companies rely upon (often faulty) AI-automation as well as small armies of low-paid content moderators to review and potentially remove content flagged as pornographic, disturbing, and violent. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica and Russian interference scandals surrounding the 2016 election, platforms have increasingly shown a willingness to tweak algorithms and clamp down on coordinated efforts to violate democratic norms, procedures, and principles. There have been reasonable objections to some of these actions, and the waters can indeed get murky: where, after all, does legitimate campaign research and marketing end and blatant data piracy and propagandistic manipulation begin? Platforms have taken some steps to address election interference; Facebook, for example, has recently begun labelling posts by foreign state-controlled media. Recent regulations such as the EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPA have taken important (if imperfectly enforced) steps to address data collection and privacy, but not potentially misleading content. While there seems to be a wide-ranging public consensus that major platforms should take steps to ensure that they don’t devolve into digital “cesspools” such as 4Chan and 8Chan, some – including, notably, former employees and investors – think that digital platforms don’t go nearly far enough, arguing that their baseline business models are themselves the problem insofar as they create perverse incentives to drive engagement by preying on some of our most base, tribalistic instincts, effectively herding us into personalized echo chambers where the loudest, angriest voices among us get amplified.

In past years, platforms have largely attempted to navigate these thorny issues without appearing to limit free expression or show partisan favoritism, focusing instead on clear cases of malicious abuse, concerted foreign interference, or calls for violence. More recent actions taken by social media companies, such as the decision to suppress pernicious pandemic-related disinformation, seem to indicate that they are increasingly willing to take steps to actively and conspicuously combat certain kinds of dis- and misinformation in ways which some people may find inappropriately censorial or biased. While tempting, I think it would be wrong to argue that stamping down on COVID-19 mis- or disinformation is justified because public health somehow transcends the political. If anything, public health is perhaps the most obvious field of biopolitical struggle, as the very uneven spread of the virus into the most vulnerable, resource-starved, and over-policed communities of color shows. And, in any case, the decision to actively suppress pernicious disinformation seems to have instigated mission-creep into other areas.

In the wake of the BLM protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd which followed closely upon the premature reopening of many American states and cities, such shifting policies, efforts, and the backlash they have generated may very well be mutating into a battle for the very soul of America’s digital public sphere. Although social media platforms often tolerate inflammatory and even misleading content posted by high-profile political actors under the pretense that the public has a right to know their positions on important issues, Twitter made news recently when it added a fact-checking label offering “context” to a tweet by Donald Trump which urged states to deploy violence against Black Lives Matter protesters as well as another containing blatant falsehoods about mail-in voting. Twitter determined that these tweets violated its policies against “glorifying violence” and for infringing on “civic integrity” respectively.

The plot thickened in early June as Trump, incensed at Twitter’s actions and rehashing weary accusations that social media platforms unfairly “censor” conservative speech, retaliated by issuing an Executive Order of dubious legality which threatens to strip social media companies of the protections which provide immunity for the content of users’ posts. The ostensible reasoning behind this move is that in providing context in the first case and repressing content in the second, Twitter acted less as a “platform” and more like a traditional publisher. Trump’s complaints are doubtful for various reasons. There is no real regulation forcing Twitter to host content which violates its own terms and conditions. The First Amendment shields private individuals and entities from government censorship; it does not force undesired associations. And merely adding a notification with a link containing context to a tweet is not inherently censorial, but rather a clear exercise of speech in itself. What is clear is that the Executive Order will be vigorously challenged in the courts and is unlikely to generate immediate action, as the processes it initiates will take months if not years to unfold.

Ironically, stripping social media companies of their immunity could potentially backfire for Trump; social media is, after all, his primary means for both circumventing legacy media gatekeepers to speak directly to followers while seeding controversies to drive the news agenda every morning. If he intends to strip these platforms of their protections anyway, they may have even more incentive to censor his rhetoric. Trump is probably aware of this; his intention is probably not to take immediate legal action, but rather to harass platforms into acquiescence while exacerbating the culture war by invoking familiar right-wing censorship myths in order to further erode trust in news media amongst his base. If he is successful, it will most likely further intensify the conditions which gave rise to the infodemic in the first place – a situation which will no doubt make it even more difficult for public health officials to get the public to comply with their efforts to contain the pandemic.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg initially responded to these events by arguing that it would be inappropriate for his platform to act as an “arbiter of truth” – a stance which led to open protest within his own company (and not for the first time). However, by the middle of June the social network had removed a Trump campaign ad featuring a Nazi symbol for violating terms of service  before announcing that in addition to introducing functionality which allows users in the US to block political ads on its platforms (Twitter already banned them in late 2019), it would roll out a “Voter Information Center” to help combat voter suppression as well as a new feature called “Lift Black Voices” which Zuckerberg described as a place to “amplify Black voices and inspire people to take action to advance racial justice” (2020a). While laudable, such actions seem in-line with the company’s usual strategy of deflecting scandal by tinkering with settings and features, ostensibly enabling customizable choices but in fact simply passing the buck on to users. Many remain dissatisfied, prompting a “Stop Hate for Profit” boycott of Facebook advertising even as Democratic Party leadership has criticized social media platforms for not doing enough to fight the spread of false information. Zuckerberg eventually announced via livestream that Facebook would begin tagging potentially harmful posts by noteworthy politicians, yet critics continue to demand more. A recently completed civil rights audit of Facebook policies and practices concluded that in spite of improvements the company’s approach “remains too reactive and piecemeal” (Murphy 2020, 8).

Rather than a blatantly partisan battle, what I think we are seeing here is a gradual shift in the normative consensus about which kinds of issues should be weaponized in partisan battles, what responsibility digital platforms should or should not have in disarming such battles, and which institutional voices are privileged and important enough (in this case, expert communities and scientific institutions) for media actors to legitimately elevate above the fray. The questions we should ask ourselves are: to what degree should we cede these decisions to elite techno-capitalists? What channels are best suited to exerting a democratizing pressure on their decisions without relying on a dangerously hyper-partisan might-makes-right majoritarianism or lapsing into a vapid and irresponsible informational free-for-all? Even if we trust platforms to operate in good faith in certain arenas (if for no other reason than to avoid bad publicity), can we trust them when it comes to viewpoints or information which are detrimental to their own self-interests? Who do we trust, and why?

Both history and the news cycle will inevitably grind on, redirecting our attention away from the pandemic and the BLM protests long before either have come anywhere near resolution. The infodemic will continue to take on new meanings and draw attention back to unsettled issues. Inevitably, we will continue to skirmish about the proper role of digital platforms in establishing and enforcing communicative norms. It remains to be seen what this might mean for the nature, limits, and extent of “free speech” in a country where that right has never implied equal share of voice for all and has been just as often abused in the service of bigoted ends as it has been exercised by those willing to risk life, limb, and their communal health to make their voices heard.

AUTHOR: Lee A. Flamand received his Ph.D. in 2019 from the John F. Kennedy Institute’s Graduate School of North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. He currently teaches in the University of Groningen’s Department of American Studies.

 

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